Joe Henderson was born on April 24th, 1937 in Lima, Ohio. One of fifteen children, he started playing saxophone around the age of eight or nine, with the encouragement of his older brother, James T. James T. helped him learn to play solos from records in his record collection by Lester Young, who Joe has cited as the first identifiable influence in his music.
While growing up in Ohio, Henderson was exposed to many styles of music, including country & western, rhythm-and-blues, and rock ’n roll. As a teenager, Henderson started buying the records of Stan Getz, Woody Herman, and Duke Ellington. Henderson particularly gravitated towards the airy style of Getz.
Henderson’s first saxophone teacher, Hubert Murphy, contributed to his technical understanding of the instrument. In high school, Henderson composed music for the school band as well as for rock ‘n roll bands. After high school, Henderson attended Kentucky State University and then after one year, transferred to Wayne University in Detroit, where he attended classes with Yusef Lateef, Barry Harris and Donald Byrd. He also studied with legendary saxophone teacher Larry Teal, and played with many visiting musicians.
By 1959, Henderson was leading his own band around Detroit and was commissioned by UNAC, an African-American advocacy group, to compose a suite called “Swing and Strings,” which was performed by members of Detroit Symphony Orchestra. A few private recordings of Henderson from this period have survived. In September of 1958, a recording was made in the basement of Joe Brazil in Detroit that featured Henderson along with tenor saxophonist John Coltrane. That same year in December, Henderson can be heard performing along with pianist Barry Harris at the Bohemian Club in Detroit.
In 1960, Henderson was drafted into the United States Army where he remained until 1962. During this two year stint, Henderson was stationed at Fort Benning in Georgia, where he led an award-winning quartet, which was subsequently chosen to tour the world to entertain United States troops. Henderson traveled from England to Paris to Korea to Japan in his short two-and-a-half years in the military. Henderson managed to play a little bit with drummer Kenny Clarke while he was in France. In the summer of 1962, Henderson was discharged from the military and immediately headed for New York City.
Henderson was introduced to trumpeter Kenny Dorham in the summer of 1962, just after he arrived in New York, at a party at saxophonist Junior Cook’s place. The pair hit it off, and went down later that night to hear Dexter Gordon play at the Village Vanguard. Gordon invited Henderson up on stage to play, and fifteen choruses later, his career in New York was off and running.
Dorham employed Henderson on his first official recording date in April of 1963 for Dorham’s Blue Note release Una Mas. Between the years of 1963 and 1966, Henderson appeared on release after release for Blue Note, both as a leader and as a sideman. Henderson’s first album as a leader, Page One, featured one of his most enduring compositions, “Recordame.” It also featured Dorham’s “Blue Bossa,” with McCoy Tyner on piano which later became a well-known jazz standard.
In 1963, Henderson recorded with Johnny Coles and trumpeter Blue Mitchell and released his second album as a leader entitled Our Thing. The album featured Andrew Hill on piano, Dorham on trumpet, and Eddie Khan on bass.
In late 1963, Henderson recorded with Grant Green on his album Idle Moments and also appeared on pianist Andrew Hill’s influential album “Black Fire,” along with bassist Richard Davis and drummer Roy Haynes.
Henderson and Hill continued to collaborate and record together in 1964 on Hill’s Blue Note album Point of Departure and can be heard on the song “Refuge.” Henderson’s output with Blue Note as a sideman is very consistent as the tenor player is heard on Lee Morgan’s soul-jazz hit “The Sidewinder.”
In late 1964, Henderson joined pianist Horace Silver’s group and Henderson is heard on the Silver original “Song For My Father,” along with Teddy Smith on bass. Henderson released his album Inner Urge in early 1965, and it featured McCoy Tyner on piano and Elvin Jones on drums.
Henderson was also active as a sideman through 1967. He appeared on albums by trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and performed on organist Larry Young’s album Unity and is heard on the song “The Moontrane.” In fact, his work as a sideman in this period rivaled that of almost any active jazz musician of the era, but went largely unnoticed from a commercial standpoint.
Henderson made key contributions to other late 1960s albums from other Blue Note artists, most notably to McCoy Tyner’s hard bop classic The Real McCoy, which featured songs such as “Search For Peace” and “Passion Dance.” Also in the late 1960s, Henderson was briefly a member of Miles Davis’s second quintet, but never appeared on any recordings.
In 1966, Henderson released his solo album Mode for Joe, which began to establish his distinctive sound. Henderson’s playing is tender, warm but still striking and swinging on the title track and the Cedar Walton tune “Carribean Fire Dance.”
In the early 1970s, Henderson recorded with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard his fusion album Red Clay. He also switched over to the Milestones label, and recorded a string of albums which included Power to the People in 1969 and The Elements in 1973. Not long after this, he moved to San Francisco, where he began to teach and played briefly with the funk-rock group Blood, Sweat, and Tears.
In the 1980s, Henderson began to finally receive both critical and commercial acclaim. His 1985 live album The State of the Tenor, which was recorded live at the Village Vanguard in November, was a commercial and critical success. It featured the saxophonist on such songs as Thelonious Monk’s “Boo Boo’s Birthday” and “Ask Me Now,” along with Ron Carter on bass and Al Foster on drums. That same year, Henderson took part in Blue Note Records’ 40th anniversary concert at New York’s Town Hall along with Herbie Hancock, Stanley Jordan, and Art Blakey. In 1991, Henderson recorded an album of the music of composer Billy Strayhorn entitled Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn, including “Take the A Train.”
In 1994, Henderson recorded Double Rainbow: The Music of Antonio Carlos Jobim, a tribute to the Brazilian composer. In 1996, he recorded a big band album of his original compositions with a band which included Chick Corea on piano and Christian McBride on bass. Henderson’s waltz “Black Narcissus” is one of many songs arranger Bob Belden reinterpreted for the album.
Henderson continued to record and perform up to his death on June 30th, 2001 from emphysema. The saxophonist left behind a wonderful legacy of compositions, and an often overlooked trove of appearances as a sideman on some of the most influential and important recordings in jazz from the 1960s.