The three lives of Eddie Henderson
If it hadn’t already been used for a 1950s television series, I Led Three Lives might have been an ideal title for the upcoming documentary about Eddie Henderson, who would be a fascinating subject in any one of those lives: as a medical doctor, as a pioneering figure skater, and of course as a legendary jazz musician. As it is, the film is scheduled to premiere on PBS in 2024 under the equally apt title of Dr. Eddie Henderson: Uncommon Genius.
If the process of making the documentary has forced Henderson to look back over the impressive scope of his own life, it’s also led him to ruminate on the broad sweep of momentous events and influential figures that he’s encountered over the course of his nearly 83 years.
On his new album Witness to History, due out 15 September 2023 via Smoke Sessions Records, Henderson has assembled a collection of musicians and material that represent key points along that consequential timeline.
“My first trumpet teacher, way back in 1949, was Louis Armstrong,” says Henderson, who met the trumpet icon through his mother, a dancer at Harlem’s famed Cotton Club.
“From that point on, I witnessed the evolution in music through Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Booker Little, Woody Shaw, John Coltrane, up to the present.
“I lived through the turmoil of the ’60s and ’70s and the rise of Black Power. I was also fortunate to come into contact with people like Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis, and Willie Mays. So, I have been a witness to history, and inevitably that rubbed off on me musically.”
The release of Witness to History arrives on the 50th anniversary of Henderson’s debut as a leader, 1973’s Realization. The stellar quintet on this album bridges that half-century of music: lifelong collaborator George Cables returns once again to the piano bench. Henderson’s colleague in The Cookers, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, and his more recent collaborator, bassist Gerald Cannon, have also appeared on the trumpeter’s recent string of releases for Smoke Sessions. They’re joined by legendary drummer Lenny White, who has reunited with Henderson in the studio for the first time since Realization 50 years ago.
Henderson’s Scorpio Rising, which opens the album with two drummers, also features a guest appearance by drummer Mike Clark, who, like Henderson, was an integral part of Herbie Hancock’s groundbreaking fusion groups (Henderson in Mwandishi, Clark in the Headhunters).
The piece explicitly revisits Scorpio-Libra, the searching opening track from Realization. Henderson’s airy yet piercing approach, the hip-hop influence on White’s grooves and Clark’s exploratory interjections, all hint at the original while exemplifying the distance all have traveled in the intervening years.
The album continues with Why Not?, the title tune from Cables’ own 1975 leader debut, making for another fascinating career bookend.
“I chose songs for this album that stood out in my mind for shaping my musical destiny,” says Henderson.
“George and I are close musical affiliates, and I’ve always loved the way he writes, the way he leaves a lot of space and lets things float. I’ve played that tune with George on live gigs, and I’ve always wanted to record it, so like the title says, why not?”
While many of the remaining pieces are classic standards, four of them represent a kind of Mount Rushmore for the post-Armstrong jazz trumpet, at least in Henderson’s estimation.
Totem Pole is the one piece actually written by one of the horn players I question, a cut from Lee Morgan’s immortal The Sidewinder, here given more of a bossa nova feel.
Three lives, eight decades, more than 50 years of incredible music. Witness to History traces Eddie Henderson’s evolution through a remarkable span of time, but listening to this captivating album, it’s abundantly clear that he’s done more than watch from the sidelines as history unfolds.
Dr. Henderson has made his own indelible mark on history, and this vital music reveals that he’s far from writing his final chapter.
Eddie Henderson · Witness to History
Smoke Sessions Records · Release Date: September 15, 2023
Catalog Number: SSR-2306
…host of the Just Jazz radio show, writer, and occasional voice over artist.