Happy 80th Eddie Henderson!

Sebastian writes: This article has just one purpose: to wish a very happy 80th birthday, today 26 October 2020, to Eddie Henderson. It was a pleasure and a privilege to check in and receive some sage advice, some balanced thoughts and some joyful memories from him of people from his past and present: Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Kenny Barron… This is a more-or-less verbatim transcription of an inspiring conversation. 

Eddie Henderson in 2018. Photo credit Antonio Porcar Cano

What’s important to you right now? To try to do the right thing with this strange time around the world. To stay out of harm’s way, to social distance….so that I can live through a few more birthdays. Has there been any music for you this year? The only thing that’s been happening is my new record Shuffle and Deal (Smoke Sessions). It’s been to No 3 in the jazz charts. Do you keep your old records? Do you ever listen to them? It’s a good question. No I don’t. I think about them every now and then but I really don’ t listen to them. The things I did in the seventies – Prance On and the fusion records – put me on the map in England. And I get asked “why don’t I do another album like that?”. It was the disco period, that was at the forefront at that particular time. I still love that music, but times change.
And long-term friendships are important? The right chemistry of people musically, that’s important. I try to play with people I get along with personally, because it will come out in the music, in the end-result. Kenny Barron is on the album; you’ve known him for a long time… Yes! I’ve known Kenny since the late sixties. I played in his quintet when I first came back to New York in 1985. I love the way he plays. We have a natural chemistry together. It’s like the same person thinking – and at the same time. He always seems like such a civilised person… In every way. On the bandstand and off the bandstand. He’s a real gentleman. And Donald Harrison? We met when he was a young lion, with Art Blakey. He’s played with McCoy Tyner’s quartet, with Ron Carter’s quartet and he joined The Cookers. He’s been on my last two albums. We blend together naturally and organically. That’s something you can’t rehearse. Donald and I, we touch souls naturally. And you teach too…  I’m doing my Oberlin teaching virtually. They let me do that… By Zoom. That’s a good thing. With my age, with underlying conditions (high blood pressure), I don’t want to take that chance. This [Covid] is a serious disease. What are the important lessons you try to give your students? I try to give them everything I’ve learned over the years in a condensed style. These are difficult times. Most musicians evolve by actively playing, and growing through being on the bandstand. There are no gigs and no tours so the only communication is the shoulder-to-shoulder contact (metaphorically) with the teachers and mentors who’ve been there. That’s the only thread of hope at this point so I really try to go out of my way to convey important essences of musicianship, improvising, how to blend with another person, all the things that are not written in books in school. And are there phrases which have resonated for you down the years? I remember a little pearl when I was starting. Miles Davis was a good friend of my family. I met him when I was a teenager. I followed him around like a puppy dog. He came and heard me when I was starting to play – either with Herbie Hancock or Art Blakey. He came backstage and he said: “Eddie, you sound good. But stop trying to play the trumpet. And play music.” Whoah! (laughs) And I tell that to all my students, whatever level they are at: the instrument is just a vehicle through which you express yourself, and play who you are. And I make an analogy: the more you can clear the vehicle of the instrument like a wind tunnel, the more you can express yourself. You reach a certain point in life where you want to play music and not the instrument. And also: listen to your predecessors, but when you reach a certain point, you have to ask “who am I?” and then express yourself, have your signature in music.
And way back, you also knew Louis Armstrong? Yes, he was more or less my first teacher when I started. My mother was in show business, so she took me backstage at the Apollo Theater. And I met Satchmo when I was about 9 years old. And he was the one who showed me on his own mouthpiece and trumpet how to make a sound on the trumpet. So that was the beginning… seventy-one years ago!!! And how were the lessons?! About a year later I took lessons every day privately. I played “Flight of the Bumble Bee” for him. And he screamed and jumped off the chair and told his wife to get a book of ten of his solos that had been transcribed. And he wrote on it: “To little Eddie. This is to warm your chops up by. You sound beautiful. Keep playing. Love Satchmo” I remember I looked at my mother and said [raises voice to falsetto] “Who’s this guy?!” I still didn’t know who he was or the stature he held. Looking back… he was the Godfather. And the next God-like figure for you? I didn’t realise who he was, but when I was 16 or 17 Miles Davis came and stayed in my parents’ house. That’s when the light went on in my head about jazz music. I’d never heard music at that level. He had John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley in his band. And for a sixteen-year-old kid to hear that, it was a life-changing thing. I remember thinking to myself: that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life. I didn’t know you could do that with an instrument. And then? Other stepping-stones after that were Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan. I used to follow them around like puppy dogs. And that was what opened the door to me playing with Herbie Hancock. That was the first time I was on the bandstand with my heroes and that lifted me up by the bootstraps! I didn’t have to go through jam sessions and auditioning. Everyone – Joe Henderson, McCoy, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Jackie McLean – they would just call me by virtue of the fact that I had played with Herbie Hancock. It was a dream come true. To be lifted up to the highest level, that changed my life.

Eddie Henderson with The Cookers in London in 2016. Photo credit Victor Hugo Guidini

With sincere thanks to Stephen Keogh and Natsuko Henderson

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