Mondays With Morgan: Eddie Henderson (new album ‘Witness to History’)

Mondays With Morgan is a column in LondonJazz News written by Morgan Enos, a music journalist based in Hackensack, New Jersey. Therein, he dives deep into the jazz that moves him – his main focus being the scene in nearby New York City.

This week, Enos spoke with veteran trumpeter Eddie Henderson, a prodigious bandleader and accompanist for half a century, who played in Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band in the early 1970s. He recently released a new album, Witness to History, via Smoke Sessions Records.

Links to purchase Witness to History, and to Henderson’s Facebook page, can be found at the bottom of this article.

Eddie Henderson. Photo credit Christopher Kayfield

Eddie Henderson had done his homework — and Miles Davis’s jaw dropped to the floor.

In his teenage years, the trumpeter got to know the one and only Davis; the jazz icon had befriended Henderson’s parents, and would stay at their house.

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“My parents had me play for him, with one of his records,” Henderson tells LondonJazz News. “And he told me, ‘You sound good.’” By the time Davis returned a year later, Henderson had hipped himself to the man’s great-yet-obscure progenitor.

“When Miles came to the door, he asked me, ‘Are you still trying to sound like me?’” Henderson continues. “I said, ‘You mean Freddie Webster.’” What an astonished Davis then whispered in Henderson’s ear has stuck with him ever since: “Everybody’s a thief. I just made a short-term loan.”

“Well, that’s true. It’s public domain. Somebody plays a lick and you borrow it, so to speak, and put it your own vocabulary,” Davis’ descendent says today. “That’s the way Miles learned; that’s the way I learned.

“Sometimes people come up to me and say, ‘Eddie, I like your style.’ I say, ‘My style? That’s just bits and pieces of things I borrowed from other people and Scotch taped them together.”

The metaphor is of a reverential pilfering, and a cobbling together — which is how the lion’s share of art comes to be. But on his new album, Henderson positions himself as an eyewitness, a reporter. A witness to history.

That’s the title of his new album for Smoke Sessions Records, which arrived Sept. 15. Featuring fellow veterans in saxophonist Donald Harrison, pianist George Cables, bassist Gerald Cannon, and drummer Lenny White, Witness to History takes a spin through the jazz history he both participated in and — well, witnessed.

Read on for an interview with Henderson about this set of renditions of compositions by Joe Henderson, Booker Little, and more — as well as Dr. Eddie Henderson: Uncommon Genius, a documentary about his life and career that will air on PBS in 2024.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

London JazzNews: For starters, can you talk about your long history with Smoke Sessions?

Eddie Henderson: Initially, the club was called Augie’s, and I used to go there. And then the bartender, Paul Stache, bought it and changed it to Smoke [Jazz] Club.

I’ve been going there for the last — oh my god — 30 years, playing gigs and sitting in. So, I started a longtime relationship with Paul Stache and that club. In fact, that’s my favorite club in New York, because Paul treats all musicians with such respect and dignity. All the musicians feel that way.

Now that he’s remodeled the club, it’s wonderful — the sound system, the ambience, and the decor of the club is beautiful. It’s my favorite club in the world. Did you like the album?

LJN: Absolutely. I’ve been listening to “It Never Entered My Mind” on repeat. So beautiful and transportive.

EH: Yeah, you know, I wanted to play that tune all my life — when I first heard Miles Davis do it way back in the ‘50s, he was my first major inspiration.

You know, I didn’t want to copy him. I just wanted to emulate the mood that he set; it’s such a beautiful composition. I remember he told me one time, “Play every tune in the context that the composer wrote it.” It’s just that haunting melody itself. It’s repetitive, and it just stays with you even after the first listen to it.

When I first heard Miles, I heard it on the record [1960’s Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet]. I heard it when I was in my teens. He used to stay at my parents’ house, and I used to go hear him every night; he’d take me to the gig.

Just his sound and the way he approached the music was — just like you said — transportive. I kind of honed my style from things that I saw.

The name of the album is Witness to History; when you’ve got all those tunes that are on the album, it’s part of my historical background in terms of things that I witnessed through these last 50 years of me playing. So, I tried to bring that all to the forefront and just bear witness to what I’ve seen.

LJN: It seems like this is the perfect juncture in your evolution to address that.

EH: It’s a constant movement in terms of evolving from where I was, step by step, as time and events went on. It never stops. I keep meeting new people, and I keep getting inspired.

For example, I just taught as an artist in residence at the Louis Armstrong Summer Jazz Camp for kids ages 10 to 18. Those kids are so talented, and I got inspired myself by these little children playing. [Laughs heartily.]

There’s no juncture where it begins or ends. It’s a continuum.

LJN: I’m sure those kids gave you hope for the future of the music!

EH: Oh, yeah. That’s how I got inspired when I was that age.

My first teacher was Louis Armstrong, but I was just nine years old. It went over my head; it didn’t really register until I met Miles Davis and heard him with that iconic group that had John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley. Then, the light went on.

That was back in 1958; I think that was the first big juncture in terms of me getting exposed to the music. And then, a constant evolution after that in terms of following Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan around — chasing them around like a little puppy.

It was definitely a juncture point when I started trying to play like Lee Morgan. So, I tried to put all those heroes of mine in the album. Whoever you come in contact with does rub off on you.

LJN: What was it like to be in the room with Pops and Miles?

EH: With Pops, I was just nine years old. My mother knew him, she was a dancer at the Cotton Club. I didn’t know who he was. I’d heard his name, but I had no idea of the stature he held in the world. I was just an innocent kid; I wasn’t nervous or anything like that.

With Miles, I was in awe. Miles had another kind of mystique; he played with Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, which is a difficult thing. But I love all of them; I tried to learn from each one of them, who they learned from.

Like, Lee Morgan: his hero was Clifford Brown, who he tried to emulate. And his hero was Fats Navarro, who he tried to emulate. Everybody has their influences; they try to play like their precessors.

Then, you reach a certain point in your life: Wait a minute, who am I? After you have a certain amount of vocabulary together, and then go on to forge your own career.

Eddie Henderson live at Smoke Jazz Club for a “Witness to History” album release show. (L-R) Gerald Cannon, George Cables, Lenny White (hidden), Donald Harrison. Photo: Morgan Enos

LJN: Let’s dig deeper into Witness to History. How would you describe your collegial relationships with Donald Harrison, Lenny White, George Cables, and Gerald Cannon?

EH: I’ve always admired Donald’s playing — from the first time I heard it, when I used to live in San Francisco, when he first joined Art Blakey. He was a young lion, maybe in his early 20s.

As soon as I heard him play, I said, That’s the real deal. That’s the guy I always wanted to play with. We immediately became friends.

The chemistry between Donald and myself is one of those things you can’t buy. It’s not for sale. It’s just an organic thing; we naturally blend together. From that point on, up until the present tense, he’s been my favorite to play with, as in having another horn on the bandstand.

Now, with Lenny White, I first heard him way back in 1968. He was just 18 years old. I was in San Francisco, and he came out there with Joe Henderson at a club called the Both/And.

He had just recorded Bitches Brew with Miles Davis. He came to one of my gigs, heard me play, and said, “Hey, you sound good.” I’ve always loved the way he played. Lenny was on my first album under my own name, [1973’s] Realization; it had two drummers, Lenny and Billy Hart.

George Cables, I’ve known since the late ‘60s. I always used to see him with Joe Henderson and Freddie Hubbard; I always admired his playing. We played quite frequently at a club called the Keystone Korner in San Francisco.

So, certainly a longtime relationship with those three people; they’re my favorite musicians in the world.

LJN: From “It Never Entered My Mind,” can we drill down into some more of the tunes?

EH: My wife [Natsuko Henderson] has a tune on there: “I’m Gonna Miss You, My Darling.” She’s a wonderful composer — I think I’ve recorded about five of her compositions.

It’s a different kind of tune that really catches your ear; I always like to have a composition or two that the people have never heard before. I got a chance to put that at the forefront of the album.

“Scorpio Rising” is just a little motif; there’s no specific melody that Donald and I play together. It’s just a little springboard [sings melody]; that means you go to the next soloist.

I called that same tune on the Realization album; I called it “Scorpio-Libra.” It’s the same genre of music — wide open, collective improvisation.

LJN: Can you talk about “Sweet and Lovely” and the importance of Booker Little?

EH: Booker Little is one of my favorite trumpet players in the world.

I used to listen to that in the ‘60s, and I always wanted to record that. He played it so beautiful. Being a witness to history, I paid acknowledgement to him as one of my favorite trumpet players ever since. It’s such a gorgeous tune.

When Booker did it, he did it in 4/4. But I did it in waltz time, to give it a different kind of lope.

LJN: We also have “Born to Be Blue,” which you discovered via Freddie Hubbard.

EH: I’d heard Freddie Hubbard play that before, but he thought of it as a ballad. The one who picked that tune was my wife, Natsuko. She said, “Why don’t you do this in a medium swing?”

It’s dedicated to life, in my mind’s eye. A very nice melody, but it never got my attention before. I love the way Freddie played it, but it resonated with my musical thing more as a medium swing tune.

LJN: What’s on the horizon for you?

EH: There’s a documentary film they’re doing on me, which is going to be released on PBS in February.

It’s covering the conglomeration of my life being a medical doctor, being the first Black person on the planet to compete in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, and also my musical career.

The film is called Dr. Eddie Henderson: Uncommon Genius. That’s not for me to say, but that’s what they’re calling the movie.

So, I hope this will lead to bigger and better things, because the producers of the film have already got me hooked up with the Denver Symphony Orchestra next spring; they’re trying to get other symphonies around the country to have me as a guest soloist.

Everything is coming together at the right time — with the movie, the record coming out. I’m really pleased with all the events that are coming up, so people don’t forget all the people I mentioned — the Booker Littles, the Mileses, the Louis Armstrongs. Because it’s so important to the history and evolution of this tradition of jazz music.

LINKS Purchase Witness to History
Eddie Henderson’s Facebook page
Interview with Sebastian for Eddie Henderson’s 80th in 2020

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