Fletcher Henderson was born in Cuthbert, Georgia in 1897.
His father, Fletcher H. Henderson Sr. (1857–1943), was the principal of the nearby Howard Normal Randolph School from 1880 until 1942.
He was recording director of the fledgling Black Swan label from 1921–1923.
Throughout the early and mid-1920s, Henderson provided solo piano accompaniment for many blues singers.
He also led the backing group for Ethel Waters during one of her national tours.
Prior to mid-1923, Henderson’s group was not technically a jazz band yet (more like a dance band), though its music was infected with the ragtime rhythms that had been popular for some time.
In 1922 he formed his own band, which was resident first at the Club Alabam, then at the Roseland Ballroom, and quickly became known as the best African-American band in New York.
Henderson recorded extensively in the 1920s for numerous labels, including Vocalion, Paramount, Columbia, Olympic, Ajax, Pathe, Perfect, Edison, Emerson, Brunswick, and the dime store labels including Banner, Oriole, Regal, Cameo, Romeo, etc.
From 1925–1930, he recorded primarily for Columbia, and Brunswick/ Vocalion under his own name, as well as recording a series of acoustic recordings under the name The Dixie Stompers for Columbia’s Harmony and associated dime store labels (Diva and Velvet Tone).
In those days, success lay along the path charted by Paul Whiteman, offering the public a selection of tangoes, waltzes and other popular dance tunes.
Labeled as “the coloured Paul Whiteman,’ Henderson’s was barely recognizable as a jazz group, despite the presence of outstanding jazzmen such as Coleman Hawkins.
However, the band underwent a dramatic musical change when Louis Armstrong joined the band. Armstrong stayed for about a year, leaving near the end of 1925.
Armstrong’s brief stay, however, influenced Don Redman into completely rewriting the way he wrote his arrangements for the band.
Redman’s charts imitated the polyphonic New Orleans style of ensemble playing, pitting one section against another and giving full rein to the solo talents of the individual musicians.
Henderson was ambitious for success, even though he was not an especially astute businessman and had a pleasant unaggressive manner.
His circumstances were about to alter in a way no one could have forecast.
In mid-summer 1927 Redman left to become musical director of McKinney’s Cotton Pickers.
His departure meant that Henderson had to take up the bulk of the arranging duties for the band, a task he performed admirably.
Unfortunately, in 1928 he was involved in a road accident and while his physical injuries were slight he underwent a change of personality.
As his wife later said, “He never had much business qualities anyhow, but after that accident, he had even less”. The most obvious effect of the change was that all ambition deserted him, leaving just an easygoing, casual individual.
The Orchestra continued to tour and record until 1939 when it disbanded, and he joined Benny Goodman Orchestra as the pianist and arranger.
This was the first time that a “White” band hired a “Black” musician to appear on stage with an orchestra. Goodman even used the same arrangements as the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra had used.
The band went on to become one of the most popular of the Swing bands.
In 1943 Henderson left Goodman’s band until 1947, when he rejoined Goodman them as an arranger.