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Fletcher Henderson and Don Redman: The Birth of the Big Band Reed Section

Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, 1925. Photo courtesy songbook1.files.wordpress.com

 

New Yorkers in the 1920s liked to get dressed up and go out dancing. Everybody was doing the Turkey Trot, the Fox Trot, and a wild new dance called, the Charleston. By 1924, Fletcher Henderson led the top dance band in residence in Manhattan. For seven years they played the Roseland Ballroom near Times Square. Henderson’s wife Leora recalled, "Around that time Paul Whiteman was called the 'King of Jazz,' so people began calling Fletcher 'The Colored King of Jazz.' Whiteman would be playing all those novelties and semi-classical numbers and Fletcher would turn right around and swing them."

 

Bandleader Fletcher Henderson. Photo courtesy themusicsover.wordpress.com

Fletcher Henderson’s 11-piece orchestra at the Roseland was on the cutting edge. It was the first jazz orchestra of its size in New York to have the loose, improvised sound of a smaller jazz combo that dancers loved. Innovative arrangements by saxophonist Don Redman seamlessly blended formal written parts with improvised hot solos to achieve this effect. The wailing clarinet trio, one of Don Redman's favorite arranging devices, became a signature sound of the Henderson orchestra. And playing Don Redman’s arrangements, the orchestra became one of the first in which reed and brass sections played against each other, creating a call-and-response effect. All of Redman's innovations were widely imitated by other arrangers and composers, including Duke Ellington.

 

Saxophonist and arranger Don Redman. Photo courtesy Red Hot Jazz Archive

Don Redman’s charts gave birth to the concept of the big band reed section, and paved the way for the sound that defined the Swing Era—more than a decade later.

 

Riverwalk Jazz presents Fletcher Henderson and Don Redman: The Birth of the Big Band Reed Section with arrangements adapted by the Jim Cullum Jazz Band's clarinetist Ron Hockett from the classic 1920s' scores.

 

To evoke the distinctive trio sound of the reed section in Don Redman’s arrangements for Fletcher Henderson, clarinetists Allan Vaché and Kim Cusack join Jim Cullum and the Band.

Clarinetist Kim Cusack. Photo courtesy Riverwalk Jazz

 
 
 

 
 
 

Photo credit for home page teaser image: Musicians and dancers in Harlem, cir. 1920s.  Image courtesy eng.fju.edu

Special guest clarinetist Allan Vache. Photo courtesy altissimo-music.com

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