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Fletcher Henderson: Variety Stomp

April 8, 2010

Fletcher Henderson, from http://www.findagrave.com.

The Dixie Stompers
Variety Stomp

Recorded in 1927

Fletcher Henderson was the most prolific black recording artist of the 1920s, and probably one of the most prolific of all time. He began his recording career accompanying blues singers on the piano, but he’s better known as the leader of the greatest big jazz band of the 1920s. He’s probably best known, in fact, as Benny Goodman’s arranger in the 1930s, the genius who set the style for the Swing Era.  But that would be a few years later: in 1927, he was a bandleader who—oddly enough—had never really tried his hand at writing arrangements yet. That duty was left to the conservatory-trained Don Redman, another musical genius.

In fact, the Henderson band was stuffed with geniuses. Henderson was the only bandleader who could compete with Ben Pollack in reliably discovering new talent. Just in this recording, for example, the band includes Coleman Hawkins, Tommy Ladnier, John Kirby, Don Redman, Joe Smith, Buster Bailey, and Charlie Green, and those are just the names I remember off the top of my head.

Henderson was quite successful in the middle 1920s, and he had a good recording contract with a big record company. But he could make more money by making more records, of course, so naturally his band appears under a bewildering variety of pseudonyms. In particular he recorded a long series of sides for Harmony as “The Dixie Stompers,” and although they were acoustically recorded (Harmony being a cut-rate label that couldn’t afford the electrical process yet), these records are prized by jazz lovers today for their spontaneity—the band didn’t put the same effort into getting them just right that they put into their Columbia records.

This was (I think) Henderson’s first recording of “Variety Stomp.” He recorded it a few months later for Victor in first-rate electrical sound, and it’s interesting to compare the two recordings: this is closer to a first reading of the score, but by the time they made the Victor record the band had adapted the arrangement in numerous small but effective ways.

A “stomp” in 1920s jazz is usually a fast sixteen-bar blues. This is a slightly more involved composition, with alternating minor and major themes, the minor ones in sixteen-bar blues form and the major ones in 32-bar popular-song form. You’ll hear Tommy Ladnier on cornet in the first chorus; compare his style to Joe Smith’s obligato in the last chorus. Coleman Hawkins gives us eight bars of powerful tenor sax, also in the last chorus; he was at the height of what jazz scholars call his staccato period.

Henderson was seriously hurt in an automobile accident in 1928, and his friends said he was never the same after that. He kept his musical genius and his ear for talent, but lost his business sense. The Depression didn’t help, of course, and Henderson spent most of the rest of his career struggling. He could always count on support from Benny Goodman, though: Goodman paid generously for Henderson’s arrangements, and when things got really hard Goodman would find a place for Henderson in his band. in the early 1950s, when Henderson was disabled by a stroke, Goodman and his old musicians got together to record a tribute album for the Fletcher Henderson Fund. And at the very end of his career, Benny Goodman dedicated his last concerts to the memory of Fletcher Henderson.

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From → Jazz

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