Never play anything the same way twice.

Louis Armstrong

It’s hard to have a band without a leader, so this week we’re highlighting some of the early bandleaders of jazz. These artists innovated and inspired – creating new, musical innovations and introducing new, soon-to-be stars of the genre to audiences everywhere.

Let’s hear it for…

Fletcher Henderson (1897 – 1952)

Pianist, composer, and bandleader Fletcher Henderson accidentally became a musician. Even though he studied music from an early age, he first aimed to do work in chemistry, earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and mathematics before moving to New York to start a master’s degree in chemistry; however, he did not pursue this after seeing little future in this path because of race. While in New York, he roomed with a pianist who became ill, and Henderson stepped in to help him out, thus leading to a full-time gig.

Henderson led the first important big band in jazz history, where Henderson established many of the “rules” that writers of big band music use today. With the power of his own arrangements, as well as those of Don Redman, they were able to successfully marry European/dance ensemble traditions with New Orleans dixie/improvisatory leanings.

The finest African-American performers in the 1920’s and 1930’s all toured with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, including Louis Armstrong. While greatly loved by his musicians, Henderson was not skilled at money matters, and sold his book of arrangements to Benny Goodman in 1934. For the remainder of his life, he wrote for Goodman, toured with a reconstituted version of his orchestra, and backed singer Ethel Waters. Henderson’s importance to the development of big bands cannot be underestimated.

Here he is with his orchestra performing “Sugarfoot Stomp.

Don Redman (1900 – 1964)

Don Redman is considered, by many, to be jazz’s first master arranger. He also was a bandleader and composer, and his work with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra helped develop the framework we continue to hear with big bands today.

Unlike many of his peers, Redman was proficient at nearly all the instruments one finds in a big band (it is said that he was a capable performer on all the instruments by age 12), and this certainly informed his writing.

In 1923, he joined the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra as a reedman, and began to write for them shortly thereafter. In these earliest of jazz times, one can hear Redman cleverly pit sections idiomatically against one another. His works were also more effective in plotting sections of soloing versus tutti ensemble sections than were the efforts of his peers.

After working with Henderson’s group, Redman joined Jean Goldkette’s McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, wrote for Louis Armstrong’s Savoy big band, and then led his own successful ensemble in 1931. During the years where he was a leader, he wrote music not only for his ensemble but for movie shorts (including Betty Boop), and had a swing choir join forces with his big band. The writing during the 1930’s was really forward thinking and original, and though he broke up his ensemble in 1940, he continued to write for Count Basie, Harry James, Bing Crosby, Paul Whiteman, and Tommy Dorsey.

Redman’s legacy goes beyond his time, not only directly through his musical contributions, but also through his family–saxophonists Dewey Redman and his son Joshua Redman are the nephew and grand-nephew of Don.

Louis Armstrong (1901 – 1971)

While no human can claim to have created jazz, it’s clear that Louis Armstrong, also known as “Satchmo,” “Satch,” and “Pops,” was a driving force in popularizing jazz, as well as responsible for creating the norms that are still used in this genre today.

Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, in the famed Storyville section of town, Armstrong was immersed in the cradle of jazz via the ragtime pianists there, as well as his idol Joe “King” Oliver. Oliver, also a cornetist, hired Louis in the late teens, and greatly helped his early career.

After a stop in Chicago, Armstrong moved to NYC to become a member of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, and soon after, in 1925, the first benchmark jazz sessions were created with his bands, Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five and Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven. These recordings firmly established both jazz and Armstrong in the American psyche; in these, the more collective improvisatory notions of early dixieland moved to adding more extended individual jazz solos. And while the players in these groups were excellent- including important early players such as Kid Ory, Johnny St. Cyr and Johnny Dodds- it’s clear that Armstrong was light years ahead of the rest of the ensemble. This would not change for many years–the brute force of Pops’ brilliance was felt by trumpet players who would look at his horn on breaks to see how he could play so much higher than anyone else; by singers who were floored by his scatting (Armstrong recorded the first scat solo in 1926 with “Heebie Jeebies”) or who would stick their heads out of hotel windows in the dead of winter to attempt to get his gravelly tone; and, finally, by those listening to the maturity and creativity of his improvisations.

The seismic shift caused by Armstrong’s creativity and technical brilliance may only be approached in jazz by the early bop artists. These folks however, still owed a great deal of debt to the genius of Louis Armstrong. When listening to Pops, he sounded so effortless, it would seem that what he was playing was very simple; however, if one attempts to transcribe an Armstrong solo, they quickly learn how incredibly difficult and interesting his work was rhythmically. Yet all he did feels just right. He set the bar extremely high for all that followed.

  • Here’s “Heebie Jeebies” from Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five. Check out Pops’ famous scatting about ⅔ through (this was the first scat solo recorded).
  • Check out this delightful duet by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, “Cheek to Cheek.
Benny Goodman (1909 – 1986)

Not just a consummate swing clarinetist, Benny Goodman is also remembered for the many groups he led and the stars he created. He is also very important to jazz history because of his rather tireless efforts to integrate his ensembles in an era where races didn’t mix musically in formal settings.

Goodman began on the clarinet at age ten and by age fourteen was in a group with Bix Beiderbecke. By age sixteen, he was a member of the Ben Pollack Orchestra, where he was leading and even recording his own groups by the time he became legal.

Goodman spent the latter 1920’s and early 1930’s as a studio musician, where he can be heard with Tommy Dorsey, Joe Venuti, and Glenn Miller. Jazz entrepreneur John H. Hammond got Benny to record a series of discs from 1933-35 featuring performers such as Jack Teagarden, Gene Krupa, Coleman Hawkins, Billie Holiday, and Teddy Wilson, as well as featuring great arrangements from Fletcher Henderson.

After winning an audition to be one of the bands on NBC’s radio show Let’s Dance, Goodman’s ensemble became one of swing’s brightest stars. Goodman led groups both small and large during his performing tenure, and many of the small groups in the swing era (featuring Wilson, Krupa, Lionel Hampton, and Charlie Christian) created some of the finest music released in the 1930’s-40’s.

His Carnegie Hall concert of 1938 is lauded by many to be one of the finest evenings recorded in the swing era. Goodman was the first jazz musician to grace this hallowed performance venue, and it is felt by many that this concert pushed jazz into the mainstream for good.

Goodman also dabbled deeply into classical playing, first recording classically in 1938. He later studied classical clarinet, and not only performed often in this realm, but also commissioned a number of important works for the instrument, including some by Béla Bartók, Francis Poulenc, and Aaron Copland.

Many tunes associated with the swing movement were Goodman hits, including “Let’s Dance,” “Sing, Sing, Sing,” “King Porter Stomp,” “Jersey Bounce,” and “Air Mail Special.”

To end, here’s a little more Louis and “A Kiss to Build a Dream On.

Enjoy the tunes and keep on sharing the music!