Of no relation to Fletcher Henderson, Luther Henderson's long career ranks as one of the most diverse among classic jazz performers who originated on the Kansas City jazz scene, branching into film and television soundtrack scores and Broadway shows. A series of brilliant collaborations with both the Canadian Brass and conductor Sir Simon Rattle brought the circle back around, presenting vintage jazz material in classical contexts such as chamber ensembles and symphony orchestras.
His father an actor as well as a school teacher,Henderson's music career began auspiciously enough with studies at Julliard. While he became best known as an arranger, Henderson was also a crack pianist in his youth, triumphing over many other fine players at a Harlem amateur contest in 1934. From the late '30s through 1944 he worked with innovative electric guitarist Leonard Ware, then spent several years in a Navy band. By 1947 he had established his own studio and was also gigging in a group fronted by trumpeter Mercer Ellington, just part of a relationship with the Ellington clan that apart from artistic achievements was apparently not always satisfying.
Henderson developed into one of the main so-called "classical arms" of Duke Ellington, stepping in to score and arrange orchestrations that went beyond the big-band format. According to various biographical sources Henderson was not consistently satisfied with the credit he received for these contributions to the Ellington canon, a reoccurring theme in the story of one of the greatest jazz composers in which many sidemen, particularly horn players, claimed to have improvised riffs that were later copyrighted by the bandleader.
The inevitable career result is best described by Henderson biographer Devra DoWrite: "Luther Henderson is not a household name, not even a B-list celebrity in the eyes of the general public. Finding a publisher for his biography has been a lengthy and difficult process, but I am pleased to say that I have been offered a contract, am in negotiations right now, and hope to announce the signing very soon. Meanwhile, people are asking me 'Luther who?' and 'Why him?'"
From the '50s onward Henderson kept his own studios going for various arranging and conducting assignments. He worked with vocalists Eartha Kitt and Carmen McRae as well as performers from the world of musical comedy including the lovely Polly Bergen and the hilarious Victor Borge. Much of this work was done for the expanding television industry; Henderson contributed to the Playhouse 90 series and The Ed Sullivan Show, among other boob tube offerings. On Broadway he was associated with many hits: Flower Drum Song, Funny Girl, No No Nanette, Ain't Misbehavin', and Jelly's Last Jam among them. Shortly before his death Henderson was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master. He is not the same Luther Henderson who played trumpet on a handful of recordings from the '20s. ~ Eugene Chadbourne