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Sons of Miles
JOE HENDERSON'S Adventures In Barber College
by Mike Zwerin
18 June 1998

When Joe Henderson's wise and gentle smile appeared on the cover of Down Beat magazine, the accompanying story was presented like the latest news rather than a feature about a well-known and beloved master.

"They all love Joe," the headline read.

Surprise! Look who's still kicking. Bird Lives. Glenn Miller playing "In The Mood" in that great Roseland Ballroom in the sky all these years. Elvis still singing "Jailhouse Rock" in Vegas. Where has Joe been all these years?

The man thought to be decaying in the saxophone wilderness has been discovered alive and well and living in San Francisco. Actually, he has been the tenor player of the year for years. And anyway he doesn't really care, one way or the other.

His good sense of balance questions not past absence but current presence: "I hear people saying, ‘He's been doing it for 30 years, he should have been on that cover 20 years ago.' But I'm asking myself, ‘you mean somebody's paying attention to what I've been doing all this time?'" He's happy to be on the cover, late or not.

"I'm just not curious about why I haven't been on the Down Beat cover previously," he says. "Or why I haven't been on any sort of magazine cover. It doesn't make any difference to me in terms of what I'm trying to do out here. I've been doing it for a long time, and I hope to continue to do it with or with out recognition."

The most obvious and immediate physical change recognition made in his life on the road, which was most of his life, involved a qualitative as well as quantitative improvement. His hotel rooms quickly became big enough so that he could walk around the bed without tripping on his suitcase. He's not naive, he knows this is not the least in life and that he's earned it.

It did not seem like false modesty when he continued: "I'm the last one to have an opinion of what I deserve or don't deserve. You can't please everyone. We only have to try to convince the suits that perhaps we are a bit more valuable than they consider us. And above all, we try to get from sunup to sundown with as much dignity as possible."

Dignity is the word for him - intelligent, swinging, hip, modest and worthy are others.

He had no complaints. He made a good living, he owned a house, took care of his medical bills, his family. He was respected for doing what he enjoys. Not too many people can say that.

Joe Henderson

He'd been having "the strangest time" trying to convince the journalists who were suddenly pursuing him that he hasn't exactly been obscure. The people who have been in and out of his home and seen the dignity with which he has lived for the past 20 years are surprised that he hasn't broken through to this degree of respect ages ago: "I've been living in the trenches. I'm on the front line, on the point. The first shot gets fired, I get hit." The point man is expendable. Except that Joe Henderson is a terminator.

There is a joke in the critics' community, when one of them gets lazy and decides not to go out on a rainy night to hear the latest teenage whiz: "Why hear somebody who sounds like Joe Henderson when you can hear Joe Henderson?"

In Down Beat, the guitarist John Scofield was quoted explaining what's so special: "Joe Henderson is the essence of jazz..... He embodies musically all the different elements that come together in his generation...He has one of the most beautiful tones and can get as pretty as Pres. or Stan Getz... He can float but he can also dig in... He's got his own vocabulary, his own phrases, he plays all different ways, like all the great jazz players... Who's playing better on any instrument, more interestingly, more cutting edge yet completely with roots than Joe Henderson? He's my role model in jazz."

Since graduating from Wayne State University in Detroit, he has accompanied Yusef Lateef, Donald Byrd, Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke, Horace Silver, Kenny Dorham, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis, Lee Morgan (on the classic "The Sidewinder") and... Well, you get the idea. Why so long without a recording of his own music? "Lush Life" was the first in 11 years: "I didn't want to just go into a studio and make another record. Do the same things I'd done before. I didn't think I had anything new to say. It took 11 years to get some new ideas buzzing around in my brain and go out and make them available to my fans." He's very demanding on himself about what constitutes a real "idea."

He talks about "fans" not possessively but as people to whom he owes something. He repeats the word periodically, always with an unspoken "faithful" modifying it: "My fans know what I'm about. I respect them for that. I love my fans."

He sees all this current adulation as just basically being in the right place at the right time. The healthy dimensions of this man's ego are hard to believe.

And then comes the smile that looks you in the eye and you think of a preacher being thankful for God's will. Can you imagine? He saw a life-size poster of his own face the other day. What's the big deal? He takes the stance - you're supposed to play well, play your butt off, that's what it's all about. Why are they praising him for it?

He once called himself a "60-year-old-novice" when it came to handling publicity; learning how to be an "interesting" interview. He should have learned it long ago. Young-blood Branford Marsalis doesn't have any trouble finding and dealing with journalistic interest and praise. It's not Henderson's fault that his time and place came 30 years late.

It should be easy. When you're asked a question just try and say what you really think. Trouble is the questions are always the same and he finds himself trying to "guide these people to ask the right intelligent questions" so that "I can find new ways to express myself. I'd like interviews to be more fun." In his innocence, God bless him, he's asking a lot. He wants intelligence where there are merely noses for news.

Words have always been important to him, he improvises music with punctuation like commas, colons and paragraphs. He admires writers who can manage long complex sentences. And now that he was being interviewed a lot, he was reading more, trying to get his "verbal juices flowing again" and so find ways to come up with new twists to be able to enjoy all the talk.

Trouble is journalists tend to line up one after another like in a barber shop and whether it be Time or Newsweek or Down Beat, they all have the same haircut.

Photo: Joe Henderson
Credit: Christian Rose

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