Today’s Guest: Joe Henderson, legendary jazz saxophonist
(Originally published October 21, 1986)
A man and a saxophone,
A love story with an O. Henry ending.
Once there was a jazz musician. From the time he was born ln Lima, Ohio, 49 years ago, a saxophone never has been far from Joe Henderson’s lips.
The musician visited Clearwater last weekend and played two nights of the four-day Jazz Holiday, In the mid 1950s, he bou8ht the brass wind Instrument that would be closer to him for the next 22 years than any woman ever could be.
A hitch ln the Army was his first world tour. The military inducted Henderson ln 1960 and charged him to entertain its troops in Korea, West Germany, Italy, Central America and, yes, Fort Walton Beach, Fla.
After two years in his country’s service, Henderson signed on with Blue Note Records and released his debut LP, “Page One.”
He and his horn began to make friends – fellow jazzers Kenny Dorham and Dexter Gordon were the first; critics such as Nat Hentoff and Leonard Feather followed.
JOE HENDERSON podcast excerpt: “I’m waiting at a red light and some mindless drunk ripped into, me and nearly took my life ln the process. Knocked me 60 yards – I was at a standstill. The car caught fire and burned up in about 16 minutes. I Just barely got myself out of the car. (The car) just got consumed by fire. The gas tank was right under the trunk. I imagine that horn was probably melted all the way down to whatever it was before they fashioned it out and made a horn out of it.”
Word of the magic between man and saxophone carried. They were hired as a team to tour and/or record with big names – Miles Davis, Dorham, Bobby Hutcherson, McCoy Tynor, Herbie Hancock, Flora Purim, even Blood, Sweat & Tears for a time.
As the years passed, and Henderson developed a name and reputation as bright as any of the men he had tolled for, he began teaching young musicians.
In 1976, a clinic took him to Concord, Calif.
“I went to the hotel where I was staying and one half-step into the room, I could tell somebody had been ln the room,” Henderson recalls by telephone. “There was something missing. I had forgotten where I had laid the saxophone, but my eye didn’t see it right away. After the first step, I was lust convinced – that horn was gone.”
Twenty-two years of soaring together, of tenderness, of maturing and aging had gone out the door and without even a note to say why,
“In all the time I had it, I don’t think I ever got it a complete overhaul. Maybe a pad change, a spring change, but to me, that was major surgery. This horn Just played. It began to tarnish and the lacquer wore off; it never occurred to me to put lacquer back on, to get it replated. That’s like buying a new horn. I had grown with the gold evaporating. I had grown into lt.”
Despite looking like an antique “sometimes people would jokingly want to take up a collection for me so I could get a new one” – Henderson never would have parted voluntarily with his baby.
“I dropped it one time, quite by accident,” he admits now. “You treat it like a 6-month-old baby. You don’t hand your 6-mont-hold baby to someone and say, ‘Hold this while I run over and get a pack of cigarettes.’ You handle it well and it will respond well for you ln the long run.”
Unless somebody steals lt.
Henderson didn’t have time for a river of tears. He had two recording dates to fulfill the very week the sax was taken. He picked up his spare, which had long been gathering dust on a shelf, and put it to work.
A week in the studio turned into six on the road. By the third week, the spare saxophone fit well. The old friend wasn’t forgotten, but Henderson was getting by.
Fast forward four years, several albums, global tours and a few hundred gigs to 1980.
The saxophonist is doing a show ln San Francisco. During a break, a 19-yearold man of Iranian and French descent approaches Henderson about becoming his student.
“He called me the next day,” Henderson gays. “He sounded serious.”
In short order, the prospective student came to the master’s home.
“I was telling him to play this, this ln the small register, go from this note to that note, etc. At one point he said, ‘Joe, will you try my saxophone? I think there’s something wrong.”‘
Thinking it an odd request, Henderson resisted foll0 minutes before finally giving in.
“When I pick up this horn, I almost fell over, I said, ‘Wait a minute. This is my horn!’ I had 22 years of familiarity. I mean, the pearls ln these keys – after a while, they form to fit right around your fingers. That’s a perfect lit. This wouldn’t stand up ln a court of law, right? I told him that. Alter a while, he wanted it to really be my saxophone.”
Convinced it was Henderson’s horn, the student left it with his new teacher for the promise of an equivalent replacement.
“It’s incredible,” Henderson says. “Four years after losing my horn, I was playing it again. And it came to my housel I didn’t put one foot ln the direction of that horn.
JOE HENDERSON podcast excerpt: “I went to the hotel where I was staying and one half-step into the room, I could tell somebody had been ln the room. There was something missing. I had forgotten where I had laid the saxophone, but my eye didn’t see it right away. After the first step, I was lust convinced – that horn was gone.”
“I didn’t have to do anything to the horn. Didn’t have to send it to the shop. I Just picked up and continued playing this horn that I had been playing for 22 years. Nothing wrong with lt. Nothing had been changed. No new pads, no new screws.”
Elated though he may have been, the musician harbored some suspicions about his new student.
“But after a while he convinced me that he didn’t know anything about this, He backtracked to the person he had bought the horn from, who had since moved to New York. He got in touch with her.”
The woman purchased the saxophone ln New York city, she told Henderson’s student. Then she moved to the San Francisco Bay area and sold it to him.
“I finally met her,” Henderson tells. “I had to keep drying her eyes. She felt that she had been part of some dastardly deed. She was totally innocent. She didn’t know that horn was mine. At least, I don’t think that she did. She just thought that something bad was going to happen to her for what she had to do with separating me from that horn for four years.”
The story doesn’t end here.
Now that man and saxophone were reunited in remarkable fashion, they probably deserved to live happily ever after. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.
Two years ago, Joe Henderson gave a friend a ride home. For some reason, he put his saxophone in the trunk instead of on the floor of the back seat like he usually does.
After dropping off his passenger, he was heading home and stopped for a traffic light. Charlie Parker was playing on the radio.
“I’m waiting at a red light and some mindless drunk ripped into, me and nearly took my life ln the process. Knocked me 60 yards – I was at a standstill. The car caught fire and burned up in about 16 minutes. I Just barely got myself out of the car.
“(The car) just got consumed by fire,” he continues. “The gas tank was right under the trunk. I imagine that horn was probably melted all the way down to whatever it was before they fashioned it out and made a horn out of it.”
Henderson says he was off his feet for a week in the accident’s aftermath. Occasionally he wonders if the horn might have survived, but he never looked.
For only the second time in his career, the saxophonist was forced to find a new instrument to play.
He did, of course, and that’s what makes this story so ironic.
Immediately after purchasing and adapting to the new horn, Henderson has found himself more popular and in greater demand than at any grievous time in his 30-year career.
“You can understand how bitter-sweet that was for me,” he says.