Louis Armstrong noticed immediately the talent of a young Eddie Henderson in an impromptu lesson one day. But trumpet is merely one of many strong suits for Oberlin’s associate professor, whose life has included successes as a figure skater and physician in addition to performing and teaching.
It’s the music that will take center stage when Henderson plays with the Oberlin Jazz Ensemble Friday, April 28, under the direction of Dennis Reynolds. The 8 p.m. performance takes place in Finney Chapel.
A faculty member at Oberlin since 2014, Henderson was born into a musical family: His mother was a dancer in the original Cotton Club and roommates with Billie Holiday; his father was a singer with the popular vocal group the Charioteers. Between them, their worlds constantly collided with greats from throughout the music world.
When Eddie was about 9 years old, Sarah Vaughan and his mother took him to see an Armstrong show. Afterward, Henderson was handed a horn and given his first lesson. He visited Armstrong again a few years later and played "Flight of the Bumblebee" for him. Armstrong was ecstatic about the young man’s playing, giving him a book of his solo transcriptions and writing at the top: “To little Eddie, this is to warm your chops up by. Sound Beautiful. Keep Playing. Love, Satchmo.”
Around this time, Henderson’s father died, and his mother married a doctor whose patients included Holiday, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Cannonball Adderley. They moved to San Francisco, where the boy’s stepfather introduced him to figure skating—and quickly found he had an aptitude for it. As a teen, Henderson competed in the Pacific and Midwest championships, and later skated with eventual Olympic champion Peggy Fleming.
But music continued to fascinate Henderson, who took up studies in classical music at the San Francisco Conservatory. He remembers coming home one day to find Miles Davis staying at his parents’ house for the week. Davis took Henderson to a gig, where he saw Coltrane, Adderley, Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones, and Wynton Kelly. It was at this moment that he decided to play jazz for the rest of his life.
But Henderson’s music did not deter other pursuits: He devoted three years to the Air Force, then earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology from the University of California, Berkeley. He went on to study medicine at Howard University, spending weekends in New York, where he would hang around with Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan.
As Henderson was completing his residency in psychology, he was approached by Herbie Hancock, who asked him to play a one-week gig. That opportunity led to full-time work in Hancock’s band, Mwandishi, and further exposed him to a new roll call of greats, including Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Joe Henderson, and Jackie McLean. For a decade from 1975 to 1985, he continued to perform while serving part time as a general physician at a clinic in San Francisco. He recorded several popular albums as a leader.
With OJE on April 28, Henderson will perform arrangements of Gil Evans as recorded by Miles Davis. His Oberlin debut has been in the making ever since he got here. “I’ve always wanted to do a concert with the faculty members, and Eddie has always wanted to play this music with OJE,” says Dennis Reynolds, director of the ensemble.
The concert marks Henderson’s first time performing these particular arrangements live. The music itself, however, is anything but foreign to him.
“I’ve known Miles Davis since I was a teenager, and I grew up on this music,” says Henderson, now 76, who performed alongside Davis at age 17. “I learned these records when I was learning the ethnic tradition of jazz. I wore these records out playing along.”
Henderson also collaborated with Gil Evans when he first moved to New York in the mid-1980s, performing with him weekly at Sweet Basil’s. They will perform five songs from two Miles Davis albums, Porgy and Bess and Miles Ahead, including classics like “The Duke,” “I Loves You Porgy,” and “Summertime.”
“I thought that doing this particular music would be beneficial to the students and give them the opportunity to play music that they will most likely never play again,” says Reynolds, who has led OJE for the past 17 years after taking over for the late Wendell Logan, founder of jazz studies at Oberlin. As he recruits new generations of talented musicians, Reynolds also looks forward to showcasing more Oberlin faculty—among them Hart, Bartz, trombonist Robin Eubanks, and voice teacher La Tanya Hall—on upcoming OJE concerts.
Like the others, Henderson finds that his passion for music is manifested in his devotion to teaching.
“I love teaching here,” he says. “All the students are very talented. It’s a pleasure for me to bring my experience that I have had with some of the masters that I’ve come in contact with and convey that information. If this is not done in the teaching situation then the art form will become extinct.
“I feel like an arrow pointing towards the future possibilities. In this particular idiom of art, you have to be aware of where the music came from before going into the future. You can’t go to the future until you understand where it is in the present, and you can’t understand where it is in the present without knowing where it came from.”