INTERVIEW: Eddie Henderson

"Music is a healing force" – Eddie Henderson
Photo credit: © Mochles Simawi

Legendary American jazz trumpeter Eddie Henderson has performed in The UK several times this year, including his two unforgettable London performances: at Pizza Express Soho at the end of April with his Quintet, and Live at Church of Sound at St James the Great, end of May, with the fantastic '60s jazz veterans The Cookers! During his long career the unquestionable master of trumpet  worked with Herbie Hancock, Pharoah Sanders, Norman Connors, Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, Max Roach and McCoy Tyner  –  just to name a few. Tomasz Furmanek interviewed Eddie Henderson for London Jazz News.

LondonJazz News: From 1968 to the late '80s you mixed music and medicine. As a professional psychiatrist, what connects music and psychiatry?

Eddie Henderson: In the study of medicine you have to heal the illnesses and the human body, and with music it can be a similar thing, it can be very complementary… Music is a healing force. The sound of music, a clear sound, it’s a healing force for me and, I think, for everybody else… So it can be a healing art form (not all music though), and it can go head to head with the medicine, they can overlap each other. You don’t have to be a musician to be happy, but music itself can make everybody happy!

LJN: It looks like it was music that gave you more happiness than medicine?

EH: Oh, absolutely! I can’t help anybody else unless I am happy, and music is what makes me happy. It is my source of happiness. If I feel good then I can help other people.

LJN: I have just experienced an incredible performance from you and The Cookers (incl. Billy Harper, Cecil McBee, David Weiss, Victor Lewis, Donald Harrison and Danny Grisset) – what does playing with these guys mean to you, what is the particular chemistry?

EH: The chemistry of people you play with is very important. For example, when you study chemistry at school, you learn that you can’t put just any elements together, as you might cause an explosion. You have to be careful of what elements you mix together, to make a homogenous mixture. With music it’s the same.

LJN: So this particular mixture of musicians is very complementary?

EH: It’s complementary on a personal level, on a friendship level and on the musical level. You can’t have just names, it’s not about that… It’s about the chemistry. I just don’t play with anybody, it’s not about a bad or good musicians either. I have to be, and to feel, comfortable playing.

LJN: You seem to have this genius quality of being able to get exactly what you want from music and musicians.

EH: I’ve learnt this quality from observing geniuses (laughs) – I hope that some of that quality rubs off on you whenever you associate with them! So be careful who you have around you (laughs)…because it may rub off on you! You absorb what you have around you.

LJN: The secret behind the relevant and always fresh sound of your trumpet?

EH: I had learned that from listening to Miles Davis when I was very young. In 1957 he stayed at my parents’ house, he was a family friend, and in certain ways he taught me many things. It wasn’t happening on a verbal level, but by observing him and listening to his sound that stood out from the crowd and from all of the trumpet players… So I kind of emulated him, because, you know, he was an amazing trumpet player, and I didn’t want to sound anonymous. I realized the importance of having this quality… you know, all the greats, they play two bars and you know it’s Coltrane, or Nat King Cole singing, or that’s Billie Holiday!...

LJN: …the importance of having an instantly recognizable sound?

EH: Right! Now people often talk about Miles Davis as if he just dropped out of a vacuum in the sky… No! He had his influences too, like Freddie Webster, who was a huge influence on him, but that’s how the evolution of the tradition goes, by observing it, being a part of it and perpetuating it by evolving it.
"(Louis Armstrong) told me how to make a sound on his horn" – Eddie Henderson
Photo credit: © Mochles Simawi

LJN: Miles was very important to you at the beginning of your career and you often said that you admired him…

EH: Of course!

LJN: What have you learned from him and how?

EH: By observation – observation and listening! That’s the most important thing – listening! Not just talking to him – mostly because he didn’t talk to you (laughs)… he wouldn’t talk like a “normal” person would… no! Listening to his approach to music and listening to his sound. He wouldn’t just sit down with you and say “do this or do that”… No. It didn’t happen that way.

LJN: Magical. Your family was in the centre of the coolest musical crowd – and for you, all this seemed very normal?

EH: Oh, absolutely. All these people – Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holliday, Lena Horne… and many more… yeah, they were just friends of my parents. I remember sitting with them on the sofa in our living room… (laughs).

LJN: And you had your first trumpet lesson when you were nine with… Louis Armstrong!

EH: Because my mother new him and she took me to see him!

LJN: How do you remember that?

EH: How could I ever forget?! That’s the first time I ever blew a trumpet; he told me how to make a sound on his horn. I didn’t know who he was. You know, just a friend of my mother... I had no idea! I was just a child!

LJN: One more memory about someone else, please…  Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, you played with them for a while…

EH: Art Blakey and his influence was invaluable in my development,  because his band was like an institution, he would always bring younger musicians up and hone them to the craft of the art form of jazz, and ideally if you stayed there at least two years, hopefully five years at most…  And Billy Harper was with Art Blakey, George Cables… all the people… Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter… McCoy Tyner, he played with Art Blakey too. All these notables of jazz came through that invaluable institution…

LJN: Like an academy…

EH: Oh exactly! Postgraduates! It was an invaluable experience. Unfortunately there are no more institutions like that nowadays.

LJN: As a teenager you studied trumpet at The San Francisco Conservatory of Music. What did you take from studying classical music?

EH: I wanted to go to the conservatory more or less to learn to play the trumpet technically. I had an excellent teacher, he was the number one trumpet player in the San Francisco Symphony, and I started performing with San Francisco Conservatory Symphony Orchestra – my teacher would play the first chair and I played the second chair. That was my only experience playing with the symphony orchestra, but it was wonderful! It allowed me to play an instrument and then I met Miles Davis and started learning from him!

Tomasz Furmanek, Mochles Simawi and LJN would like to thank Natsuko Henderson for her assistance in facilitating this interview. 

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