Joe Henderson; Eloquent Tenor Saxophonist


Joe Henderson, a tenor saxophonist known for his inventive improvisation and lyrical contemporary jazz style who was late to achieve the widespread fame he had long deserved, has died at the age of 64.

Henderson earned four Grammys, three of them for best album in the early 1990s when he was in his mid-50s. He died Saturday of heart failure in San Francisco where he had lived for more than 25 years. He suffered a stroke in 1998, which ended his public performing career, and he also struggled with emphysema.

Although he was respected by jazz artists, Henderson was something of a well-kept secret until he signed with the Verve label in 1992. In rapid succession, he made three Grammy-winning albums paying homage to other jazz greats--Billy Strayhorn with “Lush Life,” Miles Davis with “So Near, So Far” and Antonio Carlos Jobim with “Double Rainbow.”

In that better-late-than-never rocket ride to fame, Henderson also won Down Beat magazine’s “triple crown"--best artist, best tenor saxophonist and best album listings--two years in a row.


Asked in 1994 if his career had come to fruition in the previous two years, Henderson told The Times: “There have been more gigs and that kind of thing, and the remunerative part of that equation has gotten to the point to where it could have been--should have been--all of the time. You’re talking to a pretty pleased person here. . . . My brain is just buzzing as a result of this late recognition.”

Frequently compared to the legendary Stan Getz, yet unique and instantly identifiable for the warmth and variation of his tone, Henderson never left the microphone without raising his tenor saxophone in a silent salute to his listeners. That small gesture symbolized the connection he was able to make with jazz audiences, a warmly intimate reflection of the man as much as his music.

Don Heckman, the critic who writes frequently about jazz for The Times, has called Henderson “one of the four or five finest jazz saxophonists in the world” and once speculated that he “probably could make musical magic out of the tones on a push-button phone.”

In recent years, Henderson became one of the first of his generation of players to create thematically oriented albums. In addition to his tributes to Strayhorn, Davis and Jobim, he recorded his jazz interpretation of George Gershwin’s classic opera “Porgy and Bess” and the “Joe Henderson Big Band” album, all for Verve.

“In Henderson’s hands, projects such as these were never gimmicky, or market-oriented in nature,” Heckman said Sunday. “His renderings of the songs of Jobim and Strayhorn, for example, were compelling because he found so much within them that expressed qualities in his own creative persona.

“His big band writing--a skill not generally associated with Henderson--traced back to his earlier years,” Heckman added, “but, as with the other thematic recordings, it was the product of a unique combination of musical curiosity, artistic integrity and a constant willingness to take creative risks.”

Henderson used Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess"--which he called “an absolutely magnificent reinterpretation, or a re-imagining, of African American experience through Gershwin’s European kind of education"--in a 1998 Jazz Bakery performance he titled “Jazz Variations on Gershwin.”

Also respected as a composer, Henderson created such tunes as “Recordame,” “Black Narcissus,” “Inner Urge,” “Isotope,” “The Bad Game” and “Caribbean Fire Dance.”


Henderson always offered surprise in his own playing, but also inspired others’ creativity as well, Heckman once noted, providing “the kind of lively rhythms and appealing harmonies capable of stimulating a jazz artist’s improvisatory imagination.”

Born in Lima, Ohio, Henderson came from a musical family and grew up absorbing the recorded sounds of Charlie Parker, Lester Young and Ben Webster. He also developed an appreciation for classical music, including the works of Bartok and Stravinsky.

A self-taught saxophonist from an early age, Henderson studied music at Kentucky State College and Wayne State University in Detroit, where he turned professional. He played with Sonny Stitt and then led his own band in Detroit.

Military service in 1960-62 meant touring the world as part of an Army band.


Afterward, he performed in Baltimore and then New York, working with Jack McDuff and co-leading a group with Kenny Dorham. He recorded with Blue Note in the 1960s, and also performed successively with Horace Silver, Andrew Hill, Jazz Communicators and Freddie Hubbard, Louis Hayes and the Herbie Hancock Sextet.

He worked briefly with Blood, Sweat & Tears in the early 1970s and then moved to San Francisco where he played, recorded and taught, frequently appearing at conferences of such prestigious organizations as the International Assn. of Jazz Educators.

Erudite in his music and his words, Henderson was nonetheless a quiet man who kept to himself when not performing. Friends nicknamed him “The Phantom” for his ability to drop out of sight to recover from his emotionally taxing profession.

“Unlike so many of today’s younger players,” Heckman said, “Henderson never sounded like anyone but himself, and his technique, while virtuosic, was always placed at the service of his improvisational thoughts. When he played a note, he played it with a reason, and he never played two or three notes where one would not only suffice, but do a better job of underscoring the dramatic ruminations that were the prime metier of his music.”


Henderson’s favorite Selmer tenor sax was stolen once, then recovered only to be destroyed in a fire after an automobile accident.