Wayne Henderson, a trombonist, composer and co-founder of the Jazz Crusaders, who became a powerful force for merging the sound of jazz with elements of funk, soul and R&B, died Friday at a Culver City hospital. He was 74.
His death from heart failure was confirmed by manager Stephanie Pappas.
During a decades-long career, Henderson was best known for his work with the Jazz Crusaders, an enduring presence on the Los Angeles jazz scene since its debut recording in 1961.
Backed by tenor saxophonist Wilton Felder and keyboardist Joe Sample, Henderson wrote one of the band’s signature compositions in the zig-zagging “Young Rabbits,” a propulsive blast of hard bop that justified the band’s early comparisons to Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.
The group later earned its greatest success after shortening its name to the Crusaders as Henderson helped forge the groove-heavy sound of contemporary jazz and fusion into the ‘70s and beyond.
Born on Sept. 24, 1939, in Houston, Texas, Henderson began his musical life while attending Houston’s Phyllis Wheatley Jr. High School with classmates Felder, Sample and drummer Nesbert “Stix” Hooper. The childhood friends eventually came together as a band, cycling through names such as the Black Board Jungle Kids, the Modern Jazz Sextet and Nite Hawks before moving to Los Angeles in the late-1950s to eventually perform as the Jazz Crusaders.
Drawing from an early exposure to R&B, blues and gospel music, the Jazz Crusaders honed a unique sound led by the fluid front-line horns of Henderson and Felder. “We were just straight, stand-up beboppers, playing all the fast tunes,” Henderson said of those early days in a 1997 interview with The Times. “But we always had a groove and memorable melodies. Then we got to where we were just playing grooves.”
The group freely drew from the pop songbook as well, breezily covering the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” as readily as Jackie McLean’s “Appointment in Ghana.” By the early ‘70s the group dropped “Jazz” from its name to become the Crusaders with the addition of electric bassist Robert “Pops” Popwell and guitarist Larry Carlton.
The group’s dance-ready direction spawned a string of crossover pop hits during the decade, including Henderson’s “Keep That Same Old Feeling” and “Scratch.”
“We were the co-creators of funk music,” Henderson told the Kansas City Star in 2006. “Other guys started the jazz-funk thing, too -- Cannonball Adderley, Herbie Hancock -- and we started selling records just like the pop guys. And we kept the integrity of the music.”
In 1974 Henderson stopped performing and left the Crusaders to focus on the production side of the music industry. He worked with a number of high-profile artists across the musical spectrum, including Ronnie Laws, Ramsey Lewis, Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers and Joni Mitchell.
More recently, Henderson played in a number of reunions of the Jazz Crusaders. He helped spearhead the reunion in 1995 after listening to the group’s old albums.
“He realized we were all at that age where any one of us could possibly go,” Sample told the Houston Chronicle before a show in 2011.
Henderson is survived by his wife, Cathy, and two sons, Wayne Jr. and Randy.