Two Sides of Joe Henderson

Joe Henderson was the first saxophone player whom I ever called my favorite.1 As a younger man getting publicly into jazz, it seemed that the known heavies among the people I spoke with were more than I could get my ears around.2 There were tenor players I favored, Dexter Gordon chief among them, but I found myself wanting something that leaned into more aggressive improvisations, turned occasionally away from standards, maybe carried a message of personal – if not cultural, political or social – freedom. Sonny Rollins was almost perfect but older guys, like in their 40s, seemed to enjoy him a little too much.

Enter Joe Henderson. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s he found a home at Blue Note and swung with the best of them. 3 In the meantime, however, he was playing some very different kinds of jazz, appearing on most of Andrew Hill’s miraculous LPs from 1963-19654, Pete La Roca’s Basra (1965), and Larry Young’s Unity (1965).

The years 1963-1964 also bore Henderson’s emergence as a leader. In that time he had four records appear under his name5. Frankly, there’s not a klinker to be found on any of those sessions.

So by 1967, if he wasn’t famous among listeners he remained in high demand among other players. One of my favorite saxophone numbers of all time comes from this period.

le konitz duets

“You Don’t Know What Love Is,” Lee Konitz with Joe Henderson, The Lee Konitz Duets, 1967.

The first time I heard this tune, and nearly every time since, there’s some point or other at which I seem to forget that I’m listening and the saxophones sort of take over my consciousness. I lose track of who’s playing what but one thing remains certain: Mr. Konitz, outside this duet, never has this effect on me. Mr. Henderson, on the other hand, has this effect on me frequently, and at every phase of his career.

Like many players in the late-60s and early-70s, Henderson seized an opportunity to stretch out further than he had even in the previous several years. His move to Milestone Records6 brought larger, funkier bands into the picture. Henderson was equally at home in this environment as he had been in every other7, and the aggressive tones he’d worked out during his Blue Note years simply erupted. Though it also appeared in the Milestone box and on Soul Jazz Records’ marvelous Freedom Rhythm & Sound: Revolutionary Jazz and the Civil Rights Movement 1963-82, this tune originally appeared on his Black Is the Color LP in 1972, and characterizes for me the kind of force Joe Henderson was capable of:


“Foregone Conclusion,” Joe Henderson, Black Is the Color, 1972.

This was not a live recording. What you’re hearing, in part, is Mr. Henderson on alto flute, soprano saxophone, percussion and, obviously, tenor saxophone. The groove is fierce. 8 Which goes to the point that you could pick up pretty much any one of his records from pretty much any point in his 40-year career and find something passionate, conscientious, and technically astonishing. His was an awesome career. He is missed.

  1. Thanks and shouts to my friend, Michael Honch, who turned me on to Joe Henderson nearly 20 years ago.

  2. e.g. John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders; the point was clear: either one was hip to Mr. Coltrane’s journey out and the men heading there with or behind him or one was not quite with it at all.

  3. This is not a figurative statement. In addition to his sessions as a leader, Henderson played with Kenny Dorham, Horace Silver, Lee Morgan (on “The Sidewinder,” no less), Grant Green, and more.

  4. There were seven in all, two of which featured Hill’s all-rhythm quartets (no horns or reeds – either piano/bass/bass/drums or piano/vibraphone/bass/drums), and two others which featured John Gilmore, a worthy subject of tenor saxophone pursuit in his own right. Mr. Hill, of course, is a whole other study altogether.

  5. In 1966, Blue Note released Mode for Joe, which would be the last Henderson-led LP on that label until 1985’s State of the Tenor, a 2 disc live set recorded at the Village Vanguard.

  6. His entire Milestone catalog was released as a box set in 1994.

  7. Unlike some of his colleagues who more or less disappeared into an almost-visible haze of reefer, cocaine, and neverending sunsets under the increasingly warm, airless guidance of CTI Records.

  8. Bassist, Adam Rizer, likened the physical effect of such stern grooves to whiplash. He was talking about the Budos Band but I experienced this phenomenon with this number on my ride home from work today.