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Eddie Henderson: Dr. Trumpet

Eddie Henderson

There was a stretch of 10 years in San Francisco, between 1975 and 1985, when trumpeter Eddie Henderson was juggling two extremely demanding disciplines: practicing medicine and playing the trumpet. In 1973, Henderson had finished a rewarding stint with Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band, which produced the exceptional, exploratory records Mwandishi, Crossings and Sextant, and relatively soon after he felt compelled to return to his other field of study.

I got my M.D. in 1968 but I didn’t start practicing medicine until 1975,” says Henderson. “It was only four hours a day, part time, so I was always still playing too. I had the fortune to be at a clinic in San Francisco where the head of the clinic knew I was heavily involved in music, so whenever I’d get tours or whatever he would let me come and go as I pleased. So it was the perfect lifestyle. But music was my number one thing emotionally, even though I was practicing medicine at a very skilled level.”

Between practicing medicine and keeping his trumpet chops in check, all of Henderson’s waking hours were consumed during that busy time. “But it was cool-just a matter of focus and discipline,” he says. “I’ve always been like that because in high school I was a competitive figure skater. I think that’s where I really got my discipline, on the ice. During the summer I was on the ice at least 10 hours a day, from 5:30 in the morning until the evening. And at the same time I was going to the [San Francisco Conservatory of Music], going to high school, playing basketball, too. So I was always pretty focused. And by virtue of that discipline I got going, everything else that came later was a breeze. My undergraduate degree at the University of California-that was a breeze. Also, medical school was a breeze for me, because I was very focused. I had good study habits, good organization skills. A lot of the other guys, they wouldn’t come to class for months because they’d be out partying. But I never missed a class in my life and studied every day. Those other guys tried to cram and you just can’t do that and retain information, not the last week before the finals.”

In 1985, Henderson moved to New York to pursue his musical path while continuing to practice medicine in the early stages of his relocation. “I practiced medicine here in New York a bit,” he says. “I worked for the Transit Authority for three months and then at a little clinic for about a year or two, just a couple hours a day. I moved here for music, not to practice medicine. And now I have not practiced medicine in about 11 years.”

For Henderson, music and medicine go hand-in-hand. “Music and medicine are both divine disciplines,” he explains. “You’re dealing with the human body, which is a divine creation, on one hand. And then you’re dealing with the divine creation of music. The universe is made of music. Everybody’s billions of cells in their bodies-those are vibrations, the vibrations of the solar system, the movement; everything’s in a constant flux. And I’m dealing with both of them. They’re just very different mediums through which you can see yourself.

“But for me, that old adage of ‘physician, heal thyself’ means that I can’t help anybody else until I’m cool. And music is what cools me out. I know that music heals me. And I hope my music is healing in some respect to the listeners too. I try to think of that when I’m playing. I want to heal people, soothe people. They come out to hear music, they don’t wanna go away all jagged, you know.”

The soothing title track of Henderson’s latest as a leader, Oasis (Sirocco Jazz), is a good case in point. A dark, mysterious ballad performed on flugelhorn, Henderson’s warm-toned, plaintive lines are echoed by vibist Joe Locke and underscored by pianist Kevin Hays’ gentle arpeggios as the rhythm tandem of Billy Drummond and Ed Howard creates subtle and spacious percussive colors underneath. On the other side of the dynamic coin, “Sandstorm” captures all the kinetic energy of an express train hurtling along the subway track at breakneck speed. Drummond’s playing comes alive here with a bristling Max Roach-inspired ride-cymbal pulse while Howard pushes the forward momentum with his insistent walking bass lines as Hays delves into serious bebop mode. Locke wails on top of this uptempo romp with blazing dexterity, while Henderson’s bold, bright playing here speaks of his trumpet heroes: Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Clifford Brown. It’s a soundtrack to a city-New York, not San Francisco.

Always mindful of providing tension and release, Henderson segues from “Sandstorm”‘s aggressively boppish ride to a beautiful interpretation of Wayne Shorter’s “Lost.” On Kevin Hays’ “Siddhartha,” he follows the calming, Zenlike flow of that spacious melody with a dramatic use of space on muted trumpet. The effect is very Miles-inspired, à la “Flamenco Sketches” from Kind of Blue. Henderson’s own expansive, open-ended “Desert Sun” recalls some of the sonic explorations from his Mwandishi phase with Hancock. “That tune reflects the influence that I got, in terms of concept, from the old Herbie Hancock sextet. I wanted some of that aspect represented on this record.”

Elsewhere on Oasis-his seventh recording with the core group of Locke, Hays and Howard, with Drummond replacing Lewis Nash in the lineup-Henderson and crew turn in evocative renditions of George Cables’ gentle “Why Not,” Lee Morgan’s “Melancholy” and Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island,” done up in funky fashion with some noticeably reconfigured harmonies. “I always try to use other people’s tunes,” says Henderson. “Some records are just that artist, only his compositions. But I like to incorporate other people’s tunes so that the album has more balance and scope rather than just my one way of looking at things. I like more or less collective input rather than a self-portrait.”

His dramatic arrangement of “Melancholy” has a heavy spiritual vibe running through it, almost in a “Go Down Moses” vein. “Well, I knew Lee Morgan personally and I used to practice with him,” says Henderson. “On this tune I was really trying to reflect that side of Lee. He could be spirited and fiery but he also had this real beautiful, thoughtful side.”

The earthy cover of “Cantaloupe Island,” he explains, came out of some recent playing experiences with Hancock during his Gershwin’s World tour. “We went out for about a year and a half and the tour finally ended last September. It was supposed to be the Gershwin Project representing his album, but the music really evolved way past that. By the end of the tour it really reminded me of the old Herbie Hancock and Mwandishi band that I played in about 30 years ago. The music went off the music paper to where you’re experimenting like explorers or travelers. It was a wonderful experience.”

The original Mwandishi band recently played a rare reunion concert in San Francisco as a benefit for trombonist Julian Priester, who underwent a liver transplant a year ago and exhausted his funds in the process. (A review of the concert is posted on the “Live” section of

As Henderson explains, “It was the old Herbie Hancock sextet: Buster Williams, Julian, Benny Maupin, myself and Herbie. The one difference was that Billy Hart wasn’t there, because he was in Japan, but Terri Lynne Carrington filled in for him. And it was great. We hadn’t played together in 27 years and it was like we never stopped.”

Henderson had originally met Hancock in the mid-1960s, when the pianist was making jazz history with the Miles Davis quintet that also featured Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. “I knew Herbie when he was with Miles and all we talked about back then was cars because I loved sports cars and he did too. And then in late 1969, when Herbie had his sextet with Joe Henderson, Johnny Coles, Garnett Brown, Buster Williams and Tootie Heath, he came to San Francisco to play a weeklong engagement. And Johnny Coles was going on a sabbatical with Ray Charles for six months so Herbie needed a trumpeter. He heard that I played trumpet but I don’t think he took it seriously at first. But then he tried me for that one week in San Francisco that they had, and it went well because I was familiar with all of his music and he seemed to appreciate the way I played. And that opened the door for me.”

Hancock must’ve intuitively sensed the Miles Davis influence in Henderson’s playing. Henderson had, in fact, absorbed Miles’ repertoire from the time he was a teenager and actually had gotten some valuable trumpet playing tips from the maestro himself. “He used to stay at my parents’ house when I was in high school,” says Henderson. “This was when Miles had Cannonball and Coltrane in the band. I was studying trumpet at the conservatory in San Francisco but when he took me to the gig at the Blackhawk and I heard Trane and Cannonball with Philly Joe, Paul Chambers and Wynton Kelly-it blew my mind. That was my first real eye-opener to modern jazz. And I’ve been on the trail ever since.”

Henderson did have a previous eye-opening lesson or two with another trumpet legend. “My first trumpet teacher in life was Louis Armstrong,” he recalls. “My mother knew him because she was at the original Cotton Club as a dancer. If you’ve ever seen that videotape of Fats Waller playing and a real pretty lady is sitting on the piano bench with him, singing ‘Ain’t Misbehavin” to him, that’s my mother. She knew everybody in show business and she took me down to the Apollo in 1949 to meet Louis Armstrong. I was just nine years old at the time and I didn’t realize who he really was until I got older. But that’s how I started playing the trumpet.”

But it was Miles who would make the biggest impression on Henderson. “When I met Miles when I was 17 or 18, I played for him by ear everything off Sketches of Spain. I had been practicing with the record and when I finally played it for him I didn’t miss a note. I was so proud of myself and when I finished I asked him, ‘How did you like that?’ And he said, ‘You sound good, but that’s me!’ Which was another eye-opener. That awareness was very important. And then he sat down and showed me a few things, wrote on a little napkin certain relationships about chords and things. But the most important part of my learning from him was by listening to him and observing him, to understand the etiquette of what you do and what you don’t do-and how to leave space. A lot of good players are very good technically, but you know-you can’t play all the time. You gotta take a breath or you’ll overload the audience. That space is the pause that refreshes. And also it energizes. It gives the music life-in-breathing and out-breathing. That’s the key.”

In the ’70s, like his mentor Miles, Henderson got way into the fusion thing by incorporating electronic exploration into the fabric of his playing. That quality is readily apparent through his reverb-soaked trumpet playing on Hancock’s Sextant album from 1972, but Henderson pushes the envelope on his own mid-’70s recordings for Blue Note, Sunburst and Heritage. “I played trumpet with wah-wah and all of those albums and I really enjoyed it,” he says. “In fact, an album recently came out in England (on Soul Brother Records) called Anthology, which is a compilation of all of my hits from the fusion era. It’s funny but in England, I’m like a rock star. I didn’t even know that but I did a tour over there about a month and a half ago and it was amazing. I sold out the biggest venue in London; there were mobs of people-just unbelievable. For that tour they got an Echoplex for me, a phase shifter, a wah-wah pedal. I like to use technology. I’ll use any tools I can to explore the possibilities of sound.”

Henderson says his recent tour of England in support of the fusion-oriented Anthology made him consider the possibility of resurrecting the wah-wah sound once again. “That whole tour opened my eyes to the fact that I don’t really want to be stuck in just one genre. So I’m considering maybe updating some of those fusion things because there’s a big audience for that still. And besides, I like to take chances and use my imagination. I don’t want to just play jazz in a traditional sense all the time. That’s cool too, but I also want to represent that other side of me too.”

The medical practice might have to wait a little longer.


“For a while I was endorsing Selmer trumpets. I have two or three Selmers and I also have two Martins, a Bach and a Schilke. All horns are good but some people get fanatical about this mouthpiece or that mouthpiece. An analogy that I like to make is something that Art Blakey once told Clifford Brown. See, Clifford had chewing gum patching up one of the middle valve casings and had a rubber band for the third valve slide, and that’s the horn that sounded so golden! And one day Blakey said, ‘Clifford, here’s $300, go get yourself a nice new shiny horn.’ So Clifford said, ‘Thank you Mr. Blakey but the problem’s not with the horn, the problem’s with me.’ Check that out! You have to realize that you play the instrument, the instrument doesn’t play you. Some people search a lifetime trying to find the top-of-the-line horn but that’s wasting a lot of time. They should get home and be practicing and stop worrying about the horn.

“Mouthpiece-wise, what I’ve been playing all my life feels comfortable to me: a Bach 7C, Mount Vernon model. And only recently this mouthpiece maker named Scott Holbert laid something on me. He’s a trumpet player and he’s one of my fans so he looked at my mouthpiece and made me a new one and sent it to me. And it really enhanced the sound. It’s similar to the one I was always using but it’s state-of-the-art now. So that’s cool, but I really don’t go around shopping for things.”

Listening Pleasures

“When I was coming up I used to listen to records and cop things off the records all the time-innuendos, phrasings and licks and stuff. But I don’t listen to records anymore. I do love classical music, which I listen to on the radio. When I was competitive figure skating, the music was always Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, things like that. I love all types of music-Indian music, Chinese music, Japanese music, Brazilian, Latin. The more music you’re exposed to the more it enhances one’s vocabulary. I don’t just want to listen to, quote-unquote, bebop. No, I love all kinds of music. But I don’t buy records anymore. And I’m lucky enough to travel so much these days so when I’m in different countries I like to go out and hear the musicians from that country playing their music authentically.”

Originally Published