Being a trombone player is not the easiest thing on the planet as far as commercial success or a career, but Wayne gave us all hope. Because as the ’70s and the ’80s came around, it was really happening with Wayne and the Crusaders.
He laid this whole thing out for us, but he’s still one of the world’s most underrated trombonists. When you hear J.J. Johnson or Slide Hampton, it’s so virtuosic it’s jaw-dropping. Wayne didn’t have to use virtuosity to get over. With him the intensity came through in the musical lines and the musical ideas he had. He didn’t need to scream in the upper register or play double- or triple-time. He was able to create interest just through the direction of his musical ideas, which were solid and soulful and meaningful. Critics and musicians are knocked out when someone comes up with a new harmonic or technical treatment, but listening to the Crusaders is like going home, and Wayne was an accessible, understandable trombone player. As a young trombonist I was really into Slide and J.J. and Curtis Fuller too, but Wayne was just as hip.
As an educator I’m often asked for advice, and one of the things I always say is “Learn how to make others sound great.” That is one thing Wayne Henderson epitomized in everything he did as a musician. When he played a solo, he made the rhythm section sound great. When he played the melody, he made everyone else in the band sound great. Wayne gave so much to so many other people. He transcended the trombone and he added so much to other people’s albums.
Some of my favorite Crusaders tunes may not even have a ‘bone solo. In fact, the first thing that first knocked me out was their ‘bone-and-tenor sound, which was their signature. It was so soulful and so meaty and I thought it was a great combination, that sound of the tenor and the ‘bone playing melodies and pretty simple harmonies in unison. Sometimes the ‘bone would take the lead and the tenor would be underneath. It was powerful. There were other records I had heard with trombone as the leader, but there was something so amazing about the Crusaders. The most hardcore jazz musicians and critics loved the Crusaders; people who like rock loved them; people who like soul loved them. Some people who don’t even like jazz love the Crusaders. When I was in high school, all of my friends were into rock and when they would come over to the house I’d put on the Crusaders and they’d say, “Yeah, man, I like that!” [As told to Jeff Tamarkin]Originally Published