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.