Jazz World Mourns Joe Henderson

The jazz world mourns the passing of tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson, who died late Saturday June 30 in San Francisco. He was 64.

Henderson had suffered from emphysema for a long time, and three years ago endured a stroke that effectively ended his performing career. The cause of death was heart failure, according to his sister, Phyllis Henderson McGee of Lima, Ohio.

Winner of four Grammy awards—all of them achieved when he was in his 50s—Henderson was a lyrical player with a wide range, equally adept as a soloist or as part of an ensemble. Early in his career, he was compared to Sonny Rollins, and later to Stan Getz.

One of 15 children in a musical family, he took up the saxophone at an early age. Henderson studied music at Kentucky State University and Wayne State University in Detroit, where he made his debut as a professional at the age of 20, playing with Sonny Stitt and Lionel Hampton. He fulfilled his military duty as part of an Army band, touring the world from 1960 to 1962, after which he lived and performed in Baltimore and New York, working with Jack McDuff and Kenny Dorham.

He signed with legendary jazz label Blue Note in the 1960s, recording and performing with Horace Silver, Andrew Hill, the Jazz Communicators, Freddie Hubbard, Louis Hayes, and the Herbie Hancock Sextet. He fronted several of his own bands, including some Japanese combos, but found it difficult to make a decent living. A stint with the jazz-influenced rock group Blood, Sweat & Tears in the early 1970s was the first time in his career that he made a significant salary, he often remarked.

Henderson settled in San Francisco in the late 1970s. "He was one of the most inventive saxophone players," said Sonny Buxton, former owner of the city's Milestones jazz club, where Henderson often worked in the mid-1980s. "There was a wailing, a search in his playing. Within just a few notes, you knew that it was Henderson." A composer as well as a performer, Henderson was also fond of classical music, in particular the works of Stravinsky, Bartók, and Gershwin. He was a frequent participant as performer and teacher at events put on by the International Association of Jazz Educators. "I think it's tragic that young musicians don't know, or pick up, the basics," he told the San Francisco Chronicle. "A jazz musician has got to know where he's coming from before he decides where he's going."

He was known among his colleagues as "The Phantom" for his tendency to disappear between gigs. Although he performed and recorded consistently from the time he turned professional, Henderson's career didn't really take off until he signed with Verve in 1992, at the age of 55. He made three Grammy-winning albums—tributes to jazz greats Billy Strayhorn (Lush Life), Miles Davis (So Near, So Far), and Antonio Carlos Jobim (Double Rainbow)—and won Best Artist, Best Tenor Saxophonist, and Best Album awards from Down Beat magazine two years in a row. The Compact Disc Database lists 61 recordings featuring Joe Henderson.

Los Angeles Times jazz critic Don Heckman said that Henderson's creations were "the product of a unique combination of musical curiosity, artistic integrity, and a constant willingness to take creative risks. He was one of the four or five finest jazz saxophonists in the world."