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Life and Art of Luther Henderson

 

Luther Henderson
Orchestrator, Arranger, Musical Director, Composer
1919-2003

Luther Henderson’s parents, both teachers, believed that education was of paramount importance. Taking action on their convictions they moved the family from Kansas City, Missouri, where Luther was born in 1919, to New York City when he was four years old, after his older sister was accepted into Hunter High School. The family resided in Harlem’s Sugar Hill neighborhood near Duke Ellington and his family. Luther became great friends with Duke's son Mercer and would later become Duke's classical orchestrator and arranger; what Duke would describe as "his classical arm".

Luther began playing piano at an early age and while he went on to major in mathematics at The City College of New York, his passion for music remained constant. He auditioned at Juilliard School and was accepted into the music division. After graduating from Juilliard in 1942, he was drafted into the U.S. Navy where he became an arranger with the Navy jazz band at the Great Lakes Navy Base until the end of World War II and also was staff orchestrator for The U.S. Navy School of Music, Washington, D.C., from 1944-46.

From the 1950’s, when he was collaborating with Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, through the course of several decades, Henderson’s artistry infused the world of Broadway stage, the big screen, television and the recording studio. His artistic innovations paved the way for many illustrious careers. Among the more than 50 Broadway musicals in which he performed as orchestrator, arranger and/or musical director are Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Jelly’s Last Jam. He was twice nominated for Broadway’s Tony Award – in 1992, for Best Score (Musical) for his collaboration with Jelly Roll Morton on the music, and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, for Jelly’s Last Jam. In 1997 he was again a Tony nominee for Best Orchestrations for Play On!

Among his earlier works, he composed the orchestrations for the dance sequences of the original Broadway production of the Flower Drum Song by Rodgers and Hammerstein. He adapted the music of Thomas “Fats” Waller, and served as the music director, for the original Broadway production of Ain’t Misbehavin'. Other historic Broadway credits include: Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, Purlie, Funny Girl and Do-Re-Mi, Music legends Duke Ellington, Dean Martin, Carmen McRae, Gregory Hines, Ann Margaret, Nancy Wilson, opera diva Eileen Farrell and numerous others all benefited from Luther Henderson’s genius. His longest association was with The Canadian Brass - over 20 years - for whom he arranged more than 100 songs. Henderson arranged the songs on the Brass' "Ellington Connection" which was nominated for a Grammy award in 1999. He received The Pioneer Award with his director-actress wife Billie Allen at the AUDELCO VIV Awards in 2002.

His four decades of significant influence led to his selection in 2003 of a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters award. The NEA noted that “as a composer, arranger, and conductor, Luther’s enormous gifts and most significant artistic contributions involved the “dressing, draping, broadening, coloring and overall enhancing the music of others.”

Albums to his credit include several with the Canadian Brass Quintet. For Columbia Records, The Luther Henderson Orchestra recorded six albums. In addition, Mr. Henderson contributed to various albums recorded by the Duke Ellington Orchestra, the Andre Kostelanetz Orchestra, the Royal Philarmonic, Mandy Patinkin, Polly Bergen, Anita Ellis, Eileen Farrell and others. In film, Mr. Henderson was the composer and orchestrator for “Recess” and “The Slams.”