The trombonist, composer and co-founder of the Jazz Crusaders, Wayne Henderson lived up to his “Big Daddy” nickname through five and a half decades in music. Not only could his sound be as big and distinctive as his physique, but he exuded a warmth that drew many contemporaries and younger musicians into his orbit and spurred them on to greater things.
Henderson was an emotive, fluid player and wrote several of the tunes that made the Crusaders, as they became known in 1971, pioneers of the jazz fusion movement. These included instrumentals like “The Young Rabbits”, showcasing the prowess of their bebop incarnation in the early 1960s, and “Scratch” and “Stomp And Buck Dance”, representative of the infectious, hypnotic grooves they played in the early-to-mid-’70s, as well as the irresistibly soulful “Keep That Same Old Feeling”, which made the R&B charts in the US in 1976, the year after he left the group.
The first Crusaders non-instrumental, “Keep That Same Old Feeling” featured Henderson on vocals and became a rare groove classic. It also presaged his subsequent career as the producer of several excellent albums by the saxophonist Ronnie Laws and the R&B groups Pleasure and Side Effect, as well as “Street Life”, the major international hit for the remaining Crusaders, with singer Randy Crawford, in 1979.
“We were the co-creators of funk music,” Henderson said in 2006. “Other guys started the jazz-funk thing too – Cannonball Adderley, Herbie Hancock – and we started selling records just like the pop guys. And we kept the integrity of the music.”
Born in 1939 in Houston, Texas, he met his future bandmates, the tenor saxophonist Wilton Felder, pianist Joe Sample and drummer Nesbert “Stix” Hooper in high school. The four went through a succession of names, including the Swingsters, the Black Board Jungle Kids and the Nite Hawks, before becoming the Jazz Crusaders as a tribute to Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers.
Indeed, after relocating to Los Angeles and signing to the Pacific Jazz label in 1961, they often drew comparisons with Blakey’s Messengers, another group featuring a two-horn front-line, albeit with a trumpeter rather than a trombonist alongside a tenor, the Henderson-Felder partnership which made the Crusaders such a unique proposition.
“We were just straight, stand-up beboppers, playing all the fast tunes,” Henderson recalled. “But we always had a groove and memorable melodies. Then we got to where we were just playing grooves.”
Their ’60s repertoire included not only original compositions and the occasional standard but breezy takes on current pop hits like “Eleanor Rigby”, “Hey Jude” and “Get Back” as they lived up to their Pacific Jazz billing as “masters of jazz communication”.
Henderson was particularly prominent on the landmark double set Crusaders 1, their first release for Blue Thumb, on which Sample embraced the Fender Rhodes. They recorded a beautiful extrapolation of Carole King’s “So Far Away” and they were joined by session guitarist Larry Carlton, who added sublime wah-wah to Henderson’s “Mystique Blues” – later sampled by Ice Cube – and would become a mainstay over the next five years.
In 1973, another double set, The 2nd Crusade, inaugurated a run of albums that topped the US jazz listings and also included Southern Comfort, Chain Reaction and Those Southern Knights before Henderson departed.
Having collaborated with Crusaders producer Stewart Levine on two albums for bassist “Monk” Montgomery, he formed At Home Productions. In 1974 he discovered Pleasure in a Portland club and became their mentor and producer of their first four albums for the Fantasy label. He performed a similar role with the Los Angeles group Side Effect.
In 1975 he masterminded the emergence of Laws with the Pressure Sensitive album, whose opening track, “Always There”, became an instant jazz-funk classic, covered in 1991 by Incognito featuring Jocelyn Brown. He also worked with the drummer Billy Cobham, guitarist Gabor Szabo, the Motown star Mary Wells and the Britfunk group Light Of The World. In 1984 he produced Centipede, the million-selling debut by Rebbie Jackson, the eldest of the Jackson family and the last to launch a music career.
Henderson issued half a dozen solo albums and teamed up with the vibraphonist Roy Ayers for two joint releases before reviving the Jazz Crusaders in the mid-’90s. He also taught at the California College of Music in Pasadena. In 2010 he toured with Sample and the saxophonist Gerald Albright. Last year he appeared at festivals in continental Europe and at Ronnie Scott’s in London.
Henderson was a flamboyant character with a penchant for unlikely stage garb, including the leopard-skin print apron and matching cap he wore at Ronnie Scott’s in 2009, as if he was supervising a barbecue rather than a sizzling, jazz-funk set. “Let your ears taste the music like your palate tastes food,” he said about the different genres he fused. “It’s that gospel/blues/R&B/pop/jazz kind of thing. It’s where I live. I’ll never leave it.”
Henderson suffered from diabetes and was on dialysis for several years. He died from heart failure.
Wayne Maurice Henderson, trombonist, composer and producer: born Houston 24 September 1939; married Cathy (two sons); died Culver City, California 5 April 2014.
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