Joe Henderson

Great American Jazz musician

Joe Henderson - teacher

In 1989 I had the incredible good fortune to study with the great American jazz tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson. This came about because Joe lived in San Francisco where I happened to be attending S.F. State University, and my college buddy and roommate Mark Sowlakis, who also studied with Joe, turned me onto Joe's phone number. (Thanks again Markos). I think I must have taken maybe six or eight lessons with Joe. He had a dry sense of humor and was a bit of an eccentric character (in a good way) and had the most razor sharp musical mind I have ever encountered.

The story I sometimes tell about my lessons with Joe illustrates the point. The way he would teach me was to compose a jazz solo on a piano on the spot. First he would teach me the melody of the tune. In my case he taught me two songs: Joy Spring and Countdown. First he would teach the melody (or the "head" as it's known in jazz parlance). Then he would start giving me the solo, which he composed on the spot, one phrase at a time. When he was happy with the phrase he had composed, he would say okay, play this. I wasn't allowed to record it or write it down; I just had a to learn it and remember it. So sometimes he'd teach me a complex phrase which, one time through the form, would go one direction; then he'd have the same phrase in the second chorus, but it would then go in a different direction. And this is the kicker: then he said, "if amnesia should set in during the week, give me a call and I'll straighten you out." So I actually took him up on that, as it was complicated and a lot to remember, I'd go home and practice it, and then I would have trouble remembering it. So I called him and he said, all right, play up to where you remember. And I would, playing the saxophone into the phone. And then he would tell me what the next phrase was. And this was something he had composed on the spot a week earlier. How did he do it? I don't know. All I can say is, the man was a genius.

I still feel sad when I think about the fact that Joe is no longer with us. But his music lives on, and shall remain immortal. If you don't know his stuff, I urge you to go out and buy some Joe Henderson records. Start with "Page One" and maybe "Double Rainbow", his tribute to Antonio Carlos Jobim. But anything by Joe is great; whenever a solo came out of his saxophone it was guaranteed to be a masterful improvisation, a masterpiece of a composition that he would create spontaneously in the studio or on the bandstand. I was beyond privileged to study with him, and I will continue to draw inspiration and education from the transcriptions I made from his lessons as well as the great music on his many recordings.