WBGO Playdate

WBGO's Playdate: Fred Hersch on Joe Henderson

Joe Henderson Playdate

This is a web extra from Playdate Show #3, which features tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson. Stream "Tenor Madness" above, from a concert at the Public Theater on November 7, 1981. Pianist Fred Hersch, who performs at the Village Vanguard through Feb. 27, shares memories of Henderson here.

Fred also performs on Show #1 with our host, drummer Matt Wilson. Click here to explore more shows and web extras. 

“Playing with Joe Henderson was like going to graduate school,” says Fred Hersch.

The Cincinnati-born pianist moved to New York City in 1977, and like many aspiring jazz musicians, he frequented clubs all over the city to hear the improvisers he loved.

Hersch wasted no time at going to check out - and hopefully to get a chance to play with - tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson. At the time, Henderson had Joanne Brackeen playing piano in his band.

In 1979, Hersch was playing in Art Farmer's band when the trumpeter teamed up with Henderson to record Yama. The album features pieces by Clare Fischer, Joe Zawinul, Don Grolnick, Mike Mainieri, and even The Bee Gees!

This was Fred's first time playing with the saxophonist, so he jumped at an opportunity to meet him in the studio before the recording session.

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Album cover art for Yama (CTI, 1979)

The same week as the session, Henderson had a gig at Seventh Avenue South – a Greenwich Village club run by the musical brothers Michael and Randy Brecker – and he needed a pianist.

“I guess Joanne was busy, and she vouched for me,” Hersch recalls. “From then until about 1988/1989, I played with Joe whenever he came to New York – at the Vanguard, Seventh Avenue South, Fat Tuesday’s – and did some road gigs with him."

On these gigs, the band usually chose from a dozen or so tunes, which included “Invitation,” “Serenity,” “Black Narcissus,” “Recorda-Me,” “Relaxin' at Camarillo,” “Beatrice,” “Good Morning Heartache,” “Round Midnight,” “Ask Me Now,” and “Inner Urge.” A set might only include three tunes, so that Henderson could stretch out.

“He would play epic-length solos,” Hersch says. “They were so creative and told such great stories."

“The rhythm section varied, but many times it was Ron Carter and Al Foster,” Hersch recalls. “I had to pinch myself a few times getting to play with a band like that when I was in my very early 20s.”

Photo by Steve J. Sherman

“I learned so much," says Hersch. "We didn't talk about music that much, but in those days of no technology but an answering machine, we would occasionally have late-night wide-ranging chats when he called from San Francisco." 

"His nickname was “The Phantom,” as he had a habit of showing up late (or not at all) - and you could never reach him when you needed to.  But all was forgiven when he picked up the horn - he was one of the all-time greats.”

Hersch performs with his current group at New York's Village Vanguard from February 18 through 23, and solo through February 27.

Support comes from the National Endowment for the Arts, New Jersey State Council on the Arts and WBGO.

Playdate funders

Produced for WBGO by Alexander Ariff,
with Becca Pulliam and Duke Markos, Executive Producer Josh Jackson.

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