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Fletcher Henderson and “Christopher Columbus”

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Fletcher Henderson’s “Grand Terrace” band of 1936

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I can’t let Columbus Day go by without paying homage to the Chu Berry/Andy Razaf song that was a “novelty hit” for Fats Waller and the theme song of Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra.  Recorded and performed by countless artists from Louis Armstrong to Lawrence Welk, Jeffrey Magee, author of The Uncrowned King of Swing:  Fletcher Henderson and Big Band Jazz, tells the story of the song’s origins, and how it became “another focal point of frustration to those around [Henderson].”

Excerpted from The Uncrowned King of Swing:  Fletcher Henderson and Big Band Jazz, by Jeffrey Magee [Oxford]

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[While the recordings of “Grand Terrace Stomp” and “Jangled Nerves”] “capture [Fletcher Henderson’s] Grand Terrace band’s outstanding and unique qualities…it was “Christopher Columbus” that became more closely associated with the band, and with Henderson in particular, than any other. “Christopher Columbus” represents a familiar musical phenomenon: a tune for which Henderson receives both too much credit and too little. It became a hit record for Henderson’s band, and in fact, became Henderson’s theme song, framing his performances up to his last appearance in the early 1950s. But this “Henderson” tune became better known and better played in [Benny] Goodman’s band, which in turn also made its main riff even more famous as a passage in one of Goodman’s most popular flag-wavers “Sing, Sing, Sing,” arranged not by Henderson but by Jimmy Mundy. And, following another pattern in his career, when Henderson had a chance to build on the tune’s success, he failed to do so.

On top of that, the tune leaves a confusing legacy of conflicting attributions. According to [Walter C.] Allen, the tune originated as a “bawdy song” called “Cristoforo Columbo,” but the popular instrumental version began with a saxophone riff developed by Chu Berry, to which Horace Henderson added a brass countermelody — or was it Roy Eldridge? Fletcher’s band then began playing an arrangement at the Grand Terrace — the arrangement that Goodman soon picked up and played across town at the Congress Hotel. Solicited for a written version by Chicago publisher Joe Davis, Fletcher asked Horace to prepare a stock arrangement based on the version Fletcher’s band was playing at the Grand Terrace. Horace apparently submitted a version crediting himself and Berry as co-composers. Davis then published the arrangement under the names of Leon Berry, as sole composer, and Larry Clinton, as arranger, with lyrics by Andy Razaf, the lyricist of “Honeysuckle Rose” among other hit songs. Horace received no official credit. “Chu got $300,” Allen writes, “Fletcher got $100, but poor Horace got NOTHING.” Nor did Roy Eldridge, who said the “brass parts” were his idea. Meanwhile, bandleader Jimmie Lunceford claimed that the tune’s original riff developed within his own band. Others have made similar claims for parts of the tune. The problem remains that Walter C. Allen, who has traces the tune’s origins and attributions in some detail, does not cite the sources of his information, although certain details point to Horace himself. Indeed, Horace’s own account names Berry and himself as the creative forces behind the riffs. With Horace alone claiming credit for crafting the musical material into a complete piece. As so often happens in attempts to come to grips with Henderson’s work, Fletcher Henderson himself remains an essential but shadowy figure in the moment and material form of musical creation.

Another musical mystery of “Christopher Columbus” is how a piece whose two-voiced theme contains bone-jarring dissonances could sound so natural and become so popular.  On paper, “Christopher Columbus” looks unpromising, with its jauntily rising and falling bass line (saxes and trombones) set against a simple four-note descending figure played by the trumpets.  These opposing lines clash on strong beats; a major ninth on the third beat of the first measure followed on the next downbeat by a minor ninth — one of the most grating dissonances in western tonal music.  “Weird,” Horace Henderson called it with evident relish.

christopher columbus music

Yet the harmonic plan and song form were familiar to Henderson and his musicians, because “Christopher Columbus” is a modified rhythm-changes tune.  That is, it is yet another jazz standard based on the chords of the refrain of Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” which had formed the basis of Henderson’s earlier (and also somewhat confusingly attributed) “Yeah Man!” and “Hotter than ‘Ell.”  While its principal melody (the “A” section of the AABA form) is grounded on alternating tonic-dominant harmony simpler than its source, the bridge (“B”) comes straight from Gershwin.

“Christopher Columbus” occupied a central place in his repertory after the band took up residence at the Grand Terrace. In the summer of 1936, the Grand Terrace show featured singer Babe Matthews, who had replaced Billie Holiday after Holiday came to blows with the club’s dictatorial manager Ed Fox. (“I picked up an inkwell and bam, I threw it at him and threatened to kill him,” in the words of Holiday’s as-told-to autobiography Lady Sings the Blues.) For the show’s finale, the band played “Christopher Columbus” as several showgirls entered one by one and declared their vote for “king of swing.” The first girl would come out and nominate Duke Ellington. Another would enter and say, “I nominate Cab Calloway for king of swing.” A third would walk out and name Jimmie Lunceford. Finally, Matthews would come on and say, “I nominate Fletcher Henderson who made Christopher the thing. I think he should be crowned king of swing.” As the band continued to play, Matthews “would back up to the bandstand and get Fletcher, take him by the arm and…come down front.” At the time, Matthews had a lisp, meaning that the climactic word in her announcement came off as “thwing.” Much to her dismay, this attracted the derision of Henderson’s sidemen, including her childhood friend Roy Eldridge and the man who would later become her husband, trumpeter Joe Thomas. But the combination of hit song, feminine pulchritude, and a dramatic build-up of great names – all of which evoked the production values of the Ziegfeld Follies — proved to be a surefire closer that brought down the house. Other parts of the show came and went, according to Matthews, but the “Christopher Columbus” finale remained because it “stopped the show stone cold.”

“Christopher Columbus”‘s wide appeal beyond the Grand Terrace can be measured by several means. Several bands — and record companies — recognized the tune’s potential. Within a five-month span of 1936, thirteen bands recorded the piece on ten different labels, including one each in Paris and London. Five of those recordings ranked among the best-selling records of 1936 (by Henderson, Andy Kirk, Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, and Louis “King” Garcia). The piece thereafter became the Henderson orchestra’s theme song, beginning and ending its radio sets from the Grand Terrace. Allen cites a 1937 article claiming that “thanks to ‘Christopher Columbus,’ he [Henderson] has commanded as high as $2,000 for one night.” The piece became an economic boon for Henderson in a more unexpected way. A Chicago mugger released Henderson upon realizing he had held up “the man what plays Christopher Columbus.”

Besides being the Grand Terrace’s finale and a hit record, “Christopher Columbus” also inspired new songs. Two spinoffs capitalized on its success. One was Horace Henderson’s call-and-response tune, “Chris and His Gang,” in which variations on the two countermelodies can be heard in dialogue, spiked with an apt, witty quotation from “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.” The other was Jimmy Mundy’s famous arrangement of Louis Prima’s “Sing, Sing, Sing,” into which the Goodman band incorporated an accelerated, minor-mode version of “Christopher Columbus” with yet a third countermelody laced in by Mundy. The arrangement, with Gene Krupa’s primal pounding and Jess Stacy’s elegant piano solo, proved to be a highlight of the 1938 Carnegie hall concert, and the piece became as closely associated with Goodman as anything he ever played.

The fortunes of “Christopher Columbus” could have paved the way for further success for Henderson’s band. Joe Thomas recalled that “Fletcher was hot. Everyone was asking for him. Duke came by one night and told him. Fletcher should have gone out on the road then, [but] by the time he got ready…somebody else had something big, and Fletcher couldn’t get started.” Eldridge disdained Henderson for sharing his book, including “Christopher Columbus,” with Goodman. “If it had been me Benny Goodman wouldn’t have been broadcasting the same book,” Eldridge said. “Don’t forget that Henderson didn’t spend as much time rehearsing the band as Benny did.”

“Christopher Columbus,” then, makes an apt musical symbol for Henderson’s career. The tune emerged from a collaboration of musicians whose specific individual contributions remain obscure. It became popular, linked to Fletcher Henderson’s name, for many years. Benny Goodman, by then the “King of Swing” for most of the American public (despite what the Grand Terrace show might have claimed), adopted it and gave it a more polished rendering in an arrangement credited to Fletcher, although Horace played a key role in putting the arrangement on paper. The tune’s success offered Fletcher Henderson an opening through which to sustain and magnify his band and bandleading career. But at a moment when, for the first time, Henderson had found dual success as an arranger and a bandleader, he failed to jump on the opportunity, held back by what appeared to many to be an inscrutable passivity. It forms a moment of fulfillment that became another focal point of frustration to those around him.

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Excerpted from The Uncrowned King of Swing:  Fletcher Henderson and Big Band Jazz

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Jeffrey Magee

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Read our interview on Fletcher Henderson with Jeffrey Magee

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“Christopher Columbus” by Fletcher Henderson

Fats Waller

Benny Goodman