Luther Henderson (b. Kansas City, MO, March 14, 1919; d. New York City, July 28, 2003) was an African-American musical director, dance arranger, and orchestra composer.
Henderson’s parents were both teachers and both were musical. The family moved to the Sugar Hill section of Harlem when Henderson was four and became neighbors of Duke Ellington’s family. He learned the piano at an early age and won an amateur contest in Harlem as a teenager. His initial college route was in math, but after studying at City College of New York, he decided to audition at Juilliard and was accepted. He graduated in 1942 studying classical music. He decided early on to concentrate on arranging instead of composing or performing.
“I always tell people I was frightened by Art Tatum at an early age,” he told Associated Press some years ago, “Then Oscar Peterson came along.” Drafted into the Navy during World War II, he became an arranger for the Navy band stationed at Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois. The band, which included jazz trumpeter Clark Terry, traveled with a loyal following in the military community. Ellington, who would come to refer to Henderson as his classical arm, had him create symphonic orchestrations and arrangements for his band. He also helped Billy Strayhorn orchestrate Ellington’s musical Beggar’s Holiday, which played on Broadway in 1946, the only one of the bandleader’s musicals to do so.
After the war, Henderson worked as pianist and musical director for Lena Horne. Years later he would work with Horne again as musical consultant and arranger for her Broadway show Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music. He worked on projects with Strayhorn in the 1950s, and it was Strayhorn who helped Henderson get work in musical theater, which led to Henderson’s employment as dance arranger for the 1958 Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song. From the 1950s on, Henderson worked extensively in television on such programs as The Ed Sullivan Show and The Bell Telephone Hour. He also worked on specials for Dean Martin, Carol Burnett, Andy Williams, and Victor Borge. He was nominated for an Emmy® for his work on the television special Ain’t Misbehavin’.
Throughout his life, he explored the commonalities of classical music and jazz. In 1999, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle, recorded Henderson’s orchestrations of Ellington’s music under the title Classic Ellington. The program was repeated at Carnegie Hall in September 2000, with the St. Luke’s Orchestra conducted by Rattle including performances by jazz figures Clark Terry, Dianne Reeves, and Regina Carter. For more than two decades, Henderson worked with the Canadian Brass, eventually arranging more than 100 tunes for the group. The group’s CD of Ellington’s music, Take the A Train, was nominated for a Grammy® in 2000. Henderson also recorded six albums for Columbia Records as leader of the Luther Henderson Orchestra.
Shortly before his death, he learned that the National Endowment had named him as NEA Jazz Master for the Arts. Luther Henderson died at 84 after a long battle with cancer, survived by three children, two step-children, two grandchildren, one step-grandchild, and one great-grandchild.