“Happy as the Day Is Long” (1934) Fletcher Henderson with Keg Johnson, Ben Webster and Henry “Red” Allen.

“Happy as the Day is Long”

Composed by Harold Arlen; arranged by Benny Carter.

Recorded by Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra for Decca on September 11, 1934.

Fletcher Henderson directing: Russell Smith, first trumpet; Irving “Mouse” Randolph and Henry “Red” Allen, trumpets; Claude Jones and Keg Johnson, trombones; Hilton Jefferson, first alto saxophone; Russell Procope, alto saxophone; William C. “Buster” Bailey and Benjamin F. “Ben” Webster, tenor saxophones; Horace Henderson, piano; Lawrence Lucie, guitar; Elmer James, bass; and Walter Johnson, drums.

The story: The history of jazz and swing is full of the names of brilliant musicians who were very talented, and who achieved enormous success in their music, yet were rather unsuccessful in the commercial marketplace. Fletcher Henderson (1897-1952) was one such musician. Although he was a pianist, his performances on that instrument were mediocre at best. (His brother Horace is that the keyboard for this performance.) But, early-on, his excellence as a reader of music and his great understanding of music positioned him to be of great value to people in the music business, especially as an accompanist for singers. Later, he had a knack for surrounding himself with great musicians and facilitating exciting performances. And then there was Henderson’s great ability as an arranger, something that emerged quite a few years after he began his musical career. By any measure, Fletcher Henderson was a seminal figure in the development of swing.

Probably the most insightful essay about Fletcher Henderson as a man was written by Joan Swallow Reiter, and is included in the book that accompanied the Time-Life swing era recreations The Swing Era…1936-1937 (1970). The most detailed, scholarly and complete analysis of Henderson’s life and music is to be found in the book The Uncrowned King of Swing…Fletcher Henderson and Big Band Jazz, Oxford University Press (2005), by Jeffrey Magee. Although Magee’s book does contain many examples in musical notation, and can get a bit technical, unlike some other musicians who have written books, he also has great insight into the history of the music. He truly understands why the historical context of Henderson’s music is so important to understanding it more deeply and fully.

One of the most revealing statements in Magee’s book is contained in the book’s introduction on page 2, tellingly entitled: Out of the Jazz Tradition. “Henderson’s career illustrates that ‘jazz’ remains inseparable from the matrix of popular music styles, commercial circumstances, and social activities that the concept of ‘the jazz tradition’ (as advocated by writers Martin Williams and Ross Russell), segregates from musical artistry.” Although this statement seems rather self-evident to many people today, in past decades, a number of writers asserted that jazz was in essence “an autonomous art form…subject to its own aesthetic principles and laws of development, rather than to forces of the marketplace.” As a result jazz musicians are portrayed as “similarly high-minded, pursuing their artistic vision in serene disregard of commercial considerations.” (1) Musicians in (this posited) jazz tradition, then, form a pantheon of artists.” (At right: Fletcher Henderson – early 1920s.)

My view on this is that the history of jazz tells us clearly that all of the musicians who in the past worked (and indeed those who still work) in the jazz milieu were/are acutely aware of the need to work where and whenever possible so that they could/can make a living. A corollary to this is the persistent market reality that even at the height of the swing era, when jobs for musicians were plentiful, the supply of musicians still far exceeded (and continues to exceed) the demand for their services. Therefore, within this historical context, we can begin to understand more about the music created before, during and after the swing era.

Fletcher Henderson (2), along with his younger brother Horace, and their sister Irma, was born and raised in Cuthbert, Georgia at a time (approximately the beginning of the twentieth century), when rigid racial segregation was pervasive there. An insidious by-product of this separate existence was the harsh reality that educational and cultural opportunities were greatly inferior for people of color in the Gothic Deep South. Nevertheless, there were people in the Afro-American communities of the Deep South that somehow found a way to cultivate in their children a solid education in both academic and cultural matters. Fletcher Henderson’s parents, Fletcher Hamilton Henderson, Sr. and Ozie Lena Henderson were such people. All three of their children were well educated, and could read music fluently and play the piano.

Fletcher took a four year degree in chemistry from Atlanta University, graduating in 1920. He came to New York to pursue an advanced degree in chemistry, but found that “…New York was using up his savings faster than he had expected, (so) he took a job as a pianist and song demonstrator with Pace and Handy, music publishers. The work was so congenial, and the prospects for a career so much brighter, that he never went back to chemistry.”(3)

There is much more to the story of Fletcher Henderson that will be told here at swingandbeyond.com in the future. But for now, I want to present an astonishing recording made by Henderson’s band in 1934, “Happy as the Day is Long.” Despite the brilliant performance of the Henderson band on this recording, soon after it was made, the band broke up. Paradoxically, this adverse development put Henderson in a position where he was available to help a young musician who had only recently organized a band, but had gotten a huge break: being featured with his band on a sponsored network radio show.The young bandleader’s job on the new radio show would be to provide swinging music.His problem was that his band didn’t really swing, and had almost no music in his band’s book of arrangements that could swing. As if by magic, Fletcher Henderson appeared to help the young bandleader by selling him many arrangements that he and others had arranged which had been played (and swung) by the Henderson band for years. The radio show, which has long ago entered the annals of jazz history, was the three-hour NBC Saturday night marathon “Let’s Dance.” The young bandleader was Benny Goodman. (Above left: 1935 ad for the “Let’s Dance” radio show. Notice that there is no mention of either NBC or Benny Goodman.)

Another paradox that emerges from the early Fletcher Henderson-Benny Goodman relationship surrounds the fact that Goodman did not take the complex yet swinging Benny Carter arrangement of “Happy as the Day is Long,” into his book of arrangements. (Above right: Benny Carter – 1934.) This is odd because Goodman, from his earliest days as a bandleader, was well-known as a martinet who would rehearse a band until the musicians were ready to drop to get a letter-perfect performance, no matter how difficult (or simple) the music was to play. Fletcher Henderson was in many ways the opposite as a bandleader. Despite the fact that Henderson always had excellent musicians in his band, often their recorded performances left a lot to be desired in terms of ensemble unity. Coleman Hawkins, the legendary “father of the tenor saxophone,” and a magnificent all-around musician, was a member of the Henderson band for many years. He recalled how the Henderson band performed: first in public; then and on recordings: “Fletcher’s band had some of the worst starts you ever heard in your life. We’d be starting off–half the band would be looking for the music…That used to happen regularly…But when it got down to the core of the music, when it’s supposed to be sounding good, everybody was together and everybody was playing like mad.” Hawkins expressed the general opinion that the Henderson band was “sloppy” in many of its live performances. But on its recordings, he thought they sounded even worse: “The majority of other bands sound 100% better on records than they do in person. Fletcher’s band was just the opposite. The records sound terrible, …like cats and dogs fighting.” (4)

While there are certainly some instances of the Henderson band sounding a bit rough around the edges in some of their recorded performances, there were nevertheless many recordings made by them that are stunningly performed. One such is “Happy as the Day is Long.” The arrangement was written by Benny Carter (1907-2003), alto saxophonist and arranger supreme, who like many other giants of jazz, received valuable musical experience in Fletcher Henderson’s band. Carter had a long and distinguished career in music, but for purposes of this post, it is most relevant to discuss one of the trademarks of Carter’s arrangements: their saxophone soli (ensemble passages where the saxophones are featured). Quite a few of Carter’s arrangements appeared in the books of the better swing bands of the 1930s, and many of them like “Symphony in Riffs” and “Devil’s Holiday,” include saxophone soli played at a brisk tempo. In the world of swing, when a band could play and swing a Benny Carter arrangement well, they felt they had arrived.

The music: In addition to the remarkable saxophone soli in Carter’s arrangement of “Happy as the Day is Long,” there is a good bit of tricky trumpet tongueing in the melody exposition of the first chorus. (Carter was also a very good trumpeter.) Full credit for performing this passage well must be given to the Henderson trumpet section, under the inspired lead of Russell Smith. Trombonist Keg Johnson has the first solo, an intensely rhythmic excursion against tasty reed chords and brass bursts. Then Ben Webster steps up and delivers a fluid solo on tenor saxophone. (By the time this recording was made, Hawkins had left the Henderson band and gone to Europe, where he would stay for five years.) Although Webster, through most of the 1930s, was a Hawkins acolyte in terms of his overall sound, his playing was constantly evolving, especially rhythmically. Webster was definitely among the select musicians of the 1930s who could swing, as he demonstrates here. The final solo is by trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen. He too was moving toward a more flowing, swinging rhythmic approach. (Above left: Ben Webster and Fletcher Henderson – mid 1930s. Red Allen is shown below right in the mid-1930s.)

But the centerpiece of this arrangement is undoubtedly the saxophone soli, superbly played by Henderson’s saxophone quartet, Russell Procope on alto, Buster Bailey and Ben Webster on tenors, and the brilliant lead of Hilton Jefferson. This is a jazz improvisation devised by Carter, very much like a solo he would play on his alto saxophone, scored for four saxophones.

“Happy as the Day is Long was composed by Harold Arlen (there is a lyric by Ted Koehler), for the 1933 Cotton Club Parade, a musical revue that was presented at Harlem’s Cotton Club, the launching pad for the bands of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. The star of that show was the dancer Henry “Rubberlegs” Williams.

The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Notes and links:

(1) Magee on page 1 of his book quotes Scott DeVeaux’s The Birth of Bebop, page 13.

(2) Fletcher Henderson was born as James Fletcher Henderson. He changed his name legally to Fletcher Hamilton Henderson, Jr. because of his high regard for his father.

(3) The quote is from Joan Swallow Reiter’s essay referred to above. The Handy in Pace and Handy was W.C Handy, composer of “St. Louis Blues.”  The Pace was Harry Pace, a black Atlanta entrepreneur Henderson had heard about while he was at Atlanta University. Pace had recently moved to New York and had begun a number of business enterprises there.

(4) This quote is on page 126 of the Magee book; it is from an interview of Coleman Hawkins that appeared in Richard Hadlock’s book “Jazz Masters of the 20s.”

Here is a link to Fletcher Henderson’s recording of “Christopher Columbus”:



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