In the early 1970s, jazz was in the midst of another identity crisis. Tags like “swing,” “bop” and “free” had already stretched the music’s definition over the years, but when Miles Davis fused the openness of jazz with rock production and instrumentation on his landmark 1970 double record Bitches Brew, it was met with huge commercial success—and a sizable backlash from the jazz establishment.
Eddie Henderson, then an obscure 29-year-old horn player living in the Bay Area, would become one of jazz fusion’s most compelling creators. “Miles Davis, and also Coltrane, took the music to the ozone,” the trumpeter says now from his home in New York. “It sort of took off from there.”
Though his parents were both successful entertainers and Henderson played trumpet from a young age (a lifelong overachiever, he later served in the Air Force and was also a champion figure skater), he took a more pragmatic course and played gigs to pay for medical school. It wasn’t until a chance fill-in with Davis protégé Herbie Hancock in 1969 that Henderson’s musical career began to blossom. He left a two-year medical residency to join Hancock’s band full-time. “I never thought I’d get to play with my idols,” Henderson says. “It changed my life.”
His modesty is misleading. Despite joining Hancock on the eve of Hancock’s most adventurous record to date—the 1970 album Mwandishi, which found each band member taking a Swahili name (Henderson’s was “Mganga”) and playing soul-searching, futuristic and funky extended jams—Henderson is a force; at once aching and psychedelic, lending warmth to a sound that seems in danger of shooting into cold prog-jazz territory. The record would kick off a creative period for Henderson, who released three albums with Hancock and two as a bandleader between 1970 and 1973. While “fusion” is stereotyped as crassly commercial, these records—especially Henderson’s own lost classic, Realization—stand up today as deep, trippy collections of inspired jazz. “It was pushing the creative envelope; it was something new,” Henderson says of the Mwandishi group (most of whom played on his and Hancock’s early-’70s records). “It was really on a high spiritual level. [The band members] studied all the same books about Eastern spiritual philosophy, and I think the music kind of reflected our collective spiritual strivings.”
In 1973, Hancock disbanded the Mwandishi band in favor of the (trumpetless) Headhunters group and widespread fame. Henderson continued to make great records of his own (Sunburst, a break-heavy favorite among hip-hop producers, being the finest). Then came disco, which replaced the spiritual with the danceable and destroyed just about everything in its path. Henderson became an accidental champion of the music when British DJs mistakenly played his cut “Cyclops” at 45 speed. “When I first heard it, I thought it sounded absurd,” he says now. “But in the context of disco, it was right there in the pocket! So I said ‘cool,’ and learned how to play it like that.”
In 1979, Henderson took a 15-year hiatus from releasing records as a frontman. Some of that time was spent in private-practice medicine, though he found time to play with greats like Pharaoh Sanders, Dexter Gordon and McCoy Tyner. Nowadays, he teaches music at the Juilliard School in New York. His Portland performance—featuring local pianist Peter Boe as well as bassist Essiet Okon Essiet and drummer Sylvia Cuenca, both established New York players—will probably draw on more recent material, including cuts from his excellent (and more straightforward) 2010 disc, For All We Know. But Henderson still thinks fondly on his early days with Hancock. “I was a little sad to see it go,” he says of the fusion era. “But everything changes, and you wouldn’t want everything to stay the same. That would be boring.”
His performances, he says, are still spiritual: “The thoughts you get when you improvise—they come right through from above and you manifest them through your instrument.” It’s the same energy he felt as a doctor, he says: “The human body is a divine creation. Music is a healing force.”
SEE IT: Eddie Henderson plays Jimmy Mak’s on Friday, Jan. 7. 8 pm. $15-$20. 21+.