SAN FRANCISCO—Joe Henderson, a tenor saxophonist known for his inventive improvisation and lyrical contemporary jazz style who was late to achieve the widespread fame he had long deserved, has died at age 64.
Henderson, who earned three Grammys in the early 1990s when he was in his mid-50s, died Saturday of heart failure in San Francisco where he had lived for more than 25 years. He suffered a stroke in 1998, which ended his public performing career, and he also struggled with emphysema.
Billy Strayhorn with "Lush Life," Miles Davis with "So Near, So Far" and Antonio Carlos Jobim with "Double Rainbow."
In that better-late-than-never rocket ride to fame, Henderson also won Down Beat magazine's "triple crown" -- best artist, best tenor saxophonist and best album listings -- two years in a row.
Asked in 1994 if his career had come to fruition in the previous two years, Henderson told the Los Angeles Times: "There have been more gigs and that kind of thing, and the remunerative part of that equation has gotten to the point to where it could have been -- should have been -- all of the time. You're talking to a pretty pleased person here. ... My brain is just buzzing as a result of this late recognition."
Frequently compared to the legendary Stan Getz, yet unique and instantly identifiable for the warmth and variation of his tone, Henderson never left the microphone without raising his tenor saxophone in a silent salute to his listeners. That small gesture symbolized the connection he was able to make with jazz audiences, a warmly intimate reflection of the man as much as his music.
In recent years, Henderson became one of the first of his generation of players to create thematically oriented albums. In addition to his tributes to Strayhorn, Davis and Jobim, he recorded his jazz interpretation of George Gershwin's classic opera "Porgy and Bess" and the "Joe Henderson Big Band" album, all for Verve.
Also respected as a composer, Henderson created such tunes as "Recordame," "Black Narcissus," "Inner Urge," "Isotope," "The Bad Game" and "Caribbean Fire Dance."
Born in Lima, Ohio, Henderson came from a musical family and grew up absorbing the recorded sounds of Charlie Parker, Lester Young and Ben Webster. He also developed an appreciation for classical music, including the works of Bartok and Stravinsky.
A self-taught saxophonist from an early age, Henderson studied music at Kentucky State College and Wayne State University in Detroit, where he turned professional. He played with Sonny Stitt and then led his own band in Detroit.
Military service in 1960-62 meant touring the world as part of an Army band.
Afterward, he performed in Baltimore and then New York, working with Jack McDuff and co-leading a group with Kenny Dorham. He recorded with Blue Note in the 1960s, and also performed successively with Horace Silver, Andrew Hill, Jazz Communicators and Freddie Hubbard, Louis Hayes and the Herbie Hancock Sextet.
He worked briefly with Blood, Sweat & Tears in the early 1970s and then moved to San Francisco where he played, recorded and taught music.