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Jazz Stalwart Hits High Notes of Musical Success at Long Last : Joe Henderson has long been a cult figure among musicians. Now, at 56, he is finally receiving wider acclaim.

January 20, 1994|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the past several years, the jazz marketing machinery has placed a premium on youth, sometimes promoting undercooked players with more time than talent on their side.

And, then, there is the story of Joe Henderson, straight out of the better-late-than-never file.

The warm and witty tenor saxophonist, now 56, has been a powerful figure and cult favorite among musicians and aficionados since he began making solo albums for the Blue Note label in the mid-1960s. After a stint with Blood, Sweat and Tears in the late '60s, he settled into a creatively fertile but humbler public profile.

Then, in the last two years, Henderson has burst on the scene with the intensity of an overnight sensation. His last two albums for the Verve label, "Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn" and "So Near, So Far (Musings for Miles)," have shot to the top of the jazz charts and helped earn him high placement in the magazine polls.

For an unprecedented two years in a row, Henderson has won the "triple crown" award in Down Beat magazine--Best Artist, Best Tenor Saxophonist and Best Album plaudits. A four-CD archival collection, "The Blue Note Years," was also just released, providing vital background material for consumers who think of Henderson as a "new" sensation.

Why the sudden explosion of attention? The strength of his recent albums has a lot to do with the success, and the fact that Henderson's style has had an identifiable impact on the current crop of young neo-hard-bop musicians on the scene.

But it may also be that this player, who decades ago was lavished with talent-deserving-wider-recognition accolades, has finally received his long-overdue just desserts. Could it be that there is justice after all in the jazz world?

Last weekend, Henderson--who has lived in San Francisco since the early '70s--was in Boston as a featured guest at the 21st annual conference of the International Assn. of Jazz Educators. He was slated to concertize with the all-star band from his "So Near, So Far" band--guitarist John Scofield, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Al Foster. After Boston, the road-worn player was on his way to New York City to play a recording date with young trumpeter Roy Hargrove.

This Sunday, Henderson makes his way to Ojai's Wheeler Hot Springs, his first appearance in the area, and it promises to be perhaps the most significant show yet in Wheeler's ongoing jazz concert series.

Henderson spoke from his hotel in Boston. In conversation, as in his improvisation, Henderson finds the most interesting path between two points, often taking tangential routes around a given subject.

Are you accustomed to being mobile and portable by now, traveling all the time?

The last year and a half has really changed. After a while, you kind of settle into a kind of a style. I figured, well, I'm usually working five or six months out of the year and the rest of the time, I'm just around San Francisco.

But then over the last year and a half, that plan that I just fell into over time got really disrupted, with all of these calls. They were great calls. Wow. I just wonder where they'd been all of this time. I didn't just start doing this, you know. You can look at me and tell that.

This would have been nice if it had come down about 30 years ago. But things never happen when they're supposed to happen, so you just have to go along with it when it's there. I'm just trying to do the best I can to keep up with everything.

As long as I get to places like this conference, this is great. This is worth it.

You really never made "commercial" jazz records, did you?

I picked up the dice there once or twice when everybody was doing that. And I come from that kind of a spirit.

I'm born right out of the loins of rock 'n' roll. Before that, it was rhythm and blues. That's where it all started for me, but that was a long time ago. These were some of the first sounds that went into my ears.

After that, I was within earshot of my brother's fantastic record collection, probably when I was about 7 years old. "Jazz at the Phil." It was Bird (Charlie Parker), Prez (Lester Young), Ben Webster, all these great players who were with the Phil that started going into my ears. That seems to be what I liked.

Even from that age?

Right. I didn't know what the hell I was doing at that time, but I knew that there was something there that was all right. I was trying to find my way around the saxophone on my own. By the time I got a little bit of mastery over these sounds that I was hearing, that got me so cranked up there, I don't think I've looked back since that point.

I got a chance to see some of these players when I was in my hometown of Lima, Ohio.

You came of age as a solo artist during the '60s, when you were with Blue Note. Was that a real high point in terms of a collective movement?

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