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Luther Henderson, 84; Jazz, Musical Theater Arranger

August 02, 2003|Jon Thurber | Times Staff Writer

Luther Henderson, a prolific orchestrator and arranger well known in the jazz world and on Broadway, has died. He was 84.

Henderson died Tuesday of cancer at a hospice in Manhattan, family members said.

Valued in the world of musical theater for bringing a jazz sensibility to show music, Henderson was an orchestrator, dance arranger and music supervisor for more than 40 Broadway or off-Broadway shows, many of which went on to be hits.

He orchestrated and co-composed the music for "Jelly's Last Jam" and was nominated for a Tony Award. For "Ain't Misbehavin' " he was the original pianist as well as orchestrator, arranger and musical supervisor.

As a dance arranger and/or orchestrator, his credits include "Flower Drum Song," "Do Re Mi," "Funny Girl," and "No, No Nanette."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 06, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Henderson obituary -- In the obituary of musical theater arranger Luther Henderson in Saturday's California section, the name of composer Jule Styne was printed as Julev Stynev.

His other Tony nomination came for orchestration in "Play On!"

Born in Kansas City, Mo., Henderson's parents were both teachers and both were musical. The family moved to the Sugar Hill section of Harlem when Henderson was 4 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 direction was in math, not music, but after studying at City College of New York, he decided to audition at Juilliard and was accepted. He studied classical music there and graduated in 1942.

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 U.S. Navy band stationed at Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois. The band, which included jazz trumpeter Clark Terry, traveled the country and attracted 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. Henderson also helped Billy Strayhorn, the legendary Ellington collaborator and composer, 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 for several years 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 by introducing him to choreographer Carol Haney. That introduction led to Henderson's employment as dance arranger for the 1958 Rodgers & Hammerstein musical "Flower Drum Song."

From the 1950s on, Henderson also 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.' "

In an interview with the publication Back Stage some years ago, Henderson said he was fortunate to have continually found work in his field without having to take a day job to supplement his income.

"I came out of jazz, under the aegis of Duke Ellington. That was my affiliation," he said. "And truthfully, I doubt I would have been hired by Julev Stynev or Richard Rodgers had I not been black. Yes, I had talent. But I represented the culture they were looking for. Being black was an asset."

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 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 he had been named an NEA Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts.

He is survived by his wife, theater director and actress Billie Allen Henderson; two sons, Denson Henderson of Los Angeles and Dr. Luther L. Henderson III of Culver City; a daughter, Melanie Henderson of Los Angeles; a stepson, Duane Harper Grant of New York City; and a stepdaughter, Carolyn Grant of Orlando, Fla. He is also survived by two granddaughters and a great-grandson.

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