With the rapid and draconian improvement in technology as a direct result of the digital revolution, culturally significant products can now be re-evaluated with both a new eye and ear, and from a fresh perspective since we have infinitely more information at our disposal with which to make informed decisions. That is reflected in cinema not only by the advent of Blu-Ray, but also in the cleaning up of imagery and sound via 4K and High Definition more generally, and ever new improvements are likely to be coming round the corner. In the field of music, however. our understanding of how genres have evolved is more limited in that precious few images of the early history of jazz are still available, though the pioneering work of documentary historian Ken Burns has made deep inroads into that field. Still, it is to the audio sound that we primarily turn, and this is where this box set, in its myriad formats. has proven to be indispensable tool over the decades. Originally, a 4 LP vinyl set for Columbia records back in 1961, then in the late 1970s, a condensed double LP for Smithsonian, it re-emerged in the new CD era of the 1990s, with some indisputable sound limitations, and these require a brief examination before the music itself is analysed. At least two master tapes exist, one of which was by the Columbia records engineer who sought to edit out ticks, but in the process removed part of the tape. One effect of this is that the music moves forward in places. A second master exists and was used for a re-issue on the Timeless label. Here, the engineer tried to remove surface noise by technical means, and this has led to an endless debate on the extent to which original music should be tampered with (modern jazz fans will remember the debates on the early CD remastering of Miles Davis’ Columbia work and in particular the tinny sound of the drums in comparison to the original vinyl). While it is not the aim of this review to split proverbial hairs, it is nonetheless instructive to note that early jazz music with its inherent sound limitations, poses dilemmas for budding re-issue labels of maintaining the integrity of the recording, while seeking to enhance the quality of the sound. Digital remastering can, on occasion, take away some of the very essence of the music and leave in its wake a more ‘sanatised’ version.
What does any of this have to do with Fletcher Henderson? Along with Jelly Roll Morton, Fletcher Henderson was a musical leader and visionary, and who, moreover, is a prime contender for the sobriquet, ‘Father of swing’, and of the truly great jazz arrangers. Chronologically, the music covers the period between 1923 and 1938, but it is the 1920s and early 1930s when Henderson was really in his prime, and historically the music takes on additional significance because it accompanied an era of gangsters and hipsters, and that is reflected also in film soundtracks of the period. Fletcher Henderson’s music was highly influential on a younger generation of band leaders, including the debonair Edward ‘Duke’ Ellington and Bennie Moten. Equally important, though, some of the great individualist musicians who would go on to dominate the swing era and beyond served useful and indeed key apprenticeships in the band. They included saxophonists of the calibre of Benny Carter, Don Redman and Ben Webster among many others, trumpeters of distinction including Henry’ Red’ Allen, and at least two other figures who graced the band at one time of another. One such individual was guitarist and banjo player, Clarence Holiday, father of a daughter who would make her indelible presence felt in the world of jazz, Billie Holiday. The other was a young pianist who would use his experience in the Fletcher Henderson band as a stepping stone to a career as a very different type of band leader, taking on Afro-Futurist and other modernistic influences, through remaining true to the swing era. His name? Herman ‘Sonny’ Blount, aka Sun Ra. Of the original selection, this latest CD anthology adds another ten bonus tracks, and offers a diametrically opposing visual picture from the era to say the work of Paul White. In essence, it is the authentic story of how swing music progressed and as such is priceless to our understanding of what was to follow.
In sum, then, five stars for the quality of the music, five stars for the historical significance of the music, five stars for the wonderfully annotated and illustrated twenty-six page booklet, and only the minor blemish of some of the track transfers that, as a result of original surface noise being removed, are not exactly what was intended. Yes, ideally, one would like these engineering issues to be resolved to the satisfaction of all, but turn round the equation and ask yourself a simple question: would you want to be without this music, and thus be deprived of one of the truly great practitioners and innovators of big band jazz? If the answer is a resounding no, then this box set is still compulsory listening.