The news came last Sunday night, on my Facebook newsfeed. Unexpected, but first verified by the Soul Tracks website, and then, the LA Times. Wayne Henderson, jazz/funk innovator, co-founder of the Crusaders, producer of Ronnie Laws, Pleasure and Side Effect was dead. His son released the crushing news to the world.
Things have changed considerably since the ’70s; for the first time in its history, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inducted its current class, and didn’t include a single black artist. During the previous calendar year – for the first time in 55 years – not one black artist reached the number one spot on Billboard’s Pop Chart (a streak recently broken by Pharrell Williams’ Happy), Macklemore and Ryan Lewis (with their aptly named The Heist album) robbed Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy for Best Rap Album and then Tweeted apologies. And long time heritage, and pioneering black FM broadcast property, WBLS-FM, New York, “The Station With The Juice” has changed hands, and fallen out of the control of black owned Inner City Broadcasting, and into the hands of the Emmis Broadcasting Corporation. Clearly, we’re in a lot of trouble.
But in the America that I came of age in, jazz, funk and soul were viable businesses that sustained independently owned and operated labels, live venues, separate and autonomous divisions of corporately controlled record companies and got a lot of house parties thumpin’. In that world, Wayne Henderson was a star.
The big, burly, barrel chested trombonist with the recognizably rich tone was one of the standout voices of the Crusaders. Along with his high school friends, Joe Sample, Wilton Felder and Styx Hooper, they comprised one of the signature jazz/funk outfits of the day. Funky from the bottom up, and dripping in bluesy Texas barbecue sauce, those Southern Knights created an infectious sound, and released a string of singles and albums that were must haves.
But perhaps more importantly, Henderson left his mates in ’75 and set up At Home Productions, a jazz/funk fusion company that blazed. Ronnie Laws’ “Always There”, Side Effects vocal cover of the same track, “Let’s Dance”, “Joyous” and “Glide” by Pleasure were funky records that packed dance floors, played on R&B radio and caused consumers to fork over hard earned cash. Wayne Henderson had the feeling.
So another giant has left the stage, his legacy unheralded by those who are in the business of telling us what was hot, and few left to mourn his passing. But I was there, I was alive and I heard, felt and loved the music that he made. I am so saddened by his loss, I hope that he’s resting in peace. With his passing, heaven is a little funkier.