Wayne Maurice Henderson was born on September 24, 1939, in Houston, Texas. From the sixth grade, Henderson studied trombone and while he was still in his teens, became one of the founding members of The Jazz Crusaders, whose other founding members included pianist Joe Sample, saxophonist/bassist Wilton Felder and drummer Nesbert ”Stix” Hooper.
Henderson, who is strongly influenced by J.J. Johnson and Slide Hampton, relocated in 1961 with his fellow Jazz Crusaders to Los Angeles, where they immediately secured a record contract with Dick Bock’s Pacific Jazz record label, issuing their first album Freedom Sound, and started on an amazing schedule of studio work in addition to an exhaustive West Coast touring schedule, together and with other bands.
The Jazz Crusaders recorded frequently throughout the sixties, scoring one or two hits along the way. But it was Wayne Henderson who first went his own way, waxing two mighty powerful albums of his own under the moniker of The Freedom Sounds featuring Wayne Henderson, People Get Ready (Atlantic, 1967) and Soul Sound System (Atlantic, 1968).
By 1970, Hugh Masekela had convinced The Jazz Crusaders to drop the “Jazz” from their name and the group recorded more electrically-oriented funk-jazz and soul instrumentals for the Chisa, MoWest, Blue Thumb and ABC labels.
Henderson played with The Crusaders through Those Southern Knights (Blue Thumb, 1976), but he had already begun producing – rather than just merely playing on – sessions for such acts as Ebony Rhythm Funk Campaign, Side Effect, Pleasure and Ronnie Laws, all of whom were more or less Henderson discoveries.
After tiring of years on the road, being in the studios all the time was something Henderson wanted to do. Henderson left The Crusaders, formed his own production company, At-Home Productions, and surrounded himself with a small stable of session players and set out on recording a number of jazz, r&b and crossover acts for a variety of labels throughout the 70s and 80s.
Most of this stuff seemed beyond me at the time and for many years after. Perhaps it is because I have assumed it was so popularly oriented. Indeed, Henderson seemed to be called in to turn an obscure jazz artist into a seller (Gabor Szabo, Billy Cobham, Willie Bobo, Hiroshima and Chico Hamilton) or someone who could provide a hit edge to an r&b start-up (Blacksmoke, Dayton and Rebbie Jackson).
Henderson had already proven himself a particularly crafty composer/arranger, particularly after The Crusaders dropped the “Jazz” from their name, blending credible jazz performance with catchy, soulful lines in such Crusaders classics as “Mosadi,” “Take It Or Leave It,” “Where There’s A Will There’s A Way,” “Rainbow Visions” “Sugar Cane,” “Unsung Heroes,” “Keep That Same Old Feeling,” “Scratch,” “Stomp and Buck Dance,” “Super Stuff,” “Southern Comfort” and “Whispering Pines.” (It’s interesting to note, too, that many of The Crusaders’ album titles of this period come from Wayne Henderson compositions).
But as the 1980s loomed, the music industry changed - a lot. Listeners rebelled against disco. Jazz fans stopped listening to – and buying – fusion. For Henderson, the hits dried up. He rarely produced more than one of any upstart artist he was hired to cultivate or motivate. The names became more obscure, the music became more chart-oriented and even the major labels no longer cottoned to what he brought to a production.
Henderson seemed to vanish in the mid-eighties, along with much of the music he produced, his glory years (1975-80) long behind him. He resurfaced in the 1990s on a series of CDs under the moniker of Wayne Henderson and the Next Crusade. His Crusaders pals also more or less went their own way by this point too, with only Joe Sample getting a new turn at his own career.
Wayne Henderson resurfaced in the 21st century helming an edition of The Jazz Crusaders that angered his former musical partners to no end, with lots of litigation and bad vibes flying in the air. Henderson’s Jazz Crusaders has welcomed back many of the At-Home players like Ronnie Laws, Bobby Lyle and Marlon McLain and even, on occasion, real Jazz Crusader Wilton Felder.
But Wayne Henderson was not included on either of the Joe Sample-led Crusaders discs Rural Renewal (PRA/Verve, 2003) or Live in Japan 2003 (PRA, 2008). Not one to gloat, it seems as if in 2007, Henderson took a position with the California College of Music in Pasadena, California.
What follows here is a handful of Wayne Henderson’s At-Home Productions – mostly on the jazz side of the coin – that I’ve been able to hear anew and appreciate for the very first time. Sadly, very few of these are available on CD. But all are worth hearing.
Dust Yourself Off - Pleasure (Fantasy, 1975): This Portland, Oregon, based unit combined funky R&B with soulful jazz flourishes in a way not too dissimilar from The Blackbyrds or Tower of Power. In the mid 70s, bands like this were all over the map, but only those like Earth, Wind & Fire, Ohio Players, The Commodores and Kool and the Gang, all of whom went deep into Top 40 pop territory, made more than a cult impression. It was Grover Washington, Jr. who suggested that Wayne Henderson check out Pleasure. When he did, he got them signed to Fantasy Records, where Henderson – who was soon to leave The Crusaders - oversaw their next four albums. Additionally, Pleasure served as the At-Home Productions back-up band, many of whom are heard throughout all of Wayne Henderson’s productions. The band’s debut, Dust Yourself Off, has a lot of decent party funk, laced with occasionally jazz-y overtones (“Straight Ahead”), but nothing exceedingly memorable rises to the surface. Pleasure was never as sophisticated as, say, EW&F or the Ohio Players, but were certainly as good as any of these bands at what they did. And, like The Crusaders, became competent and sought-after session players for other people’s music. Highlights: “Dust Yourself Off” (an instrumental), “Straight Ahead” and “Let’s Dance.”
Pressure Sensitive - Ronnie Laws & Pressure (Blue Note, 1975): After years of playing behind Quincy Jones, Ramsey Lewis, Hugh Masekela, Earth, Wind & Fire and his older brother, Hubert, Ronnie Laws stepped out front for his first album, Pressure Sensitive, in 1975. Wayne Henderson, long a supporter and friend to Laws, produced, providing the Grover Washington, Jr.-influenced saxophonist with a sound that recalls early 70s era Crusaders. Indeed, Crusaders Joe Sample and Wilton Felder are among the players present. There’s no real At-Home vibe detectable here and despite some good players in the mix (including Pleasure, known here for some reason as Pressure), not too much happens after the well-known and very Crusaders-sounding “Always There” makes its case. Highlights: “Always There” (written by Ronnie Laws and William Jeffery), “Nothing to Lose” (by William Jeffery) and Henderson’s surprisingly Stuff-sounding “Why Do You Laugh At Me” (originally performed by The Jazz Crusaders on Old Socks New Shoes New Socks Old Shoes).
Accept No Substitutes - Pleasure (Fantasy, 1976): The At-Home Productions house band, Pleasure, hones their sound a bit here, but, strangely comes off sounding more like the substitute band they’re claiming they’re not. At-Home Productions still doesn’t sound quite at home here yet either. Doling out the disco as was de rigueur in the day, Pleasure sounds far too much like every going and more popular concern of the time: “Pleasure For Your Pleasure” is a slightly less interesting version of EW&F’s “Shining Star,” “We Have So Much” is a funkier version of AWB’s “If I Ever Lose This Heaven” and “Ghettos of the Mind” is a double take of The Blackbyrd’s “Rock Creek Park” (featuring a welcome Oscar Brashear solo). Jazz is present on the brief fusion-y “Jammin’ with Pleasure” (suggesting that Pleasure was listening to Return To Forever too), The Crusaders-meet-Herb Alpert smoothness of “Theme For The Moonchild,” featuring more(!) bird noises (check out Pleasure’s and Ronnie Laws’s first albums for more of the same) and the far too-fast and seemingly unfinished Latin swinger “2 For 1,” featuring Dan Brewster on trombone and Donald Hepburn on electric piano. Pleasure’s really trying to do too much here and accomplishing far too little and, unfortunately, none of it is particularly notable or very memorable.
Fever - Ronnie Laws (Blue Note, 1976): A fair-to-middling follow-up to a fair-to-middling debut, Ronnie Laws’s sophomore album seems to have more personality than he previously displayed. This is, perhaps, due to producer Wayne Henderson moving farther from the patented Crusaders sound and the leader moving a bit beyond the influence of Grover Washington, Jr. Odd how songs here, like before, never really seem to go anywhere and fade just as they seem to be building up any head of steam. “From Ronnie with Love” features a lot of decent blowing, but as it splays itself overtop some numbingly repetitive electric vamps, it just doesn’t go anywhere that’s ultimately interesting or involving – sadly, like too much of this record. Highlights aren’t as high as usual, but nice all the same: “Strugglin’,” “Captain Midnite” (where Laws’s amplified sax, like “Mis’ Mary’s Place” from the previous Pressure Sensitive, recalls what Sonny Stitt was doing several years before on the electrified tenor) and Bobby Lyle’s well-known “Night Breeze” (also featuring the composer on electric piano).
The Genie - Bobby Lyle (Capitol, 1977): The debut album of former Young-Holt Limited and Sly and the Family Stone keyboard wunderkind Bobby Lyle, the anchor to so many Wayne Henderson-produced projects, reveals where so much of the sonic groove of the At-Home Productions really comes from. The program consists of Lyle’s interesting originals (except for the brief standard “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”) and showcases his remarkable dexterity on a number of keyboards as well his ability to craft a variety of electric sounds into an appealing mix. It’s all good here, even the tracks featuring Lyle’s Larry Graham-like vocals (“Magic Ride,” “You Think of Her”), but highlights are “Night Breeze” (also featuring Oscar Brashear), “Magic Ride” and “The Genie.”
Big Daddy’s Place - Wayne Henderson (ABC, 1977): Despite the fact that the whole At-Home crew (Ronnie Laws, Bobby Lyle, Roland Bautista, Marlon McClain, Nathaniel Philips, Bruce Carter, etc.) is on board here, Henderson’s familiar compositional style and identifiable trombone work keep the sound in The Crusaders mode. Bobby Lyle is particularly interesting on a number of keyboards throughout, though Henderson is the primary soloist. Highlights are all on side two: A disco take on “Lush Life,” featuring solos from Henderson and Ronnie Laws as well-as a gorgeously arranged (probably by George del Barrio) string section, the mildly funky “Lady Bug,” featuring Henderson, Laws and Lyle, and the cop-show funk of “I’m Staying Forever,” nicely featuring both Henderson and Lyle.
Faces - Gabor Szabo (Mercury, 1977): I confess, this has never been one of my favorite Gabor Szabo albums. From my first hearing of it in the mid 80s, it has never convinced me to further explore Wayne Henderson’s work either. My first real consideration of its artistry is when Carlos Santana told me many years later that it was one of his favorite of his old friend’s albums. While I was surprised, I had to really reconsider this album and its music. Wayne Henderson and his At-Home crew really provide Gabor with a beautiful palette here that truly allows the guitarist to do his thing. They even provide him with just enough fixins to make it sound more conventional for crossover appeal. Gabor gets in some marvelous music of his own with “Alicia,” “The Last Song,” “Estaté” and even “Magic Mystic Faces.” But Wayne Henderson provides some good groove to let Gabor riff upon with Bobby Lyle’s gimmicky but well-done “The Biz,” Henderson’s intriguing “Gloomy Day” and Marlon McClain’s funky “Misty Malarky Ying Yang” – all of which outstrips Szabo’s Bunny Sigler-produced predecessor, Nightflight (Mercury, 1976). Whether you pick up Faces because it’s a Gabor Szabo album or a Wayne Henderson production, it yields likable rewards that repay repeated listens.
Joyous - Pleasure (Fantasy, 1977): By Joyous, the group’s third of seven albums, Pleasure began to come into its own. It’s clear from the infectious first moment of the album’s ear-opening opener, “Joyous,” through the terrific closer “Selim” (not the Miles Davis piece). Though the hits came later (”Glide”), the group seemed to decide to work its own vibe here and what they settled on had more of a signature than any of their previous work ever did. Jazz is more out front here than before too. The At-Home Production sound is solidified here as well – creative, catchy, groove-oriented (great mic’ing on the bass and drums from here on in) and, at least in this case and a few others to follow, sweetly orchestral. Joyous is surely Pleasure’s best and one of At-Home Productions most notable releases. A shame there weren’t more like this. Highlights: “Joyous,” “Sassafras Girl” and “Selim.” Even the dance pieces have a bunch of interesting musical things going on: “Let Me Be The One,” “Can’t Turn You Loose” and the JB-ish “Dance to the Music.” Definitely one to get.
Living On A Dream - Wayne Henderson (Polydor, 1978): Pretty consistently above average throughout, Living On A Dream finds Wayne Henderson staking his own claim here, with personality and ingenuity to spare. Even though he helped craft “The Crusaders” sound (1970-75), here he proves the “At-Home Productions” groove is a sound all its own: catchy and danceable, yet jazzy and creative: something to write home about. Highlights are many and include “Hot Stuff,” “Rollin’ On” (which seems like a “Way Back Home” rewrite), a new take on Bobby Lyle’s “You Think of Her” (originally heard on The Genie, featuring George del Barrio’s lovely strings), “Living On A Dream” (featuring Bobby Lyle and more great string work by George del Barrio) and a rather inspired take on the otherwise novelty song “Midnight at the Oasis,” which Pleasure covered much differently on their debut album (above).
Step In To Our Life - Roy Ayers/Wayne Henderson (Polydor, 1978): Two musical production powerhouses merge here, joining the vibes of Roy Ayers and the trombone of Wayne Henderson in some studio assemblages that unite both bands and similarly-feted ideologies. There are some happening grooves and generally decent playing from the two leaders and the usual band of suspects. It’s not great. But it sure ain’t bad. Highlights: “Ooh Baby” (Roy Ayers) and “Step In To Our Life” (Wayne Henderson).
Just Before After Hours - Hilary (Columbia, 1979): Singer, songwriter, flautist and soprano saxophonist Hilary Schmidt (b. 1951) released this one Wayne Henderson-produced album on Columbia in 1979 and then completely vanished from the music scene. So it should be pointed out that she is not the same Hilary (Blake – 1950-2007) who had a minor techno-dance hit in 1983 with “Kinetic.” The program here also emphasizes the groove, but with a jazz twist. All in all, it’s pretty good – particularly for the period – but hardly anybody noticed, which is probably why Hilary disappeared. What a shame. Just Before After Hours suggests that Hilary could have been a contender. Surely anyone who digs Bobbi Humphrey will get into Hilary and what she does on this record. Highlights: Hilary’s ballad “Evening Essence” (Hilary on flute) and the mid-tempo “Sundancers” (featuring Hilary on flute and Bobby Lyle on electric piano). There are also two Wayne Henderson and Richard Flower pieces here, but the funky “Do It,” featuring Hilary on soprano sax, stands out nicely.
White Night - Michael White (Elektra, 1979): Violinist Michael White, like Wayne Henderson, is a Houston native and came up through the bands of Sun Ra, Eric Dolphy, McCoy Tyner, Pharoah Sanders and, most notably, John Handy before issuing a string of spiritual jazz albums on the Impulse label. When he switched to Elektra for two albums in the late 70s, he headed right for the dance floor. This Henderson-produced set is the second of White’s two Elektra albums and isn’t unlike violinist Helmut Zacharias’s quirky yet catchy Zacharias Plays The Hits (Capitol, 1969) albeit with a heavy dose of disco added to the mix. Henderson and company provide a good get-down groove on the pop covers (“Get Back,” “Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number,” “I Was Made To Love Him”), Henderson’s Henderson-sounding originals (“I Like It,” “Time Has No Ending,” “Whispering Pines”) and the At-Home catalog (“Never Be The Same,” originally from Ronnie Laws’s Pressure Sensitive, and Johnny Reason’s “Of All Reasons”). But White unfortunately seems to be an overdubbed afterthought throughout too much of this otherwise engaging program. Indeed too much of the album passes by without any audible trace of Michael White’s contribution. Highlights: Henderson’s “Time Has No Ending” (originally heard on The Crusaders’ Old Socks New Shoes New Socks Old Shoes) and White’s best feature here, the entirely too brief take on Henderson’s Southern Comfort era Crusaders classic “Whispering Pines” (“Get Back” and “Rikki” have a lot of great disco charm too).
Ramsey - Ramsey Lewis (Columbia, 1979): Wayne Henderson arranged and produced only two of this album’s eight songs. James Mack arranged and produced the others and composed much of the rest of the program. Henderson provides some disco dazzle to “Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In (from ‘Hair’),”no doubt timed to take advantage of other sixties hits being remade as disco hits (“MacArthur Park,” “House of the Rising Sun,” “Knock on Wood,” for example) and the funky “Wearin’ It Out” (Johnny Reasons/Wayne Henderson), which is also the album’s sole highlight.
B.C. - Billy Cobham (Columbia, 1979): Drummer Billy Cobham probably never made more of a pop-oriented (read: disco) record than this. But with Henderson’s oversight, it’s really got a lot going for it. George Del Barrio is responsible for the album’s interesting orchestrations. And Billy Cobham has never sounded more engagingly musical on his own as he does here. Highlights: “Oh Mendicino” (Billy Cobham) featuring Ernie Watts on flute and Wayne Henderson on trombone, “Dana” (Billy Cobham) featuring Bobby Lyle on electric piano.
Emphasized - Wayne Henderson (Polydor, 1979): One side of disco production numbers with occasional trombone plus one side of down-tempo jazz-oriented fusion instrumentals equal an album that didn’t quite know who its audience was and, subsequently, never found one. Henderson’s jazz originals are nice, but not notable: “Monte Carlo” (featuring Ernie Watts on flute), “Starry Eyes,” “I Keep Looking for a Better Way” and the spunky “So In Love With You” (with Watts again on alto sax).
Look In Your Heart - Ernie Watts (Elektra, 1980): Studio saxophonist Ernie Watts – Hollywood’s go-to guy for almost every love theme ever heard on a TV or film soundtrack during the 70s and 80s – issued this dance-oriented album (the first under his own name in a decade) under the aegis of Wayne Henderson’s At-Home Productions. But it’s really Ernie Watts’s show: the tunes are his, the style (such as it was at the time) is his, the band is his, etc. While it’s mostly fairly decent West Coast funk, and Watts, of course, sounds tremendously individualistic throughout (like, Michael Brecker and Tom Scott, Watts is one of the very few of his generation to develop a signature sound on sax), it’s an At-Home Production in name only. Still, this Ernie Watts-Pete Robinson meeting is of great interest. I’m not sure who Pete Robinson is, but it may be the British pianist who has played with the jazz bands of Don Ellis and Chris Barber as well as pop singers like Phil Collins and Frida. Highlights: “Makin’ Music,” with Robinson’s crazy cool keyboard solo, and Robinson’s surprisingly gripping “Beyond the Cosmic Void Suite.”
Prime Time - Roy Ayers/Wayne Henderson (Polydor, 1980): The second of two LP-length collaborations between vibist/producer Roy Ayers and trombonist/producer Wayne Henderson is an almost all-out disco affair. Too many vocals and mindless repetition. But there is a surprising amount of vibes and trombone to be heard throughout, even in improvisations. While Ayers and Henderson craft an immediately engaging sound together – particularly in the heady horn charts – the feeling doesn’t linger long after it’s all said and done. Only the Michael Jackson-influenced “Tell Me What You Want” (with a terrific Henderson (?) solo) stands out in any way.
Postscript: I’ve tried to cover as many of the At-Home Production albums that either landed, however arguably, in the jazz camp, or were considered, however remotely, to be jazz albums in some way. I avoided several titles that were either *too* much in the pop/R&B mold and some that were At-Home that didn’t sound At-Home. And there were several I would have liked to have included, but did not get to hear. Feel free to add other titles I’ve either forgotten or neglected in the comments section…