Henderson, Russell Audley Ferdinand (Russ)
- Val Wilmer
Henderson, Russell Audley Ferdinand (Russ) (1924–2015), jazz pianist, steel-pan drummer, and bandleader, was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, on 7 January 1924, the sixth of seven surviving children of Arnott Stanley Henderson, accountant, and his wife, Evelyn Robin Henderson. His parents were Trinidadian.
Henderson learned to play piano by watching his two elder sisters. He was befriended by the pianist Bert McClean, who taught him to play waltzes, the sophisticated fare of the day. McClean, whose Jazz Hounds were the island’s leading dance-band, encouraged him to study flute and double-bass, and he became familiar with American jazz through listening to records by the pianists Fats Waller, Earl Hines, and, especially, Teddy Wilson, his lifelong model. He played for Beryl McBurnie’s dance troupe at her Little Carib Theatre, a Trinidadian cultural landmark. He also saw visiting Americans in concert, including the saxophonist Louis Jordan and the trumpeter Ernestine (Tiny) Davis, then, with the arrival of a jazz group composed of Americans of Caribbean descent, joined their tour with his own prize-winning quartet. Socializing with the band’s young pianist provided an opportunity for valuable cultural exchanges; that pianist was Wynton Kelly, who went on to work with Miles Davis, and was one of many influential American musicians with whom Henderson maintained a lasting friendship.
Henderson travelled to England in 1951, intending to study piano tuning, but swiftly became familiar with Soho and its underground ‘dives’ where he found employment as a pianist, engaged by Jewish, Jamaican, and Nigerian entrepreneurs. After-hours encounters with the saxophonist Ronnie Scott and other key figures of British jazz modernism helped develop his repertoire and technical facility, while sessions with musicians from other Caribbean islands, including the Jamaican saxophonist Joe Harriott and the Barbadian trumpeter Harry Beckett, broadened his Caribbean perspective. He was soon leading a trio for dancing at a nightclub in Mayfair.
Henderson’s arrival in Britain coincided with the introduction of the steel-drum or pan, a tuned percussion instrument originating in Trinidad, created out of a tempered oil-drum and beaten with mallets. In 1951 the Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra (TASPO) entertained during the Festival of Britain, and when Henderson formed his own pan ensemble, TASPO’s Sterling Betancourt was featured. Adding the ‘pans’ to his nightclub routine led to his wider exposure and invitations to play for May balls in Cambridge. He established himself as the Afro-Caribbean leader of choice for society weddings, charity dances, hunt balls, and coming-out parties, and whenever he could, he played jazz. As the house pianist for Melodisc Records, he backed African and Caribbean artists including the calypsonian Lord Kitchener and the saxophonist/entertainer Al Timothy, often in the company of the versatile guitarist Fitzroy Coleman, all of them Trinidadians. At the Blue Angel, he accompanied the singer George Browne (aka Young Tiger) in cabaret, and played solo piano at the Rockingham, an exclusive Soho club with a gay clientele. He was seldom unemployed.
In 1962 Henderson began a Sunday afternoon residency lasting three decades at The Coleherne, a popular west London pub. Playing Latin American-oriented jazz, with his trio augmented by a team of percussion supernumeraries, he was joined by a constant stream of musicians ‘sitting-in’. Eric Allandale, Graham Bond, Davey Graham, Joe Harriott, Rannie Hart, Philly Joe Jones, Shake Keane, and Fela Kuti were among the notables who played for the enjoyment of an audience of Londoners that comprised an extraordinary cross-section of age, race, and, unusually for the day, sexual orientation.
As a central figure in several interlinking communities, Henderson occupied a unique role in the history of British popular culture. He played for Caribbean events, and was celebrated equally by instrumentalists and carnival masqueraders; few musicians of the Windrush generation did not play with his band. He socialized with members of the radical ‘hippie’ movement that developed in the Westbourne and Ladbroke Grove districts in the 1960s, and became a standby at events organized from within this unaligned body celebrating inter-racial solidarity. Together with Betancourt and the brothers Max and Ralph Cherrie, he established the steel-pan movement in Britain, appearing in films and the theatre, on television and radio, lecturing in schools, and organizing workshops. In 1966, while playing with Betancourt and Ralph Cherrie at a children’s party organized by Rhaune Laslett and John (Hoppy) Hopkins, he initiated the road march that developed into the internationally celebrated Notting Hill Carnival.
Henderson encountered a new generation of radical English jazz musicians in the 1960s. The saxophonists Mike Osborne and John Surman joined him at The Coleherne, before they embarked together on regular sessions at The Old Place in Gerrard Street, the original premises of Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. These new relationships enhanced his reputation as a jazz pianist, and led eventually to a lengthy residency at the 606 Club in Chelsea. In 2006 he was appointed MBE for services to music.
Slim, with deep-set eyes and an infectious smile, Henderson was seldom seen without a spotted silk kerchief or hand-tied bowtie. He was amiable and easy-going, renowned for his culinary skills and choice selection of rums, but always remained serious about music. A helpful and conscientious authority on Caribbean connections and mores, he had a sense of the importance of black history as part of the wider narrative.
Henderson married Eve Margaret Rigby (1923–2013), an English secretary, in Trinidad in 1947, with whom he had one daughter, Alison (b. 1947/8). In London he formed a relationship with Marie Germaine (Jerry) Musso (b. 1944), a teacher; they had two sons, Pierre Angus Henderson (b. 1964) and Pablo Ian Henderson (b. 1974). He died on 18 August 2015 at Pembridge Palliative Care Centre, St Charles Hospital, Kensington, from lung cancer with bone metastases. His funeral service was held on 19 September 2015 at Kensal Green Crematorium, where he was cremated; it was followed immediately afterwards by a memorial service at the Roman Catholic Church of St Mary of the Angels, Moorhouse Road, Bayswater.
- Evening Standard (16 June 1954)
- ‘Abalabi’, Beat (Feb 1957)
- West London Observer (22 April 1966)
- V. Wilmer, ‘Sunday at the Coleherne’, Flamingo, 3/12 (Aug 1964)
- Evening News [Port of Spain] (27 July 1970)
- West Indian World (3 Jan 1974)
- R. Denyer, ‘Davey Graham’, Guitar, 3/12 (July 1975)
- V. Wilmer, ‘Calypso at the Coleherne’, Mojo, 82 (Sept 2000)
- Daily Telegraph (14 July 2005)
- Wembley Observer (22 June 2006)
- V. Wilmer, ‘From the Pan to the Gong’, JazzUK, 71 (Sept/Oct 2006)
- V. Wilmer, ‘Brilliant corners: The Coleherne’, Jazzwise, 160 (Feb 2012)
- I. Blagrove and M. Busby, Carnival (2014)
- The Guardian [Trinidad] (20 Aug 2015)
- The Guardian (24 Aug 2015)
- The Times (3 Sept 2015)
- The Independent (9 Sept 2015)
- personal knowledge (2019)
- private information (2019) [Angus Henderson, son; Mary Henderson, daughter-in-law; George Browne; Max Cherrie; Clyde Davies; James Felix; Rannie Hart; John Surman]
- H. Ové, dir., Full house, BBC2, 3 Feb 1973 [TV episode]
- BL NSA, Oral History of Jazz and Popular Music, interviews by V. Wilmer, 14 Oct 1993
- V. Wilmer, photograph, group portrait, ‘Russ Henderson with his Steel Band’, 1960, Val Wilmer Collection [see illus.]
- photographs, 1953-2010, priv. coll. [V. Wilmer]
- photograph, West London Observer (22 April 1966)
- photograph, Evening News [Port of Spain] (27 July 1970)
- photograph, West Indian World (3 Jan 1974)
- W. Hanlon, photograph, 1953, London is the place for me: Trinidad Calypso in London, 1950-1956 (CD, Honest Jon, 2002)
- photograph, c. 1960, London is the place for me: Trinidad Calypso in London, 1950-1956 (CD, Honest Jon, 2002)
- W. Hanlon, photograph, 1953, London is the place for me 2: Calypso & Kwela, highlife & jazz from young black London (CD, Honest Jon, 2005)
- V. Wilmer, photographs, 1964, London is the place for me 2: Calypso & Kwela, highlife & jazz from young black London (CD, Honest Jon, 2005)
- photograph, Wembley Observer (22 June 2006)
- V. Wilmer, photographs, 1964, JazzUK, 71 (Sept/Oct 2006)
- V. Wilmer, photographs, 1964, Jazzwise, 160 (Feb 2012)
- G. Jenkins, photograph, 2014, The Times (3 Sept 2015)
- H. Denner, photograph, 2008, Retna/Photoshot
- photograph, with the Russ Henderson Quartet, 1960s, Cherrypickers Steel Band, www.cherrypickers-steelband.co.uk/gallery/, accessed 31 August 2018
- obituary photogaphs