A Discussion with Eddie Henderson: The Legendary Jazz Musician, Doctor, and Figure Skater

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Eddie Henderson is one of the world’s most respected jazz musicians. After learning to play trumpet with Louis Armstrong, Henderson went on to perform with jazz legends, such as Miles Davis, John Coletrane, and Herbie Hancock. He’s not just a world-renowned jazz musician, but also a medical doctor, professor, and the first African-American figure skater to compete nationally. Later this month, DePaul University is awarding Henderson a triple honorary doctorate in music, medicine, and athletics. Henderson has had one of the most fascinating careers imaginable and has made a truly massive impact on jazz. 

We had the incredible opportunity to sit down with Eddie Henderson to discuss how he was able to be so successful in these wildly different careers. He told us about the lessons he learned from Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis and gave useful advice for young musicians breaking into a new music scene. We hope you enjoy the fascinating story of Eddie Henderson.

You first started learning trumpet from Louis Armstrong. What was it like taking lessons from one of the most famous musicians to ever live? 

My mom was actually one of the original Cotton Club dancers, so she knew people like Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and all the greats in show business. By virtue of that, she knew Louis Armstrong too. When I was 9 years old, she took me down to see him play at the Apollo theater. Sarah Vaughn (the singer), me and my mother were watching a big band, and I saw Louis behind a curtain warming up along with the band. You could hear his sound cut above the whole band. I remember thinking to myself “Damn, he has a big sound!” My mother took me backstage and introduced me to him. He taught me how to make a sound on his trumpet and mouthpiece. I looked at my mother and said “Who’s this cat mommy?” I had no idea who he was. That was my first lesson.

He inspired me to keep practicing, and by age 10, I was playing Flight of the Bumblebee. After a few years, my mother took me back to see Louis Armstrong, and he asked me if I was still playing. I said “Yea man, give me your horn.” I didn’t really know who he was at that point. I remember playing Flight of the Bumblebee for him, and he screamed and fell off his chair. As he was getting up he said “Damn little Eddie, that’s some of the baddest shit I’ve ever heard!” He told his wife to give me his book of ten of his solos, transcribed. At the top, he wrote “To little Eddie, this is to warm your chops up. Love, Satchmo.” I still have the book today. That’s how it all started. 
I later moved to San Francisco and started studying at the San Francisco Conservatory with the second chair in the San Francisco Symphony. 

You’ve had quite a few interesting careers as a musician, doctor, and figure skater. How did you decide to pursue such different careers?

When I moved to San Francisco at age 14, it was in the summer time. I had no friends since I hadn’t gone to high school yet, so my step-father bought me a ticket to the Ice Follies. When I saw them, it was just surreal. I had never seen anything like that before. I went every day, and sat in the same chair for 30 days straight. The star of the show, Richard Dwyer (he’s world famous now), gave me my first lessons. I was on the ice at 5:30 in the morning, 365 days a year. I thought I wanted to be a figure skater then — that was my calling in life. 

Then my stepfather (we didn’t like each other) told me that he was a doctor, and that was the closest thing to God. He said that I was going to be a bum on the waterfront since I wasn’t smart enough to be a doctor. I said “Oh yeah? Watch me mother******!” I went out of my way to study to be a doctor just to prove him wrong. I was still ice skating diligently and still playing the trumpet, but when I got accepted into medical school, I had to let something go: It was the figure skating. That’s how I happened to go to those three different areas. 

Were there any connections between these careers? How were you able to do so many things at such a high level?

Discipline when you’re at an early age is the common denominator to doing many things. It’s harder to learn discipline when you get older, since there are so many life distractions. The discipline of playing music teaches you symmetry, form, mathematics. Discipline from figure skating teaches you concentration. If you’re not concentrating on the ice to do a double axel, you’re going to land on your head. I never missed a class in my life, whether it’s high school, college, or medical school. After the discipline of ice skating, music, and getting straight A’s in college, medical school was a piece of cake. 

I also always appropriated my time. In medical school, I would go to school every day from 8-5, come home and study from 5:30-9:30, then go out and play in jazz clubs every night until 2:30 in the morning. Then I’d get into bed, open the books, and study medicine until I fell asleep. I had a regiment of studying, and that carried over from the regiment I had from figure skating and playing the trumpet. When you learn that at an early age, you can do any number of things. 

I remember when I was in medical school, other students knew I was going out every night, playing jazz. They said “You’re going to flunk out. You’re playing jazz every night.” I went to class every day, but I didn’t see them in class for 2-3 months. They were out partying. Come time for the test, they tried to cram, but you can’t do that. It’s a cumulative type of learning. Lo and behold, they flunked out. I know many people that don’t have discipline, like a jack-of-all-trades. They do many things at a lower level. Other people are completely different. I have one friend of mine who is an MD, has 3 PhD’s, teaches biochemistry in the medical school, has his own biotech company, and is a trumpet player with his own big plan. I also know people that don’t do anything because they didn’t have discipline early in life.

I was so lucky that meeting Louis Armstrong got me to start trumpet. I didn’t know it was going to turn into the rest of my life. If I tell you the truth, I thought figure skating was my calling in life. I ran into so much racism (this was in the late 50’s). Back then, figure skating was very white, so I was the first black person in the world to compete. Figure skaters usually have to represent a club, like golf clubs nowadays. I tried to join the San Francisco club, but they wouldn’t even give me an application. I had to compete as an individual member of the United States Figure Skating Association. After I joined the Air Force, I moved to Colorado Springs, where the Olympic figure skating champions trained. Their club welcomed me with open arms and wanted me to represent them. I trained in an ice arena in Colorado Springs with the Olympic team, so I really thought that was my calling in life.

I really wanted to be in the Ice Follies someday. When I finished medical school, I went back to see them. My hero, Richard Dwyer, was still in the show, but this time, they had one token black skater. He was dressed up in a red white and blue Uncle Sam costume, skating to “Ol’ Man River” [a minstrel show tune]. I thought to myself, I don’t want to be a part of this shit. That was the end of my ice skating aspirations. I still love it.

While you were in medical school, you were performing with some of the greatest jazz-legends to ever live, like Miles Davis. How did you meet these people and get into the jazz scene when you were busy with medical school?

When I was in high school, my step-father was a doctor for all the famous musicians, like Cannonball Adderley, John Coletrane, and Miles Davis. When I came home from my trumpet lesson one day, Miles was staying at our house the whole week for a gig. He took me to his gig every single night, and I got to hear his group, with John Coletrane and Cannonball Adderley. I had never heard music like that! I didn’t know you could do that with a trumpet. I tried to emulate him.

After that, I met trumpet players like Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan. Every weekend, when I was in medical school, I would drive from DC up to New York. On Saturday, I’d be at Freddie Hubbard’s house, and Sunday, I’d be at Lee Morgan’s house. I would just listen to them practice and go to different clubs, following them around. They let me sit in and play with them. Hopefully, some of their expertise rubbed off! I just watched them and wrote everything down that they played and practiced. 

Do you have any last things you would like to tell everyone? 

Follow your dreams and be persistent. They WILL come true. That’s all I can say. 

Bryan Rubin