Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Still Deserving Wider Recognition

The reviews are in for the Johnny Cash jukebox musical Ring of Fire, and by and large they have not been kind. A common refrain has been to wonder how director Richard Maltby, Jr. could go from producing the first great jukebox musical Ain’t Misbehavin,’ based on the songs of Fats Waller, to such a flat presentation that takes the cool out of Cash. Ain’t Misbehavin’ had one great advantage: Luther Henderson.

Henderson was the arranger, musical director and pianist for the original production of Misbehavin.’ His Broadway experience started in 1946 when he worked on Duke Ellington’s Beggars Holiday. In addition to providing classical orchestrations for Duke, Henderson would work great vocalists like Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson, in addition to leading his own big band dates. He frequently lent his skills to Broadway productions, including Jelly’s Last Jam and Play On! the Ellington recasting of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

Throughout his career Henderson labored largely in obscurity, toiling so that others could bask in the limelight. Shortly before his death, the Dana Gioia’s NEA selected him as one of the Jazz Masters of 2004, finally giving him the recognition that was long overdue. Clearly, the Bush Administration is hipper than the NY drama critics.