David Henderson, poet, writer and voice, knew and worked with giants like Ornette Coleman, Langston Hughes, Sun Ra, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Kaufman, John Giorno, Nikki Giovanni, Ishmael Reed and Jimi Hendrix. His 1978 biography of Hendrix (revised in 2003) is still the best out there on the “Voodoo Child of the Aquarian Age”. He co-founded the Black Arts Movement and the Society of Umbra in the 1960s, was one of the original writers for the underground newspaper East Village Other and has been a leading figure in NYC arts for half a century. John Pietaro spoke with David Henderson for PKM.
Seated on a bench in Tompkins Square with poet David Henderson, the very atmosphere conjures up Downtown history, the literary underground sounding out with utter vibrance. And Henderson, a perpetually youthful elder of the movement, carves out his place through soft, sanguine tones.
Born September 19, 1942, Henderson came of age in postwar Harlem, singing doo-wop under the crisscrossed haze of inner-city streetlamps. He attended Bronx Community College, later Hunter College and the New School, too, focusing on literature and Eastern cultures. But, in each instance, he cut his studies short prior to completion. His was more of a wandering sort of education, thoroughly blended with life.
“I moved to the East Village as a teen,” Henderson said. “There weren’t that many (spoken word) places back then, but poetry was going on, regardless.”
Following a 1960 publication in Black American magazine, Henderson became a feature of Ted Joans’ open readings at the Fat Black Pussycat.
“This was the early 1960s,” he recalls. “Change was happening before our eyes, but I’m not certain I saw it.” This, despite being active in the nascent Black Liberation Movement and among the many protesting the Vietnam War.
Drawn to the jazz community, uptown and down, Henderson began documenting the action onstage in his own inimitable way. And in doing so, he helped forge the Society of Umbra and, resultantly, the Black Arts Movement. This was nearly 60 years ago when Henderson, seeking to cast a heritage-strong voice for Black writers, gathered with Ishmael Reed, Calvin Hernton, Askia Toure, Norman Pritchard, Lorenzo Thomas and future Gathering of the Tribes founder Steve Cannon under the heading of Umbra. No less than Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor expressed kinship with the group. Hernton, who moved to Manhattan the year prior to attend Columbia University, was a particularly important member. A trained social worker, his roles as both poet and sociologist were deeply impacted by employment in the city’s Social Services. By 1965, he published the seminal Race and Sex in America, a bold, controversial work which took on issues hitherto unspoken.
“Calvin knew Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks,” Henderson recalled. “They had toured the South together. Calvin had been at Fisk, but word got out when he arrived in New York. He called Langston and we were invited to his brownstone in Harlem. At that time, he (Hughes) had a newspaper column in the New York Post–when it was a liberal, family paper–called ‘Jess B. Semple,’, written in dialect.”
Henderson soon came to serve as editor of Umbra’s magazine and its various anthologies. These organs introduced such noted writers as Alice Walker and Nikki Giovanni to the wider literary community. Umbra’s closed meetings stressed writing and criticism but led to powerful public sessions of performance and education, and Henderson’s own work was increasingly getting noticed. In 1964, he contributed to the Langston Hughes-edited anthology New Negro Poets, and three years later to the highly lauded Where is Vietnam? American Poets Respond, edited by Walter Lowenfels. Henderson also had his spoken word recording debut in 1967, with the anthology album New Jazz Poets (Folkways), reading his “Elvin Jones Gretch Freak.”
New Jazz Poets (1967)
The early 1960s was a period of creative, caustic urgency that has often been overshadowed by the more tumultuous events at the decade’s end. Sun Ra and his Arkestra had moved to New York in 1961 and were soon holding court in a Second Avenue flat, near Forsyth Street. Henderson was ripe for such experiences and new sounds, as much as Sun Ra was open to new artists coming into his sphere.
“He lectured his Arkestra about their duty to the music,” Henderson explained. “There was a cinema on Avenue B which they rented out for performances. We hung out and I went to Brooklyn with them to get natural herbs.”
One can only imagine the outcome of such influences Downtown in a time when everything seemed possible. “I recall the old 5-Spot,” he recalls. “It was so small that the band’s horns were in your face. Rahsaan Roland Kirk played there too. I was born around midnight, so I always requested they play the song (“Round Midnight” by Thelonious Monk, of course). Rahsaan would say, ‘Oh it’s you again,’ but they’d play it.”
He adds jubilantly, “And then there was Slugs. A rectangular space with the bandstand at the back. You could sit at the bar for hours. There was a bodega on Avenue C which was open 24/7 and we’d stop there afterward. Every Monday, Jackie McLean. And Lee Morgan! He was brilliant. So sad to have him die at 40.”
In 1967, Henderson’s first chapbook of poetry, Felix of the Silent Forest was published, with an introduction by Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka) and began making considerable noise among radical writers. Baraka wrote, “David Henderson’s poetry is the world echo, with the strength and if you are conscious, beauty of the place tone…These are local epics with the breadth that the emotional consciousness of a culture can make.” The poems in the volume spoke to this consciousness.
The opening piece, “Downtown-Boy Uptown” depicts the city that was and the people within its tortured, broken grasp. A lost love appears to both symbolize womankind widely and a specific individual. Here’s a short three-stanza work of wider Black consciousness even as it holds the author’s own story intact. Henderson had been residing downtown for several years by this point and caught between Harlem and the Village, the Black and largely white, even if of the working-class:
Affecting simplicity of a Ghetto
And a sub-renascent culture.
Uptown-boy uptown for graces loomed to love.
He goes on to describe the difference even in stance and gait, while in one locale or the other. The vexation:
I stand in my low east window looking down.
Am I in the wrong slum?
And still more telling:
Was this Black man’s smile enjoying guilt
The conflict becomes only more vivid in “So We Went to Harlem”, the recounting of a trip north in the company of Calvin Hernton and Richard Valentine:
So we went to Harlem.
The many-fabled letter-men – two black, one white.
Went to Harlem to screw broads.
Encounters with prostitutes follows with the unaware member of the party conned:
Richard having given up all his money and ours
To the Ghetto he trusted and winding up lost.
Henderson’s ability to craft works of hard reality, however, never lost the track of self-sustained pride. Other pieces offer commentary on family, home life, street life, night clubs, jazz, pop, and with “Boston Road Blues” his 1960 vocal quartet the Star Steppers, so named “perhaps to insure a goal other than a ghetto”. The group struggled between a racist music industry and hustling managers, releasing a single “You’re Gone” b/w “The First Sign of Love”, which achieved only the barest airplay, inspiring further dive-bar gigs.
The Star Steppers – You’re Gone
The disappointment of reality overt:
We waited… / We waited / And after a while /Started singing to ourselves once more.
Overall, the chapbook’s relevance in a year of continued change was apparent. The title piece, rampant with symbolism, speaks of African American society and economic strife (“Felix walks the city/hungry in every sense”), but the works that carry the strongest message speak to the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X, possibly the fall of a movement. In “They Are Killing All the Young Men”, Henderson saw New York as the “Dallas of the East”:
WINS says Malcolm X gunned down
By Negro with sawed off shotgun & two others
& then returns to their gay restaurant music
Raunchy as plastic bags
And much more so:
North and South
Birmingham to Harlem
Current and past
Henderson went on, citing media and police responses, the investigation and shakedowns in Black communities and the shameful senselessness of destruction. As a formal opening to one’s career, the work was invaluable.
Soon after, Henderson was deemed Poet-in-Residence at the City University of New York and he taught both within that system and at Columbia University. He also became a founding member of the East Village Other newspaper, a pioneering early counterculture periodical.
In 1968, when Ornette Coleman set up his loft at 131 Prince Street, Henderson became a regular visitor, ultimately residing at the sacred space, Artist House. In this company and within such a location, the poet was surrounded by the most cutting-edge music and art of the day. Coleman sought new avenues not only for avant-garde jazz, but world sounds, contemporary orchestral music and expansive rock, including work with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. This was a deeply influential time, leading Henderson to further creative and activist visions including publication in both Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing and The World Anthology: Poems from the Saint Mark’s Poetry Project.
De Mayor of Harlem, Henderson’s first full poetry collection, was published by Dutton in 1970. Acquiring immediate accolades, the book encompassed material dating back to 1962 as well as a powerful assortment composed over the ensuing years. Overall, the urgency in tone and style is jarring, vital. Here, the use of vernacular is pronounced, flooded with a purposeful refuting of academia. Each work almost demands to be read aloud. The poems which face loss are particularly strong. Note the following excerpt from “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me: for Langston Hughes”:
in writing the fine details
of yr last production
you would have the black sapphires/there
in life and death
the last time blues/
with no hesitations…
day of the vernal winds/1967
The deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr and John Coltrane (“the medicine man/of my ancestral journeys”) feature highly, as do visceral works on Malcolm X, Harlem, Columbia University, the Hudson River and the Pope’s visit to Manhattan. As the collection progresses through time, use of urban vernacular increases, dispensing further with grammatical norms while asserting contemporary urgency if not revolutionary necessity. The effect was riveting.
THE POLICE PROTECT THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE
DEATH IN THE FACE/SPIN/PICK A NUMBER
BY FULL MOON/SATURDAY NIGHT
This work, “Ruckus Poem”, about the 1964 Harlem riots, goes on to state:
MACHINE GUN FOR POWER VIETNAM VETERANS CHARGE
MUSTER AT THEOLOGICAL BANK WITH THE FLAG ON TOP
CIVIL CIVIL WAR
BETTER BELIEVE IT BETTER BELIEVE IT
VIETNAM OUTSIDE THE PICTURE WINDOW
This piece carries a profound strength with it, symbolizing shattered glass as shattered dreams, and the war in Southeast Asia with the war on the streets.
NEGRO MEANS DEAD BODY
NEGRO MEANS DEAD ETCHED IN SHANGO RED
De Mayor offers a thorough vision into the life and mind of the poet along with the creative communities he was central to. Thelonious Monk, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Horace Silver, Calvin Hernton, Sonny Rollins, Kenny Clark and Ismael Reed turn mythic through his pen. He was also included that year in two influential anthologies, Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1970 and the Poetry of Soul.
Ornette Coleman’s apex Science Fiction, recorded a year later, featured Henderson’s broad, mellifluous voice on the title cut. Reciting statically through heavy reverb deep in the hearth of fire music, he splintered phrases with spacious tacits, commanding the air.
“Ornette wrote the poem and directed me to read that way,” said Henderson. “Listening to that band rehearse–they could play this stuff backwards on a level I couldn’t conceive.”
Title track from Ornette Coleman’s Science Fiction album, voice by David Henderson:
The album’s insightful liner notes by Robert Palmer state that “the human voices on this record blend with the free-speech inflected playing (even the drummers are playing conversational rhythms), like Robert Johnson blended his voice and guitar…David Henderson spaces his words so that they resonate against one another. He shares the album’s title cut with the voice of a baby, whose natural, non-verbal expression sounds like something any of these musicians might have played.”
This piece, even with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, is near breathtaking. The instrumental ensemble wields considerable power, seven-strong with Coleman’s first great quartet—pocket trumpet player Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Ed Blackwell—along with original drummer Billy Higgins, saxophonist Dewey Redman and trumpeter Bobby Braford forging a mystical gathering of sound. The effect is hypnotic.
No mother to be and
No father to see,
There I stood.
Humans they said are made from two:
One be me, the other you.
How many enemies to make a soul?
Don’t waste my face to class my way.
The art of living is written in the bible.
A child must exist, so be it.
Woman and man,
Love of god,
Denial of death.
My life, my life,
My mind belongs to
Henderson is not certain of when Coleman wrote these verses or what specific theme he had in mind, but the cry for African American equality and recognition is apparent. Beyond this, the work seemingly includes biblical lore (Thomas) as a motif, authentic or satirical, Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and potentially quotes of Lincoln, all of which seem appropriate to the struggle. The choice of Henderson to read the work, in any case, speaks to the wider Black Liberation movement he was embedded in. The album, which also included guest vocalist Asha Puthli and symphonic trumpet players Carmine Fornarotto and Gerard Schwarz, reached both forward and back, in and out, grasping new rhythmic genres while celebrating the very free jazz Coleman had forged. A great leap forward in the music as well as people’s culture.
In 1972, Henderson participated in the Motown release Black Spirits: Festival of New Black Poets in America which also included Amiri Baraka, the Last Poets and Larry Neal among other leaders. That same year, having been part of John Giorno’s roster of spoken word, he was heard on the album The Dial-A-Poem Poets (Giorno Poetry Systems). Henderson was among a cornucopia of latter-day Beats and New York School poets including Giorno, Allen Ginsberg, Diane DiPrima, William Burroughs, Ted Berrigan, Frank O’Hara, Anne Waldman, Robert Creeley, Ed Sanders, Jim Carroll (who read an excerpt from the Basketball Diaries), Brion Gysin, John Sinclair (poet, activist, MC 5 manager) and others, plus Black Panthers communications principal Bobby Seale. There’s even a haiku from John Cage.
You’re A Hook-An Anthology of Dial-A-Poem recordings released by John Giorno (1983):
Giorno’s concept of producing vital poetry in real time far predates the internet: it was birthed in 1969, a chance to hear poets reading their own work for the price of a hotline phone call. Henderson was among the many who leaped at the opportunity to become a part of this revolutionary concept. Giorno employed 15 rotary telephones attached to answering machines, the outgoing messages of which were poems which changed weekly along with sound art (Phillip Glass being one of several contributing composers). Proof of the project’s strength is its targeting by the FCC which briefly shut down the works in response to harried parents’ complaints of children being subject to adult programming! Dial-a-Poem thrived into 1971, leaving a wealth of unrelated “Dial-a” services in its wake.
Giorno began releasing albums on his Giorno Poetry Systems label, including The Dial-A-Poem Poets collection, though the list of participants is hardly exhaustive of the project’s scope. Still, it included Henderson’s moving excerpt of “Ruckus Poem”.
“Ruckus Poem”-David Henderson:
Henderson moved to the West Coast in 1972, traveling with a caravan that included the Sun Ra Arkestra, landing initially in Los Angeles.
“Hollywood is a trip,” he recalled. “Once I got there, I joined the Off-Broadway Softball League. George C. Scott was our pitcher! I got to know these guys.”
Henderson soon moved to Berkeley where he taught at the University Without Walls and then both U.C. Berkeley and San Diego. He also lectured in New Orleans. Concurrently, Henderson became a member of the activist-heavy Ghetto Fathers Band, performing regularly in northern California haunts.
“I was teaching literature and poetry and we became part of the takeover of a local radio station. Our ‘Third World Strike’ resulted in Ethnic Studies and African American Studies programs in the University of California system!”, he recalled gleefully.
In the meantime, Henderson was performing with the jazz artists passing through the Berkeley area, including Coleman and Sun Ra. His poetry was also a stage feature of celebrated vocalist, actress and activist Abbey Lincoln during her West Coast performances. The ironic change in California’s wider response to avant-garde jazz, from brash intolerance to artful acceptance, is not lost here. Henderson’s relocation only followed teaching offers from universities which were instituting African American arts and history programming. In most regards, this was indeed a new day.
During this period, the poet’s work continued to be published in anthologies, record and print, including Open Poetry: Four Anthologies of Expanded Poems (Simon & Schuster) and Black Poets IV (Pacifica Tape Library), both 1973. Two years later, Henderson’s association with Sun Ra grew into a formal collaboration when David was asked to write a lyric to Ra’s standard song, “Love in Outer Space”, a piece in the Arkestra’s book for well over a decade. Henderson’s voice was also heard on the recording and it remains the poet’s only documented performance as a singer. His voice, naturally embracing, a baritone of particularly dark qualities, seems to dance over the lyric out front of a Sun Ra-led combo.
“Love in Other Space”-Sun Ra, vocals by David Henderson:
Many years later, after Sun Ra died, the song was released as a single.
“They played it out of the blue on (Pacifica radio station) KPFA,” he added, pridefully. This recording was part of the Sun Ra: The Singlescompilation but more so, Henderson’s vocal is prominent in the re-release of Night of the Purple Moon, making Sun Ra’s most accessible, song-oriented LP that much more personable to the listener.
Henderson was recorded by the Library of Congress in 1978, and he also performed with David Murray’s ensemble with Butch Morris.
Henderson’s biography of Jimi Hendrix, Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky (initially Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child of the Aquarian Age) was published that same year. The book was completed only after the author’s extensive first-person interviews with Hendrix and then, following the rock star’s untimely death, through ongoing, dogged research. This acclaimed work would later be richly expanded in new editions, offering still later generations important introductions to both writer and subject. A review in Tribes magazine stated that “Henderson had the benefit, as a young rock critic, to meet and talk to Hendrix before his death, and it would be an understatement to say he made an impression on the author. The book jacket exhorts that the biography is a promise to Jimi. Henderson clearly deeply appreciated Hendrix, not just his music or image.”
The biography examined Hendrix’s life and offered a uniquely impressionistic view of song lyrics as autobiographical statements. Beyond this, Henderson exposed the political right-wing’s caustic response to the Black Panther Party and reliance on the Mafia to nullify the Black Liberation Movement as a whole. Henderson, in no uncertain terms, states that Hendrix’s death was no accidental overdose.
Though his years West were productive, including the completion of several plays, Henderson moved back to the East Village in 1980, but he remains a frequent traveler to California. “The poor always lived on the Lower East Side,” he stated, while staring down the bistros that continue to overtake bodegas. At that time, Loisaida was home to despondent families, artists, low-income workers, drug wars and increasing flocks of yuppies. Right on time, Henderson’s 79-page volume The Low East, a frank cry for home, was completed and published while he was still in California, on the cusp of return. He was also heard on the Folkways compilation album Poets Read their Contemporary Poetry: Before Columbus.
Through the 1980s and ‘90s, Henderson was an esteemed lecturer at the New School, Long Island University, the Poetry Project and Naropa University where he presented with Allen Ginsberg.
While Henderson had been active in the founding of the Black Arts Movement, it wasn’t until 1991 that the inspiration of a literary father figure, Bob Kaufman, came to fruition. David wrote and produced a two-hour radio documentary for NPR on Kaufman, the woefully overlooked African American poet of the Beat generation. Narrated by Al Young and produced by John Sinclair, the cast included Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ted Joans, and others, their statements set against recordings of Charlie Parker and Horace Silver. Kaufman’s awe-inspiring poetry was performed by Roscoe Lee Browne, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Tony Seymour, and Kaufman himself. Several year later, as the Kaufman collection, Cranial Guitar, was developed, Henderson was called upon to write the 28-page introduction, an acknowledged expert who’d witnessed so much from within.
Henderson, in no uncertain terms, states that Hendrix’s death was no accidental overdose.
As in earlier days, Henderson, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, became immersed in the Downtown poetry scene. Both the Nuyorican Poets Café and the Knitting Factory, that one-time harbinger of the bold and experimental, were among the venues he was drawn to and his participation was catalogued on the 1992 album Nuyorican Symphony – Poetry Live at The Knitting Factory. A year later, the poet was well-represented in the anthology Moment’s Notice: Jazz in Poetry & Prose which included his “Sonny Rollins”, “A Coltrane Memorial” and “Thelonious Sphere Monk”. Henderson was also recorded with a series of renowned jazz bass players for A Family Album: Double Bass Solos and was featured in a video presentation of the Poetry Center and American Poetry Archives, SF State University, Color: A Sampling of Contemporary African American Writers. And his was an essential inclusion in the anthology Trouble the Water: 250 Years of African American Poetry.
At the close of 1998, Henderson published Neo-California, a collection drawn from his traveling experiences. Split into four “books” entitled Berkeley Trees, Blaxgangster/Orisha, Cali/Atzlan and Neo, these are “meditations on Third World America”. The visionary works were composed in bars, restaurants, colleges and lodgings of cities and small towns, gazing within and beyond the hotel mirrors. As he thrives in doing, Henderson here used the poetry and the places as commentary on national relations and mores. Tribes magazine noted that each “book” symbolizes a range of experience from the pre-Columbian through the current, invoking Yoruba culture, Aztec idols, and “a chronology of thematic concern that forces a review of history versus contemporary politics.”
Columbia Records, in 2000, released Ornette Coleman’s Complete Science Fiction Sessions. The new album finally united the storied 1971 release with other studio dates rarely available on these shores. For a considerable time, the saxophonist remained highly active, but the invigorated acclaim couldn’t cease the slow, heartless progression of dementia. Henderson was a regular in Coleman’s home through the last days leading to his 2015 passing. “As Ornette was dying, he had Alzheimer’s. But he remembered the music even if not us. I would visit with him and sing spirituals like “Steal Away” and the songs I sang in high school. He heard it; I know he did. And he loved it.”
Over the past 20-odd years David Henderson’s life as both poet and political activist have lost none of its ire. He’s been particularly vocal about the plight of the Palestinians and continues to speak out against institutionalized racism everywhere. In a 2009 interview for Africultures, he stated his hopes for the Obama presidency, wryly adding “now that we have celebrated, the real work begins.”
In the years since, he remains a presence at literary gatherings and performances. During the Trump years, of course, Henderson made great use of the times in which to create and speak out, performances with Patricia Spears Jones among them. A nationally acclaimed lecturer, Henderson headlined the first Upsurge! NYC Jazz Poetry Festival, experiencing that old sensation of being surrounded by writers, activists, musicians and well-wishers. And the scene was replayed at the annual Allen Ginsberg birthday fete at Howl.
“I’m getting ready to publish another collection soon,” he said over the heads of a beaming crowd on that perfect, pre-COVID June day. “It should encompass much of my earlier work and a lot of new poetry too. It’s an ongoing process. There is always so much to write about.”