Black US jazz pianist, bandleader, and arranger. He was one of the leaders of the big-band style of the Swing Era.
Born in Cuthbert, Georgia, he obtained a degree in chemistry but drifted into bandleading in 1921. Always a great judge of talent, in the period 1923–24 he hired Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, and Don Redman (1900–64), with whom he developed the new style of jazz for larger groups with brass and reeds in separate sections playing from written charts. Forced to do this arranging work himself after Redman left in 1929, Henderson and his overshadowed brother Horace refined the style to such an extent that it suddenly became a nationwide success in 1935 for the white band of Benny Goodman. Thereafter Goodman played many Henderson arrangements, always giving him full credit. Henderson also wrote for other bandleaders, as well as playing the piano in Goodman's sextet for most of 1939.
Henderson was disadvantaged not only by being black but also because he was an indifferent businessman, especially after being badly injured in a 1928 car crash. Nevertheless, at one time or another he employed virtually all the best black musicians in the country, and his band was considered one of the best of its kind.