Luther Henderson, Tony-Nominated Arranger and Orchestrator, Dead at 84

By Kenneth Jones
July 31, 2003

Luther Henderson, the musical director, arranger, orcestrator and composer who helped give the distinctive sound to such musicals as Funny Girl, Play On! and Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, died July 29 after a long battle with cancer, according to colleagues in the theatre community.

Mr. Henderson was 84. As dance arranger and/or orchestrator, Mr. Henderson's credits include Flower Drum Song, Do Re Mi, Hallelujah Baby and the revival of No, No, Nanette. He is the arranger of "Three Black Kings," composed by Duke Ellington, originally commissioned by the Dance Theatre of Harlem as Les Trois Rois Noirs.

His last work heard in New York City theatre were his orchestrations and arrangements for Little Ham, the Harlem-set musical inspired by a Langston Hughes play. It played Off-Broadway's John Houseman Theatre in 2o02 and a recording preserves his contribution.

In Off-Broadway and regional theatre, Mr. Henderson was the composer for the Amas Theatre production of The Crystal Tree and was musical supervisor, orchestrator, and arranger for The All Night Strut! at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., and for Jazzbo Brown in New York City.

His work over a long career included composing, arranging, conducting, and performing. According to his bio, he has worked on more than two dozen Broadway productions in various capacities. For Ain't Misbehavin' he was the original pianist as well as orchestrator, arranger and musical supervisor. For Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music on Broadway he was the musical consultant and arranged several selections.

Mr. Henderson orchestrated and co-composed the music of Jelly Roll Morton for Jelly's Last Jam (and was Tony Award-nominated for Best Score). In the inaugural year of the Tony for Best Orchestrations, he was nominated for his work on Play On!, the Jazz Age take on Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.

As early as 1946, he was one of the orchestrators for Broadway's Beggar's Holiday. In 1943, he performed, arranged and orchestrated the music for the pre-Broadway tryout of Tropical Review, seen in Toronto.

Mr. Henderson was said to have counted his work with Duke Ellington, Andre Kostelanetz, Jules Styne, Carol Haney, Richard Rodgers, Polly Bergen and Lena Horne as the most important milestones of his career, according yo a biographical webpage about him maintained by Canadian Brass, with whom he was a collaborator.

Mr. Henderson's work has also been heard on television. For NBC-TV he served as musical director, orchestrator, arranger, and pianist for the Columbia Pictures television special "Ain't Misbehavin'," for which he received an Emmy Award nomination. In addition, he worked on the Emmy Award-winning special "The Helen Morgan Story," starring Polly Bergen, as well as "The Bachelor," "The First Victor Borge Special," "The Second Victor Borge Special," and for PBS (WNET), "The V.D. Blues."

For film, Mr. Henderson was the composer and orchestrator for "Recess" and "The Slams."

Among his many albums are several with the Canadian Brass and Eileen Farrell's famous "I Got a Right to Sing the Blues," re-released in 1992. For Columbia Records, the Luther Henderson Orchestra recorded six albums. In addition, Mr. Henderson has contributed to various albums recorded by the Duke Ellington Orchestra, the Andre Kostelanetz Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic, Mandy Patinkin, Polly Bergen, Anita Ellis and others.

Mr. Henderson's composition "Ten Good Years" with lyricist Martin Charnin was recorded by Nancy Wilson on her "Coconut Grove" album.

He was born Luther Lincoln Henderson in 1919 to a father of the same name who was an actor and educator and a mother, Florence Black, who was also an educator. Mr. Henderson, a graduate of Evander Childs High School in New York City, was a math major at the College of the City of New York (1936-38) and eventually earned a B.S. in music and the Juilliard Institute of Musical Art in 1942. He also attended New York University's Graduate School of Music 19046-47.

His wife, actress-director Billie Allen, survives him.