Friday, December 21, 2012


Jazz Pianist and Steel Pan player Russ Henderson (MBE)
Benefit Gig at the 606 Club 8 January 2013

Russ Henderson wears two musical hats: one as a jazz pianist and the other as a steel pan player. He is also part of that early generation of West Indians who came to England in the early 1950s. Henderson now aged 88 was born 7 January 1924 in Belmont, a lower middle-class neighbourhood in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Little is known about his childhood and growing up in Belmont. While in his early 20s he founded the Russell Henderson Quartet that was popular with Trinidadians and provided the background music for local recordings of calypsonians such as Roaring Lion, Growling Tiger and Lord Pretender, in addition to playing piano for Beryl McBurnie’s dance troupe.  His early years in Trinidad coincided with the birth of the steel pan and the American occupation of Trinidad from the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s – the local calypso Rum and Coca-cola was adopted by the Andrew Sisters who thought the song was a quaint Caribbean ditty when in fact it was a piece of social commentary by Lord Invader about rampant levels of prostitution that emerged with the arrival of American service men on the island. It was through the Trinidadian dance legend, and founder of the Little Carib theatre,  Beryl McBurnie,  that Henderson encountered Ellie Mannette one of the pioneers of the steel pan along with Winston Simon whom he helped to achieve the correct notes when playing melodies, presumable as he perfected the shape and performance of the steel pan as an instrument. Henderson left Trinidad for England in 1951 to study piano tuning. A year later he gave up his studies to work as a pianist and soon after formed his own band playing a combination of jazz and calypso. Interestingly, he learned to play pan while in England through fellow Trinidadian Sterling Bettancourt: bearing in mind that during the forties steel pan beating was not considered appropriate, let alone respectable recreation which may explain why Henderson only learned to play pan in England. Henderson’s ensemble doubled as a jazz quartet and a steel band at different London venues. For the quartet he played piano, Sterling Betancourt drums, Max Cherrie double-bass and Gigi Walker trumpet.  In addition to performing regular gigs the band appeared on the radio, films and TV shows including: Danger Man; The Saint; The Persuaders; and Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors.  Henderson was a major contributor to the development of the Notting Hill Carnival initially playing for the first children’s carnival in 1964. In Pan Mana,  a short documentary, Henderson says ‘ the steel pan started in this country with me’ and this is no exaggeration since Henderson was awarded an MBE in 2006 in recognition of his services to the cultural life of the UK. Henderson did not stray from his first love – the piano and Jazz –  establishing a relationship with the 606 Club that lasted for over 25 years. Did he fall out of love with the rhythms of the Calypso which was now Soca in a variety of forms - Raga, Groovy, Power and Rapso?

See the benefit line up here:

The original Rum and Coca-cola with a commentary by Lord Invader here:

Music from Oil Drums (1956)

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