Rick Henderson, 76, an alto saxophonist who played in Duke Ellington's orchestra and led the house band at the Howard Theatre, a landmark on the black musical circuit, died May 21 at his home in Washington. He had arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease.
Mr. Henderson, a D.C. native, was a superior musician who had the misfortune to rise on the big-band scene as it was declining. After his work with Ellington in the early 1950s and an impressive but grueling stint at the Howard Theatre that lasted until 1964, he spent many decades as a composer and arranger for school and military orchestras as well as bands led by Ellington, Count Basie, Illinois Jacquet and Billy Taylor.
Working as an arranger did not bring much public attention, which may have been fine for Mr. Henderson, often described as a person who liked his privacy. As a quiet practitioner of his trade, he earned the respect of those who used his charts, including pianist and educator Taylor, who felt that Mr. Henderson captured Ellington's sound "brilliantly."
Richard Andrew Henderson was raised by his mother, who gave him his first saxophone in middle school. Within a few years, he was playing in a seven-piece jazz band for school dances.
After graduating from Armstrong High School in 1946, he began working with local big bands. He was a solid sight-reader with a lovely tone reminiscent of his role models, Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter. He also was a follower of Charlie Parker, whose quicksilver pacing was reshaping the avant-garde of jazz.
At the time, Ellington's band began losing some of its stalwarts, including Hodges and Willie Smith, both of whom made attempts at solo sax careers. Television was cutting into Ellington's audience, and the bandleader had yet to reach the second revival of his career, which rocketed after his auspicious work at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival.
After two years in the Army, Mr. Henderson joined the Ellington stable in 1953 on the recommendation of band members such as trumpeter Clark Terry.
"For the first time in the sax section in Duke's career," Terry said, "he had a sax player who played more modern, had a hipper blend of playing, more associated with be-bop."
Over the next two years, Mr. Henderson appeared on the band's Capitol Records dates and shared reed duties with Russell Procope, Jimmy Hamilton, Paul Gonsalves and Harry Carney. The band recorded two of Mr. Henderson's relaxed-swing tunes, "Frivolous Banta" and "Commercial Time," and his light and playful solo work is shown on those numbers.
Ellington gave Mr. Henderson other arranging assignments, which the young saxophonist said were sometimes presented in a teasing manner.
"One night before a recording session," he told W. Royal Stokes for his book "The Jazz Scene," "Duke casually dropped by my hotel room at 2 a.m. with some music for me to write by 10 o'clock the next morning.
"I was half asleep and I promised I would do it, but when I realized what I was talking about -- Duke going out and having a ball and I was getting up at 2 o'clock and write all night long and then go on and record -- I got up out of the bed and went and found Duke and gave him the music back.
"And he laughed 'cause he realized I realized what he was doing -- he was planning on having a ball. So I went back and got me some sleep."
When the Capitol contract expired, Mr. Henderson was a casualty. He returned to Washington and headed the Howard Theatre house band from 1956 to 1964, reportedly the longest tenure in that theater's history.
The theater, at Seventh and T streets NW, was part of the "chitlin' circuit" of black musical centers during the era of racial segregation. Comparable theaters included the Apollo in New York, the Royal in Baltimore and the Regal in Chicago.
The Howard was a haven for touring big bands, rhythm-and-blues artists and early Motown acts. Mr. Henderson wrote arrangements for them all, based on records he would review a week before the scheduled performance. He adapted to last-minute band configurations; three saxes could quickly become six or vice versa. He then helmed the hand-picked band through four shows a day, with a midnight show on Saturdays.
With the end of segregation, the rise of rock music and the general deterioration of the neighborhood after the 1968 riots, the theater began to sputter economically. The Howard closed in 1970, though there have been attempts to reopen it over the years.
Mr. Henderson played some dates with trumpeters Clark Terry and Dizzy Gillespie. He also started Federal City Publishers, arranging and composing original tunes and big-band standards.
He led large and small jazz groups around Washington, conducted the University of Maryland jazz ensemble in the late 1970s and mentored younger musicians.
He leaves no immediate survivors.