Trumpeter, Doctor and Top African American Figure Skater Looks Back in New PBS Flick

Dr. Eddie Henderson looks back on his accomplished life in a new documentary, entitled “Uncommon Genius” to air on PBS during Black History Month.

| 29 Jan 2024 | 11:30

At 83, Dr. Eddie Henderson has achieved so much, that his future plans are to “keep doing what I’m doing,” he said. “Everything has been going along in my life so seamlessly.”

Henderson, who grew up in the Bronx and attended P.S. 78, reflects on his multiple careers as a trumpeter, figure skater and doctor in the new PBS documentary “Dr. Eddie Henderson: Uncommon Genius,” which premieres on Feb. 7 at Smoke Jazz & Supper Club.

His mother was a dancer at the Cotton Club and father, a singer in the Charioteers, the number one black singing group in America in the 1940s.

When he was in the fifth grade, his mom took him to see Louis Armsttong perform at the Apollo Theater. “He showed me how to make a sound on his trumpet and since my uncle had a trumpet, he gave it to me and that’s how that started,” he said. After his mother remarried and he moved to San Francisco, his stepfather introduced him to figure skating, and he fell in love with the sport and pursued that path as well. “But I ran into so much racism, I told myself, ‘I have to get out of here and go back to school and get an education. I might as well be a doctor,’” he recalled.

After a stint in the Air Force, he enrolled in medical school, to spite his doubting stepfather, who was a doctor, and became a psychiatrist, because the on-call schedule for that medical specialty gave him a chance to play the trumpet. His big break came while he was doing his residency, and ran into Herbie Hancock, who was in need of a trumpet player. “So I asked him, I said, ‘Herbie, I would really like to be in your band.’ He said, ‘But you’re a doctor.’ I said, ‘I will always be a doctor. I have my license. They cannot take this away. But this is a grand opportunity to do what I really love,’” Henderson explained. “He thought for about two seconds and just said, ‘OK.’ And I left the residency, moved back to New York and from that point on, it’s been all music.”

When the now-Westchester resident isn’t on tour with his quintet or traveling the world with his wife, he is teaching music at Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio.

How did the documentary come about? Did PBS contact you?

A good friend of mine, Mark Rabideau, who’s the producer of this film and the head of the music department at Colorado University and Michelle Carpenter, who’s the head of the film department, collaborated. And Mark knew my whole story about the three trajectories in my life and they thought that would be a good story. Mark’s been talking about it for years with me, so he just got an opportunity when he met Michelle; she’s won five Emmy Awards for her films already.

When you were young, you lived in Los Angeles because of your dad’s job.

His singing group was on “The Bing Crosby Show” five days a week during the time when I was in nursery school, first grade and second grade. So my family moved out there then, and when that stint was over, we all moved back to New York City to the family home in the northeast Bronx.

How did you wind up playing the trumpet?

When I was in the fifth grade, there was a musical aptitude test, and so my best friend, he played clarinet, so of course, I wanted to play the clarinet also. But they ran out of clarinets, so all they had left were the accordion and violin, which I did not want to do. But ironically, my mother’s brother had a trumpet, because he played the trumpet, he was one of the Cotton Club’s boy dancers. The whole family was in show business. But the way I started playing the trumpet is my mother took me down to hear Louis Armstrong and took me backstage to meet him. I was in the fifth grade, I had never touched an instrument before.

Where did you take lessons?

In the Bronx, a block away from my house, Vinny Roberts Music School. I had an excellent trumpet teacher. I took one lesson every week, from fifth grade through the eighth grade, so I learned all my technique there. Then, after that, my family moved to San Francisco and I started studying classical music at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

After a year of playing the trumpet, you went back to see Armstrong.

I played “Flight of the Bumblebee” for him and he was impressed, so he told his wife to get a book of his solos transcribed and on the book, he said “To Little Eddie, this is to warm your chops up by. You sound beautiful. Keep playing. Love, Satchmo [Armstrong’s nickname].” Of course, I was too young and immature. I really didn’t know who he was, but in retrospect, I look back and say, “Wow.” That was the godfather of it all.

Then, you started figure skating. Tell us how you first got interested in that.

When I first moved to San Francisco, in mid-summer, between elementary school and high school, I didn’t know anybody and so my stepfather gave me the luxury of a ticket in the front row of the Ice Follies. I had never seen figure skating before and I was absolutely mesmerized. He was trying to make me happy since I wouldn’t talk, I was kind of depressed, I left all my friends in New York. So he bought a ticket for me 30 days in a row sitting in the same front seat. I think I was looking at the pretty girls as much as I was at the ice skating.

When you began to pursue skating, you had your first encounter with racism.

I wanted to join the figure skating club in San Francisco. The president of their club came to me. I said, “My name is Eddie.” He refused to call me Eddie, he just called me “Boy.” I said, “My name is not Roy.” But he continued with “Boy.” I said, “Well, I want to join the club.” He said, “Anyway, Boy, we’re not even going to give you an application.” And I didn’t understand. And on the way home, on the bus, it dawned on me. So that was my first encounter with racism. That just made me angry, so I said, “That’s not going to stop me from skating.” I continued avidly pursuing it. I thought that was going to be my calling in life. When I joined the Air Force and went to Denver, the Denver Figure Skating club saw how proficient I was and with open arms, they wanted me to represent them in the Midwestern Championships, where I won a bronze medal. It was so wonderful. And plus, I got a chance to skate in Colorado Springs alongside the Olympic team and I got trained by the Olympic coach of the U.S. figure skating team.

Explain why you chose to go to medical school.

Well, my stepfather, he was a doctor and he and I did not get along, we didn’t see eye to eye. When I was 14 years old, he told me that he was a doctor and that was the closest thing to God and I was not as smart as him, so that made me angry. He challenged me, so I took on the challenge and said, “Oh yeah? Watch.” So I went out of my way to become a doctor to spite him.

How did you decide to become a psychiatrist?

Well, let me backtrack a little bit. When I was in the Air Force, I ran into racism there also. Figure skating was my escape. They sent me to school from midnight until 8 in the morning and then from 8, for the rest of the day, I was free, so all I did was figure skate. And after I finished, I was still playing music and figure skating, but then when I got accepted to medical school, something had to go, so the figure skating kind of weaned away. After I finished medical school, I didn’t know what to do. I could either go into pediatric surgery, gynecology, each one would be four more years, on call every other night. But then I looked at the on-call schedule for psychiatry, and it was one night every 45 days. I said, “That’s perfect. It gives me a chance to play the trumpet more.”

Tell us about getting your big break when you met Herbie Hancock. You played with him for five and a half years, right?

Yes, well, I met him in the middle of my residency. I knew him even before he had his own group, when he was with Miles Davis. I used to go over and talk to him, all we talked about were sports cars. And then he came through San Francisco and I went down to see him and he needed a trumpet player just for that one week. Somebody recommended me and he said, “He’s a doctor.” They said, “He plays really good.”

I read that your wife and daughter are also musicians and help you with your music.

My daughter is the head of the music department at Oakland School of the Arts in California. She’s a well-trained musician. She graduated from Berklee College of Music in a five-year program, triple major, she finished in three years, A plus in everything, never achieved at Berklee before. Then she went and got her master’s degree in film orchestration, plus she’s a super talented pianist and has four or five albums under her name. And my wife, when I met her, I was playing a gig at Town Hall in Queens and the drummer knew her, so I asked the drummer, “Who’s that?” so he gave me her number. I called her the next day and now it’s been 30 years we’ve been married. And she just happens to be a super person, a super talented musician.