Alto saxophonist Rick Henderson became a disciple of bebop subsequent to his initial grounding in swing, a stylistic trait that may have made him appealing to Duke Ellington when the latter big-band leader was unable to convince bebop maestro Charlie Parker to join his band. It was trumpeter Clark Terry who recommended Henderson to Ellington; Terry had heard the saxophonist while checking out local music on a gig in Henderson's hometown of Washington, D.C.
Henderson studied composition in high school and would eventually focus more on this aspect of creativity than forcing sound out of a reed. He played in a septet at high school dances as well, graduating in 1946 and getting into the local jazz scene where his initial urges to ape players such as Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges was soon trumped by the exciting new directions touted by Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and others. Henderson joined the Army for two years in 1951 and marched from there into the Ellington squad, taking on the challenging task of following up veteran sharpshooters Willie Smith as well as Hodges himself.
Henderson spent five years in the Ellington reed section alongside the great players Russell Procope, Harry Carney, Jimmy Hamilton, and Paul Gonsalves. His composition "Carney" was a portrait of the clarinetist and baritone saxophonist who was one of Ellington's longest-lasting sidemen. Ellington began to rely on Henderson's ability with pen and score during the period when the band was under contract for Capitol Records. An anecdote in W. Royal Stokes' book The Jazz Scene amusingly details the demands of this relationship: "One night before a recording session, Duke casually dropped by my hotel room at 2 a.m. with some music for me to write by 10:00 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 2:00 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."
Ellington turfed out Henderson in 1956, his Capitol contract over and his ambition to radically alter the sound of the famous big band by shifting a number of section seats. Henderson went back to Washington, where he led the house band at the Howard Theatre, doing at least four shows each day until 1964. At that point his composition and arrangement activities became more prominent. He took on assignments well into the '90s, not only for jazz bands but for school groups and military orchestras as well. Ellington used some of his charts, as did competitor Count Basie, tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet, and pianist Billy Taylor, who particularly liked Henderson's feel for the Ellington sound. During the late '70s Henderson conducted the jazz ensemble at the University of Maryland.