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David Henderson Biography

Co-founded Umbra, Infused his Poems with Jazz, Known for His Lush Voice


Poet, author

A well-respected though perhaps under-recognized poet, David Henderson was a founder of the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s. He has been an active member of New York's Lower East Side art community for more than four decades. Henderson has published four volumes of poetry, and his work has appeared in numerous literary publications and anthologies. A revised and expanded edition of his highly-acclaimed biography of rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix was scheduled for publication in 2006.

Co-founded Umbra

Born in 1942 and raised in Harlem, David Henderson later studied writing, communications, and Eastern cultures at various colleges and universities without ever finishing a degree. His first published poem appeared in the New York newsweekly Black American in 1960. Upon moving to the Lower East Side of New York, Henderson became an active participant in the various black nationalist, arts, and anti-war movements.

In 1962 Henderson, along with other black writers, founded the Society of Umbra. They held weekly writing and criticism sessions and gave popular public readings. In 1963 the group began publishing the magazine Umbra as an outlet for black writers, with Henderson serving as co-editor and later editor. The first issue included poems by Julian Bond and Alice Walker, as well as three of Henderson's poems. Umbra introduced the work of Nikki Giovanni, Ishmael Reed, and Quincy Troupe, among others. Henderson also was involved with one of the country's first—and most-admired—counterculture newspapers, the East Village Other, which gave rise to the Underground Press Service.

Henderson's first poetry collection, Felix of the Silent Forest, appeared in 1967. In the title poem, the cartoon character Felix the Cat "walks the City hungry in every sense," representing disenfranchised blacks and others spurned by American society. These poems introduced many of Henderson's recurrent images and themes, such as the forest in the city and the assassination of Malcolm X. "They Are Killing All the Young Men" was dedicated "to the memory and eternal spirit of Malcolm X." In his introduction to the collection, Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) wrote that the poems were "local epics with the breadth that the emotional consciousness of a culture can make."

Infused his Poems with Jazz

In his article on Henderson in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Terry Joseph Cole described the poet as "the literary heir of Langston Hughes." Cole wrote: "His poetry makes use of personal experience, popular culture, and European and American mythologies to create a new mythology for the people of Harlem and the castaways on Manhattan Island." He clothed himself in "the mantle of the traditional African storyteller and chronicler."

In his introduction to De Mayor of Harlem, Henderson described his second collection as "poems, documentaries, tales, and lies" written between 1962 and 1970. The documentaries described events such as the 1964 Harlem riots: "I see police eight to one // in its entirety Harlem's 2nd Law of Thermodynamics // Helmet // nightsticks bullets to barehead // black reinforced shoes to sneaker // Am I in Korea?" Later poems signaled Henderson's move toward jazz poetry, which he described in the introduction as "the language of the man of the moment; it's improvised; it's street language…African 'talking drums'—the basis of jazz—were one of the world's first mass communications systems. People related to those rhythms in a unified way."

Henderson's poems frequently portrayed jazz musicians, such as Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, and he began performing on jazz recordings. In 1971 he recorded with the avant-garde saxophonist Ornette Coleman. Henderson wrote the lyrics to composer and pianist Sun Ra's "Love in Outer Space" and recorded with Sun Ra as well with saxophonist David Murray and "Butch" Morris.

Known for His Lush Voice

Henderson worked with the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Free Southern Theatre in New Orleans, and the Teachers and Writers Collaborative at Columbia University. For a time he taught and was poet-in-residence at City College of New York. In the late 1960s and 1970s, Henderson lived in California, serving on the board of directors of the University Without Walls in Berkeley and as artistic consultant to the Berkeley Public Schools. He taught English and Afro-American literature at the University of California at Berkeley and San Diego. Later he taught courses, seminars, and workshops at Long Island University, New York's New School, and the St. Mark's Poetry Project. His 2004 writing workshop at Naropa University in Colorado was entitled "Geography of War."

Henderson has performed at various venues over the past four decades. He interviewed and hosted readings by black poets for Pacifica Radio in San Francisco and wrote, produced, and directed the radio documentary Bob Kaufman, Poet. Henderson's funk opera Ghetto Follies was first produced in San Francisco in 1978. That same year the Library of Congress began taping his readings for its permanent archives. Henderson's 1980 collection The Low East celebrated his return to New York's Lower East Side.

Henderson's poetry has been published in numerous anthologies, including two that were edited by Langston Hughes. The many periodicals that have published his work include Black American Literature Forum, Black Scholar, Essence, Paris Review, New American Review, Evergreen Review, Saturday Review, and the New York Times.

Wrote Biography of Jimi Hendrix

Henderson spent more than five years researching, conducting interviews, and writing Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child of the Aquarian Age. Originally published in 1978, it was condensed and revised as 'Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky in 1981. A new expanded edition was published in Britain in 2003 and scheduled for American publication in 2006 as 'Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky—Jimi Hendrix, Voodoo Child.

Jimi Hendrix included transcripts of recorded conversations and first-person accounts. It was an innovative biography, detailing Hendrix's musical influences, especially blues and jazz, his lyrics, and the development of his groundbreaking electric guitar style and the technology that made it possible. Greil Marcus of Rolling Stone called it "the strongest and most ambitious biography yet written about any rock and roll performer."

At a Glance …

Born David Henderson in 1942, in Harlem, NY. Education: Bronx Community College, 1960; Hunter College, 1961; New School for Social Research, 1962; East-West Institute, Cambridge, MA, 1964-65; University Without Walls, Berkeley, CA, 1972.

Career: Umbra, co-editor, 1963-68, editor, 1968-74; National Endowment for the Arts, consultant, 1967-68, 1980; City College of New York, lecturer, 1967-69, poet-in-residence, 1969-70; Berkeley Public Schools, artistic consultant, 1968; New York Public Schools, consultant, 1969; University of California, Berkeley, lecturer, 1970-72; University of California, San Diego, lecturer, 1979-80; Naropa University, visiting professor, 1981, 1995, 2004; State University of New York, Stony Brook, visiting professor, 1988-89; New School, visiting professor, 2000; St. Mark's Poetry Project, workshop leader, 1995, 2003.

Awards: Great Lakes College Association of New Writers Award, 1971; California Arts Council, New Genre Poetry Grant, 1992; Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts, Artist Grant, 1999; New York Foundation for the Arts, Artist Fellowship, 1999.

Addresses: Home—PO Box 1018, Cooper Station, New York, NY 10276-1018.

Henderson described a Hendrix performance at the Fillmore East: "Hendrix assaults the mind, sublimating horrible noises of the city. Subways busting through violent tunnels, exploding Mack trucks, jet exhaust fumes, buses; he turns the fascist sounds of energy exploitation into a beautiful music with a pyramid base of urban blues guitar. B. B. King's looney obbligato screams, Blind Lemon Jefferson's beautiful justice of country space, and Jimmy Reed's diddy-bop beats; Jimi exalts them all into a personal mastery of primordial sound itself, beyond ken and imagination. We hear spaceships landing in the heavy atmospheric gases of fantastic planets, we hear giant engines changing gears, we hear massive turbines that run cities, Frankenstein life-giving electric-shock blasts, jets taking off and exploding into melody."

Henderson described his most recent poetry collection, Neo-California, as "meditations on his Third World America." As of 2005 Henderson continued to write and compose poetry criticizing the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. He was also involved in the PoetsConsensus, a group devoted to post-9/11 issues.

Selected works


Felix of the Silent Forest (poetry), Poets Press, 1967.

(Editor) Umbra Anthology 1967-1968, Society of Umbra, 1968.

De Mayor of Harlem (poetry), Dutton, 1970; North Atlantic Books, 1985.

(Editor) Umbra/Latin Soul 1974-1975, Society of Umbra, 1975.

Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child of the Aquarian Age, Doubleday, 1978; condensed and revised as 'Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky: The Life of Jimi Hendrix, Bantam, 1981; revised and reissued, Omnibus, 2003.

The Low East, North Atlantic Books, 1980.

Neo-California, North Atlantic Books, 1998.


New Negro Poets: USA, Indiana University Press, 1964.

Where Is Vietnam? American Poets Respond, Anchor/Doubleday, 1967.

Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, Morrow, 1968.

The World Anthology: Poems from the Saint Mark's Poetry Project, Bobbs-Merrill, 1969.

Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1970, Doubleday, 1970.

Open Poetry: Four Anthologies of Expanded Poems. Simon & Schuster, 1973.

Moment's Notice: Jazz in Poetry & Prose (includes "Sonny Rollins," "A Coltrane Memorial," "Thelonious Sphere Monk"), Coffee House Press, 1993.

Trouble the Water: 250 Years of African American Poetry, Signet, 1997.


New Jazz Poets, Broadside, 1967.

Black Poets IV, Pacifica Tape Library, 1973.

Poems: Selections, Library of Congress, 1978.

(With Sun Ra) "Love in Outer Space," The Singles, Evidence, 1996.

(With Ornette Coleman) The Complete Science Fiction Sessions, Columbia/Legacy, 2000.


Color: A Sampling of Contemporary African American Writers (videorecording), The Poetry Center and American Poetry Archives, San Francisco State University, 1994.

"Seven Poems from Neo-California," Poetry.About.com, www.poetry.about.com/gi/dynamic/offsite.htm?site=http://www.cyberpoems.com/henderson.html.



Cole, Terry Joseph, "David Henderson," Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 41, Gale Group, 1985, pp. 166-71.


African American Review, Winter 1993, pp. 579-84.


"David Henderson," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (May 12, 2005).

"A Poets Consensus," Public Art Forum: zumThema! www.public-art.de/forum/poetcons.html (June 23, 2005).


Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with David Henderson on June 21, 2005.

—Margaret Alic

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