When Bob Henschen played a one-night stand with Dizzy Gillespie in 1991, he didn't have to worry about the crazy piano charts the legendary trumpeter was known for. By that point in his career, Gillespie was mostly playing standards and talking a lot on stage, letting his affable personality carry the show. Gillespie, after all, was a funny guy. But this gig was not without its challenges. "He would go into 'My Funny Valentine,' and I wouldn't know the beginning or the ending, so there were some rough edges," the 52-year-old Henschen says, recalling the experience fondly, "but he was above having problems."
These days Henschen rarely has problems of the musical kind. He's one of the area's most respected musicians and teachers, splitting his time among various venues and the classrooms of HSPVA and Houston Community College. His most influential role in the Houston jazz scene, however, may be as the artistic director of Cezanne, where he decides who plays at one of the best listening rooms in town.
Henschen is virtually unknown outside of Houston and has worked on only one recording, At Last!, a self-produced effort led by vocalist Horace Grigsby. On At Last!, made up of jazz standards, Henschen shows himself to be a skillful accompanist. He adds classy embellishments that accentuate Grigsby's voice; Henschen also creates excellent backdrops for soloists and, when he solos, plays tastefully.
Aside from his playing with Grigsby, Henschen is noted for his versatility and his strong roots in the bop tradition, though he has performed some avant-garde material in the past. Within the Houston jazz community, he is considered one of the top straight-ahead players.
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"He brings to the table of instrumental pianists the kind of sensitivity you usually find just with people who accompany vocalists," says drummer Rick Porter, who has played with Henschen on and off since 1976. Porter knows a little bit about good pianists, having worked for Bud Powell and Mary Lou Williams. Henschen is the pianist in Porter's Music Unlimited Ensemble.
"One of his chief attributes for me has always been his sensitivity," Porter adds. "He listens to horn players, feeds them and plays off of them. He'll hear things going on in the rhythm section. He'll play stops that I play. He'll find things that enhance what's happening."
Henschen flirted with the idea of moving to New York City in the mid-1970s to explore the city's vibrant jazz scene, but ultimately opted against it. He says he felt he could fulfill his ambitions here, despite an opinion that many in Houston have repeatedly voiced: that the area isn't exactly the most hospitable place for jazz musicians.
"My experience has been that it's easy for a piano player to make a living [in Houston] playing all kinds of music," he says. "That makes it possible for me to play jazz whenever I want to without having to worry about making very much money. So, I've kind of made a compromise. I play wedding receptions with my pop kind of band and cocktail parties, where it's somewhat jazzy but it's not a jazz gig. Then I get to go out and play for $50 a night at other places, and it all works out."
Henschen began his career playing local nightclubs as a teen and gained some fame leading a trio. After graduating in the late 1960s from North Texas State University, where he studied English, Henschen moved back to Houston and pursued jazz "not for money" but because he enjoyed it and thought he was pretty good at it. He quickly established a reputation as a solid pianist, and in 1972 got a call to play with Buddy Rich's big band. The one-week stint as a replacement at La Bastille turned out to be an audition, and Henschen landed the Rich gig. With Rich's band, Henschen got his first tastes of Europe and New York City; he also appeared on the 1973 video Rich at the Top and even managed to avoid Rich's legendary temper. Which was no mean feat.
But Henschen wasn't a big-band player, and after six months on the road he decided it was time to come home, where he has remained to this day. "It was kind of a way to get out and see the world a little bit and say I had done it," Henschen says. "[Rich] was an amazing musician. I was impressed by his playing night after night. But musically speaking there wasn't a whole lot for me to do."
Henschen's loyalty to Houston in a way may have limited his career.
"What may have kept him from being a really major figure is that he stayed in Houston, where it's kind of difficult to get really first-rank players to play together that often," says Porter. "If Bob had been in New York, I'm sure he would have had some CDs that would really be happening and people would be talking about. He had the potential, and still has for that matter, to be a really first-rank, major player. I would say right now he's a major player, perhaps of the second rank and only because of the fact that he hasn't had a chance to play in the company of the best musicians all the time to really hone his craft. There just isn't the opportunity to play above your head all the time."
Aside from working with the best Houston has to offer, Henschen has backed some of jazz's most celebrated performers: Joe Williams (who treated Henschen like he was his favorite pianist), Anita O'Day and Freddie Hubbard (who brought Henschen and drummer Sebastian Whittaker together for the first time).
When not gigging or teaching, Henschen is at Cezanne, the cozy little jazz room above the Black Lab. Though he has a position with the club, he is essentially a contractor. He pays the musicians that perform at Cezanne out of his pocket and makes his profit (if any) from cover charges. Some weekends make money. Some don't.
Since Cezanne is a desirable place to perform, Henschen says, even the best artists can perform only a couple of nights every few months. This restriction also applies to the artistic director, who has refused to install himself as house pianist even though it would probably save him some cash over the long haul. In fact, Henschen plays only a few dates at the club here and there. Yet he is continuing Cezanne's tradition of featuring national and regional acts. A few weeks ago noted pianist Lynne Arriale performed, and this weekend the club will feature San Francisco-based singer and former Houstonian Kellye Gray. "I always have a sense of pride when I bring someone like that in," Henschen says. "[Fans] love having that intimate environment to hear good people."
Bob Henschen performs Thursday nights at the Crowne Plaza Houston with Horace Grigsby, Friday nights at the Doubletree Post Oak and Sunday brunches at the Wyndham Greenspoint. He performs at Cezanne, 4100 Montrose, Friday and Saturday, March 24 and 25, with trumpeter Tex Allen. For more information, call (713)522-9621.
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