James Fletcher Hamilton Henderson Jr. was born December 18, 1897 in Cuthbert, Ga. He was known as "Smack" Henderson because of his baseball skills, but he was chiefly a pianist, bandleader, arranger, and composer. Henderson was a key player in the growth of big band jazz and swing music, and his influence has been compared to Duke Ellington.

In the 1920s he played piano for many blues singers before going on to form his own band in 1922. Louis Armstrong joined two years later.