Marshall is music: Homecoming: 'The Blues Professor' to be featured at Bob James Jazz Festival

Thursday, May 2, 2013
Artist and blues guitarist Mike Henderson will perform Friday, May 17, at Missouri Valley College to open the 2013 Bob James Jazz Festival. MVC's Morris Gallery of Contemporary Art will open a show of Henderson's work Tuesday, May 14. The retired art teacher earned the nickname "The Blues Professor" during his long career at the University of California. (Contributed photo)

When he was in his 20s, Mike Henderson wanted to see the world, but as a young black man living in the middle of rural Missouri in the '60s, that was no easy task.

"We were poor, there is no doubt about that," said Henderson, who, after a successful career as an artist and musician in California, will be returning to Marshall May 17, as the featured artist in the Bob James Jazz Festival. "It was hell being poor. There were so many of us too. No plumbing, no running water. I wanted to get out of that."

Henderson's story is not unlike a Cinderella story. At the age of 16, he quit school and, at the age of 20, was working as a shoe shine boy.

"Why did I quit high school? It didn't make any sense to me," said Henderson, who was born in Marshall in 1942. "If you were an African American living in Marshall back then you had two options or three: join the army, work at the shoe factory or at the chicken factory. That seemed to be what everyone was telling me my destiny was going to be."

But the kindness of neighbors and his determination took Henderson far across the country, eventually becoming a respected painter, art professor and blues artist in California.

Music helped at times too, he said. He remembers listening to Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed and Count Basie through an old transistor radio hidden from his father. He said listening to them gave him hope.

"They were chasing their dreams," Henderson said. "It didn't matter the finances, or their race. I wanted to do the same."

As Henderson worked as a shoe shine boy in the old Ruff hotel at the corner of Lafayette Avenue and North Street, he liked to paint and learn to play his guitar in his spare time. He said he always knew he wanted to play the blues.

"It was just when I heard that sound -- it was magical," Henderson said. "I didn't really get into gospel music because it was all about repenting like you've done something wrong. I was like, 'What have I done wrong?'"

Henderson said he loved to listen to records with lyrics which, at the time, were considered unconventional.

"I would just love the lines they would say. The first blues song lyrics I remember learning was B.B. King's 'Doggone my bad luck.' 'My wife done quit me, my girlfriend too. Doggone my bad luck soul'," Henderson said, chuckling. "I never heard words like that, you know. Nobody said anything like that before."

Henderson said through shoe shining he was able to meet many of the town's movers and shakers. One of them was Leonard Van Dyke, who owned a savings and loan company.

Van Dyke was attracted to Henderson's painting and his drive to become an artist.

"After he bought one of my paintings, Leonard Van Dyke says to me, 'If you are really serious about this you have to go to college, but you have to finish high school," Henderson said.

So he did.

Henderson finished his high school education and decided to go to college to pursue a career in art. At the time, he had to chose between east coast or west coast colleges because nearby art schools were still segregated.

Henderson saved $150 from his job at the hotel, and, with the help of Van Dyke, was able to take out a $350 loan from Wood & Huston Bank.

When he got to California, however, Henderson realized he did not have enough money to cover tuition. He returned to Marshall, saved more money, and took out another loan. In 1965, Henderson would say good bye to his friends and family in Marshall and take the train from Sedalia to California.

"I knew this time I was ready," Henderson said.

He would earn his Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1969. In 1970, he completed a master's degree from the same school. After graduating, Henderson would pay off his loans and take an art teaching position at the UC-Davis, where he would remain for the rest of his career.

More than 40 years later, now retired from teaching, Henderson said he is excited to return to Marshall. The last time he visited was in 1982.

"With all the places I've been and all the things I've done, to be able to come back and perform is an amazing experience," Henderson said. "Marshall was the launching pad to my career. I got a lot of support from a lot of different people back there."

Henderson is renowned throughout California for his teaching and his abstract paintings. In the blues scene, Henderson has released three albums, the latest which is called, "Trouble Ain't No Stranger."

Inside that CD jacket, there is a quote by Henderson about his latest album. The words encompass his life of challenges, dreams and triumphs.

"These eleven new songs are a deeper look into my soul, the challenges of life and how these challenges make you who you are," Henderson writes. "Without challenges, we can't grow. So face it and you will see, trouble ain't no stranger."

Opening for The Mike Henderson Band will be The Rain Dogs from Kansas City.

Tickets for Henderson's performance are available at The Marshall Democrat-News office, 121 N. Lafayette Ave. in Marsall, at The Vox Box, 350 S. Apache Dr. in Marshall, and online at the address below.

Mike Henderson, second from left, performs with his band. The band will be the headliner at the Friday, May 17, blues concert to kick off the 2013 Bob James Jazz Festival in Marshall. The opening act will be The Rain Dogs of Kansas City. The concert will begin at 7 p.m. in Eckilson-Mabee Theatre at Missouri Valley College. (Contributed photo)

Contact Carlos Restrepo at


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  • I plan to be there

    -- Posted by carmella214 on Fri, May 3, 2013, at 7:04 PM
  • I knew Mike Henderson.

    It always makes your heart feel good when you see someone from your home town, who from sacrifice and hard work make something of themselves.

    Good for you Professor Henderson, you are an inspiration to thousands of others.

    Bob Odom


    Lima Peru

    -- Posted by rgo33062 on Sat, May 4, 2013, at 9:43 PM
  • Sounds as if Mr. Henderson worked very hard to be successful. Hard to view it as a "Cinderella" replay.

    -- Posted by upsedaisy on Sat, May 18, 2013, at 11:39 PM
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