Wayne Henderson, a trombonist and composer who was a founding member of the Jazz Crusaders, a group that began in the 1950s playing straight-ahead bebop and then morphed into leading performers of jazz-funk, died on Saturday in Culver City, Calif. He was 74.
His wife, Cathy, said the cause was heart failure triggered by diabetes.
The Jazz Crusaders, who shortened their name to the Crusaders in 1971, placed 19 albums on the Billboard Top 200, eight of them in the Top 50. Their funky, danceable renditions of songs by the Beatles, Carole King and others extended their reach beyond jazz fans, as did original songs by Mr. Henderson like “Keep That Same Old Feeling.” At the height of their success, the Crusaders opened for the Rolling Stones.
“We are the fathers of jazz-funk-fusion, and I am a funkster at heart,” Mr. Henderson said in an interview with The Los Angeles Times in 1995. “We took pop tunes like ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘So Far Away’ and did them melodically with a groove, so people could dance if they wanted.”
That groove — subtle, almost mesmerizing repetitions of a theme — was the essential characteristic of the Crusaders’ music. Its influence can be heard today in acid jazz, house music and hip-hop.
Mr. Henderson was born on Sept. 24, 1939, in Houston, where he formed a group called the Swingsters in 1952 with three high school friends: Wilton Felder, a tenor saxophonist; Joe Sample, a keyboardist; and Stix Hooper, a drummer.
As young teenagers, they traveled the Gulf Coast playing strip clubs and hole-in-the wall joints, even as their aspirations were focused on the cutting-edge work of jazz artists like John Coltrane.
“There’s nothing city-slick about what we do,” Mr. Sample said in an interview with The Independent, a London newspaper, in 2003. “It’s a combination of southeast Texas and Louisiana roots.”
After settling in Los Angeles in the late 1950s, the group drew praise for its unusual sound, which featured melody lines played by tenor sax and trombone in unison. Mr. Henderson, known as Big Daddy, became the group’s spokesman and wrote and arranged many of its songs.
They changed their name to the Jazz Crusaders in 1961 and recorded their first album, “Freedom Sound,” for the Pacific Jazz label that year. Their 1962 recording of “The Young Rabbits,” a high-energy Henderson composition, led to comparisons to Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, the leading proponents of the stripped-down style known as hard bop.
In the early 1970s they dropped “jazz” from their name — because, they explained, people kept telling them they liked their music but didn’t understand jazz. Their new music was different in more than name. An electric bassist and guitarist were added. So were vocalists. Mr. Sample began playing electric keyboards.
“We were the co-creators of funk music,” Mr. Henderson said in an interview with The Kansas City Star in 2006. “Other guys started the jazz-funk thing, too — Cannonball Adderley, Herbie Hancock — and we started selling records just like the pop guys. And we kept the integrity of the music.”
In 1975, Mr. Henderson left the group to concentrate on producing artists like the vibraphonist Roy Ayers and the drummer Chico Hamilton. He also worked as a studio musician with Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell and many others. In later years he periodically reunited with members of the group, most recently in London last October. His wife said he was working on starting a new group, the Super Blues Crusade, at his death.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Henderson, who lived in Los Angeles, is survived by his sons, Wayne Jr. and Randy, and two grandsons.
Mr. Henderson explained his songwriting process in a 2004 NPR interview. It began, he said, when a melody popped into his head: “And when you can hum it, then the next thing comes, obviously, the rhythm, man. See, once I get my melody, then I lay into my rhythm, and then fill all those beautiful harmonics.” He added, “But I think melody — I’ve got to think that first.”