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65 years after the music died, Josh Henderson captures collective trauma in a new suite at history museum

Wearing sunglasses and a sparkly blazer, Josh Henderson holds an old-fashioned microphone, standing between a guitar and a viola.
Titilayo Ayangade
courtesy Henderson
One More Night's spring tour includes a stop at the Surf Ballroom, the last place Ritchie Valens, JP "The Big Bopper" Richardson and Buddy Holly played before boarding a charter plane that crashed near Clear Lake, Iowa, killing all on board. Josh Henderson's ensemble plays the piece Tuesday at the McLean County Museum of History.

On Feb. 3, 1959, a charter plane carrying up-and-coming rock-and-roll stars Buddy Holly, J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson and Ritchie Valens crashed in a field near Clear Lake, Iowa. Everyone on board was killed.

The event was memorialized in Don McLean's American Pie as "the day the music died." It also was the inspiration for multi-instrumentalist and composer Josh Henderson's One More Night, a full-length suite of genre-defying pieces boasting an impressive lineup of musicians: Desdemona string quartet, alto saxophonist Caroline Davis and vocalist Sylver Wallace among them.

Henderson's spring tour is intentionally dialed in on the Midwest, including stops at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake and the McLean County Museum of History, the latter as part of pt. fwd's concert series. It's a literal and metaphorical nod to the Winter Dance Party, a brutal Midwest tour that tragically became those young rockers' last. Each victim gets a kind of requiem in One More Night, including one for the pilot, Roger Peterson.

“His job was in service of this music and this big phenomenon,” Henderson said. “I definitely wanted to have a movement for this specific person, but in the larger, macro sense, for those who help do all these different things. It’s not just one person who makes these concerts and tours."

Also top of mind as Henderson embarked on the project, which he created in residence at the University of Iowa, were these artists’ long-lasting influence. The Big Bopper is widely credited as making the first music video, more than two decades before MTV went on the air. Buddy Holly’s two-guitar format of lead and “rhythm guitar” is now the norm.

Pairs of movements dedicated to each artist borrow subtle cues from their music. Bambarria and Valenzuela, for example, are nods to Valens’ Latin heritage [often whitewashed by promoters] and pioneering role in Chicano rock, perhaps best memorialized in the film, La Bamba.

“Race is such a key, integral part of this country,” said Henderson. “It’s an unfortunate, but very necessary part of all American stories."

Lace and Lil’ Bop are for Richardson — and grapple with modern interpretations of mid-century norms.

“We got better as people,” Henderson said. “The original Chantilly Lace — I don’t know if you could make it today, the way he talks about women. There’s still music like that, but we have all this time to be like, 'OK, maybe that’s not super appropriate.'”

The collective trauma experienced when cultural icons die is an additional undertone of One More Night, as is the grind of life as a touring musician.

“Art is such a cool thing,” Henderson said. “It can affect our lives so heavily. It becomes a part of your consciousness. When that’s gone — when the tangible part of that is no longer of this realm — there’s something there we all feel.”

Later dubbed the “tour from hell,” the Winter Dance Party’s non-sensical route found the group crisscrossing the country in a cold school bus. On one occasion, the bus broke down in Minnesota leaving one player with frostbite. That was the last straw for Richardson, Holly and Valens, who opted to fly as a way to ease up on the cold and fatigue for a night.

At this stage of his career, Henderson regularly sees both extremes of tour life. He performs with symphony orchestras and in dingy jazz clubs, stays at five-star hotels and on lumpy couches. The album’s prologue and epilogue hint at this and all the ways Winter Dance Party went wrong, dreaming about what could have happened had a frigid, windy night in Iowa gone differently.

"One More Night," presented by pt.fwd, takes place at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 23, at the McLean County Museum of History, 200 N. Main St., Bloomington. Pt.fwd concludes May 4 with a concert at Bombsight Recording, 801 W. Chestnut St., featuring Normal Community High School’s Experimental Ensemble. Both concerts are free.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.