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Remembering Jon Hendricks, The Poet Laureate Of Jazz

This week, we explore the career of jazz singer Jon Hendricks (1921–2017), who began a pioneer in the art of vocalese.

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Photo: Frank Jackson (Jazz In Photo Blog)

Jon Hendricks (1921–2017) in Central Park, New York City.

This week on the show, I’ll be celebrating Jon Hendricks, the gravelly-voiced, jazz wordsmith who we lost on November 22, 2017 at age 96. Hendricks was a singer, composer, but most of all, a groundbreaking jazz lyricist. In the 1950s, he and his iconic group Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross took the jazz world by storm, performing fun and clever vocal versions of famous instrumental jazz tunes, all with lyrics by Hendricks. I’ll be chronicling Hendricks’ entire career in this next hour.


Moody’s Mood

Jon Hendricks was born in Toledo, Ohio in 1921. He was a preacher’s son, which may say something about the singer’s gift of gab. He started singing at a very young age, and soon became famous as a child star around Toledo. At the time, he received one of the best jazz educations around: private lessons with his neighbor, jazz pianist Art Tatum.

Hendricks was drafted into the army during World War II, and struggled with racism there. He eventually found his way to New York City to pursue a career as a jazz singer. It was Charlie Parker, who he met in Toledo, who told Hendricks to move to New York.

His early career got off to a slow start. He wrote a few songs here and there, but Hendricks didn’t possess a naturally beautiful voice. He had a great sense of rhythm, but a raspy, gritty tenor voice. Then one day in 1952, while sitting at a coffee shop, he heard a version of the old Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields song “I’m In The Mood for Love,” which helped to shape his career.

The recording was by the mysterious singer named King Pleasure. Pleasure and lyricist Eddie Jefferson had created a vocal version of “I’m In The Mood For Love,” based not on the original melody by McHugh and Fields, but rather an improvised saxophone recorded by James Moody in Sweden in 1949. Pleasure and Jefferson’s version with new lyrics is often referred to as “Moody’s Mood For Love.”

This is the art of vocalese, adding new lyrics to an existing instrumental jazz solo. Hendricks said that hearing this new vocalese style struck a chord in his soul. It was from then on he focused his songwriting energy on composing vocalese lyrics.

In 1954, he recorded one of his first attempts at vocalese lyrics alongside King Pleasure and Eddie Jefferson. It was the Stan Getz tune “Don’t Be Afraid.” Hendricks had a way of taking just the title of the song and constructing an entire story around it. In this case though, he made one alteration to make it fit with Getz’s music: he changed the title from “Don’t Be Afraid” to “Don’t Get Scared.”

Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross

Jon Hendricks’s biggest success came alongside jazz singer Dave Lambert. Lambert was a pioneer in bebop vocal jazz from the 1940s, and Hendricks made a point to get in touch with him so they could collaborate. With Lambert’s gift of vocal arranging and Hendricks gift for writing vocalese lyrics, they began to construct vocal versions of their favorite jazz songs, like Jimmy Giufree’s “Four Brothers.”

They began to arrange the music of Count Basie, and soon landed a deal to record it with ABC-Paramount. They put together a choir, but the singers couldn’t swing. To help train the choir, they brought in singer Annie Ross, a singer and comedienne who also recorded some vocalese in the past. The choir still didn’t work, so Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross decided to just record it themselves. They were over budget, the stress had put Hendricks in the hospital, but the trio went into the studio and overdubbed their voices to make them sound like a 12-person choir.

The result was the album Sing Along With Basie, and it became the breakout hit of 1958. The trio Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross was born.

They all brought their strengths to the table: Annie Ross was gifted singer and dynamic performer, Dave Lambert was a brilliant vocal arranger, and Jon Hendricks was the poet. Hendricks began to vocalese versions of songs by Duke Ellington, Horace Silver, and more, showing off his gift for clever wordplay and storytelling. He crafted entire stories just based on the title of the song and the notes provided by famous jazz soloists. In his version of “Cottontail” by Duke Ellington, Hendricks tells the entire story of the rabbit Peter Cottontail, using the notes of Ben Webster’s extended saxophone solo.

Jon Hendricks became a master of writing these vocalese versions of existing jazz songs, but his creative energy didn’t just stop there. He wrote original songs too. Some of Hendricks first lyrics were for Louis Jordan, the comic jump blues artist. And many of his original songs are in that Jordan vein: funny, upbeat, and usually about food or alcohol.

In 1962, Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross were asked to be part of Dave and Iola Brubeck’s musical The Real Ambassadors. The musical was all about civil rights, and the role jazz played in spreading American culture around the world during the Cold War, and included artists like Louis Armstrong and Carmen McRae.

Unfortunately, this collaboration would be one of the final times that the trio would record together. By the end of the 1950s, almost as soon as they joined forces, the group began to splinter as Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks, and Annie Ross would each begin to pursue solo projects. Lambert and Hendricks did record a few more times with some Annie Ross replacements like Yolande Bavan. But then Dave Lambert died in an automobile accident in 1966. Jon Hendricks’ long-time musical partner was gone, and he was left to make a career on his own.

Going Solo

One of Jon Hendricks’ first solo recordings came from 1959, while he was still with Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross. It was an album of his own tunes he recorded with guitarist Wes Montgomery and saxophonist Cannonball Adderley called A Good Git-Together. The album included Hendricks originals like “Feed Me” and the title song, but also vocalese songs like Gigi Gryce’s “Social Call.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, Jon Hendricks career moved in different directions. He spent time in England, gaining a following there, and embarking on tours around Europe and Africa. He later moved back to the states, where he began to teach jazz at a few colleges in California and critique jazz as a reviewer for The San Francisco Chronicle. He also created a stage show in 1974 called Evolution of the Blues, which chronicled the history of African-American music.

During this time in the 1960s and 70s, Hendricks also made guest appearance on a few records with artists like Thelonious Monk and Stan Getz. In 1968 he made an appearance on Monk’s album Underground, performing his new vocalese version of Monk’s classic tune “In Walked Bud.” The “Bud” referred to is bebop jazz pianist Bud Powell, and Hendricks’ lyrics play on a familiar trope in vocalese jazz music: a song all about the history of jazz itself.

In the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, Hendricks performed most often with his family, including his wife Judith and his children Michelle, Aria, and Eric. These family members make appearances on groups he created called “Jon Hendricks and Company” or “Jon Hendricks and his All-Stars,” recreating the magic he made with Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross.

Around this time, Hendricks began to become revered as a prominent figure in jazz and an elder statesman of the art of vocalese. In 1985, he won a Grammy award with the Manhattan Transfer and Bobby McFerrin for the Manhattan Transfer album Vocalese. The album features songs all with lyrics by Hendricks, including innovative arrangements of “Birdland” and “Another Night In Tunisia.”

Jon Hendricks’ career lasted well into the 21st century. He continued to perform with his family, with Annie Ross, and with singers from the generation that he inspired, like Kurt Elling, and Darmon Meader from the New York Voices.

Jon Hendricks passed away at age 96 on November 22, 2017, as one of the most accomplished and acclaimed jazz singers of all time. He embodied jazz. He was honored by the National Endowment for the Arts as a Jazz Master in 1993. Critic Leonard Feather called him “The Poet Laureate of Jazz” for his monumental contributions as a jazz lyricist. And singer Al Jarreau called him “pound-for-pound the best jazz singer on the planet…maybe that’s ever been.”

Music Heard On This Episode

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Mark Chilla

Mark Chilla, originally from Atlanta, GA, is the Production Director at WFIU, where he also hosts Ether Game and Afterglow. He studied music theory at Indiana University and taught various music theory courses at IU and Butler University. He enjoys film, woodworking, learning new instruments and the Beatles.

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