Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Hendricks, Jon (John Carl)

Singer, songwriter and arranger Jon Hendricks has been the apostle of "vocalese" for more than half a century. While he didn’t invent the art of putting lyrics to improvised instrumental solos, no one has done more than he to nurture and popularize the form, and to stretch its possibilities with his audacious lyrics and delivery.

                      Jon Hendricks by Suzanne Cerny

Hendricks was born September 16, 1921 in Newark, Ohio, one of the 17 children. His father was a pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the family moved several times before settling in Toledo when Hendricks was 12. By that age, he had already sung in in church, as well as at at banquets and parties. Two years after moving to Toledo, Hendricks was appearing on local radio shows with a fellow Toledo resident, a teenaged pianist named Art Tatum.

Hendricks served for four years in the U.S. Army, spent mostly in the Second World War’s European Theater. After his discharge in 1946, Hendricks enrolled in the University of Toledo under the G. I. Bill as a pre-law student, with a special interest in literature.

During this period, Hendricks taught himself to play drums and gigged as a percussionist and singer in Toledo clubs. Among the jazz luminaries who would pass through the city and play with Hendricks was Charlie "Bird" Parker, who in 1950 urged Hendricks to commit himself to a professional music career.

Since the G.I. Bill’s benefits didn't extend far enough to allow Hendricks to continue his law education beyond his undergraduate years, he heeded Bird’s advice and headed to New York City in 1952 where he soon found his true calling as a singer, writer and arranger. He first found success writing rhythm 'n' blues tunes such as "Feed Me" for bandleader Louis Jordan, as well as “I Want You to Be My Baby" for Lillian Briggs. He also wrote jazz pieces, such as "Out of the Past” for tenor saxophonist Benny Golson and “Social Call” for alto saxophonist Gigi Gryce.

In 1953, Hendricks had a fateful encounter with another lapsed drummer turned singer-arranger, Dave Lambert, who had eight years earlier recorded the track “What’s This?” with Buddy Stewart, which is considered the first vocal performance influenced by the then-burgeoning bebop movement. Hendricks later said that the modernist scatting on this track “made me feel a lot less crazy in my hometown of Toledo, where I was scatting also.”

Hendricks’s interest in bending and reinventing popular song forms began years before he met Lambert. “When I was first singing, I would forget the words and then make up ones I thought would fit and I got to the point when I put in my own words, I found out that as long as they rhymed people didn’t know the difference,” he told critic Ralph Gleason in 1959.

In 1955, Hendricks and Lambert, along with Butch Birdsall and Harry Clark, pooled their shared yearnings for artistic adventure into a vocal version of “Four Brothers,” a signature hit of Woody Herman’s Second Herd, written by saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre and first recorded in 1947. Lambert arranged parts for each singer to mime the sounds of the four sax players in the original version, while Hendricks wrote lyrics for each of the original sax solos.

Lambert and Hendricks tried to follow up this coup two years later with a recording of Count Basie orchestra standards arranged for 12 voices. The initial effort, however, was a near-disaster because, as Hendricks later explained, the singers “were great sight-readers, but…they couldn’t swing at all.”

The pair opted instead to record the session using overdubs of their voices and that of Annie Ross, a British-born singing prodigy who’d originally been recruited to coach the ensemble. The resulting album, Sing a Song of Basie, was successful enough to have reversed what was then perceived as a decline in the popularity of vocalese, which was first performed by singer Eddie Jefferson in the 1940s then popularized by King Pleasure.

Emboldened by the album’s success, Hendricks proposed that the trio form a group fronting a small rhythm section. In 1959, the newly-minted Lambert, Hendricks and Ross (or LHR, as they were sometimes known in publicists’ shorthand) began a phenomenal four-year run as one of the most popular groups in jazz history. Indeed, the title of their 1959 Columbia LP, The Hottest Group in Jazz wasn’t mere marketing hyperbole. Cuts from this album, including the group's sly Freudian-themed "Twisted," set to a composition by saxophonist Wardell Grey, became hits and the group appeared on nationwide television and performed in festivals and concert halls all over the world.

Lambert’s keen ear for blended tones, and Ross’s dynamic stage presence, played huge roles in the trio’s success. But it was the wit and ingenuity deployed in their repertoire’s lyrics, most of them written by Hendricks, that set the group apart from other jazz singers of the era. He would craft narratives around an instrumental solo whose details would curl so effortlessly around the beat, at whatever tempo, that the listener could believe they were what the original player had in mind.

The solo from Leroy Kirkland’s “Cloudburst,” which Hendricks had conceived before he and Lambert connected with Ross, is a cacophony of lovesick phrases (“Let’s stop-a-little, tease-a-little/prob’ly, maybe squeeze-a-little/try-a-little, sigh-a-little/Maybe have to tell you the truth/I’m gonna love you/an’ that’s it…”) that, together, evoke a riotous, desperate character. It was such verbal dexterity that led one comparably ecstatic Time magazine writer to label LHR “the James Joyces of Jive.”

Two more albums followed in 1960: Lambert, Hendricks and Ross Sing Ellington and Hi-Flying. Also that year, Hendricks wrote and directed a suite, Evolution of the Blues Song, for the Monterey Jazz Festival, which was recorded that year for Columbia and decades later, transformed into a live theatrical piece. Hendricks also provided vocals and spoken-word interludes for George Russell’s New York, N.Y. in 1959, and he, Lambert and Ross were also featured performers with Louis Armstrong and Carmen McRae on Dave Brubeck’s 1961 musical-comedy suite, The Real Ambassadors for Columbia. Ross left the trio in 1962, citing health issues, and was replaced by Yolande Bavan. The trio disbanded altogether two years later.

In 1968, Hendricks took his family to London, England, partly for the sake of his five children’s education. He continued to perform in Europe and Africa during these years. His London nightclub dates drew such fans as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. He and his family returned to the U.S. in the early seventies, settling in northern California. Hendricks wrote jazz reviews for the San Francisco Chronicle from 1973 to 1974 and taught jazz classes at California State University and the University of California at Berkeley.

By the mid-seventies, the legacy Hendricks established with Ross and Lambert, who was killed in a 1966 highway accident, had been acknowledged by contemporary pop musicians, notably singer-songwriterJoni Mitchell, who had covered the LHR tunes “Twisted” and “Centerpiece” on two of her albums. In subsequent years, groups such as the Manhattan Transfer and artists such as Bobby McFerrin would build their own bodies of work on the foundations laid down by Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.

Through it all, Hendricks continued to write lyrics: by his informal count, he had written as many as 400 by 2008. Well into his eighties, Hendricks has continued to perform all over the world as a solo artist or as a leader of various incarnations of Hendricks and Company, the latter often with his wife Judith and their children Michelle and Aria. McFerrin and Kevin Burke have been on-stage with Hendricks. He has recorded several albums with these and other artists, including Wynton Marsalis, whose 1994 recording of his Pulitzer Prize-winning suite Blood on the Fields, which included a comic role for Hendricks. He and Annie Ross have reunited for occasional tours, most recently in 1999.

In 2000, Hendricks returned to his hometown to teach at the University of Toledo, where he was appointed Distinguished Professor of Jazz Studies and received an honorary Doctorate of the Performing Arts. He formed a fifteen-member ensemble, Jon Hendricks’ Vocalstra at the university and the group has performed a vocalese version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” with the Toledo Symphony.

In 1993, Hendricks was inducted into the ranks of National Endowment for the Arts' Jazz Masters, the United States' highest honor for a jazz musician. Well into the twenty-first century, he seems as indefatigable and irrepressible as ever, advocating the cause of jazz education and seeking greater acknowledgement of the music’s history and centrality in American culture. He also sounds as ready as he ever was, at a moment’s notice, to make words swing in public places.

Select Discography

as Jon Hendricks

Evolution of the Blues Song (Columbia)

Tell Me the Truth (Arista)

Freddie Freeloader (Denon)

Boppin’ at the Blue Note (Telarc)

with Lambert, Hendricks and Ross

Sing a Song of Basie (Verve)

The Hottest New Group in Jazz (Columbia)

Contains Lambert, Hendricks & Ross Sing Ellington and High Flying with the Ike Isaacs Trio

Hipster’s Holiday (Rhino)

Contains “Deck Us All with Boston Charlie”

with Dave Brubeck

The Real Ambassadors (Columbia)

withWynton Marsalis

Blood on the Fields (Columbia)

Contributor: Gene Seymour