2007 ART OF JAZZ LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD WINNER
JON HENDRICKS: "JAZZ'S TRUE POET LAUREATE"
The art of jazz singing is hard to define, but easy to recognize, and easier still to enjoy. And for more than half a century, no one has done more to advance this elusive, yet appealing, art form than 2007 Art of Jazz honoree, singer-lyricist Jon Hendricks.
Born on September 16, 1921 in Newark, Ohio, as a child Hendricks first sang in church with his mother because, as he recalls, "My father couldn't carry a tune in a bucket." The family moved to Toledo in 1932, where he took up the drums, wrote, produced, and starred in his high school's annual musical revue, performed three nights a week on local radio as the lead singer of "The Swing Buddies," and occasionally jammed with a family friend, the virtuoso jazz pianist Art Tatum. Already the seeds of a legendary musical career had been planted, and deeply.
That career began to take root shortly after Hendricks' military service in World War II when, back home in Toledo, he met Charlie Parker, who encouraged him to come to New York and "pay his dues." And so, in 1952 he made the leap to the Big Town, working as an office clerk by day, writing songs for big name artists like Louis Jordan and King Pleasure by night, and making a few, sporadic recordings of his own.
Then in 1957 singer-arranger Dave Lambert, with whom Hendricks had recorded on a couple of occasions, suggested what, to Lambert at least, was a brilliant idea: write words to a group of classic Count Basie charts - solos and all - and record them with a large vocal ensemble, each singer handling a different horn part. Hendricks was dubious - "Dave dragged me kicking and screaming into stardom," he later admitted - but he decided to go along with Lambert's plan. At least, the singers reasoned, they'd be remembered after they both died of starvation, and that didn't seem very far off. Hendricks' lyrics were brilliant, but the rehearsals were disastrous. The sound was too dense, and worse, the chorus just didn't swing. "We sounded like an operatic choir," Hendricks remembered.
Attempting to salvage their foundering project, Lambert and Hendricks called in their friend and fellow singer, Annie Ross, to try and coax their hired voices toward something resembling jazz. But it was hopeless. And so, in desperation, Plan B was enacted: Lambert and Hendricks fired the other singers, hired Ross, and decided to record all the parts, just the three of them, through the magic of multi-tracking. Released in 1958, Sing a Song of Basie created an instant sensation, and a new jazz group was born.
This stunning debut led to a follow-up recording and tour with the actual Basie band, and culminated in a contract with Columbia Records. With Dave's deft arrangements, Jon's clever lyrics, and Annie's astounding range, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross truly was, as the title of their first Columbia album declared, The Hottest New Group in Jazz. Hendricks' years of scuffling had, at last, borne fruit, and a new form of jazz singing, eventually dubbed "vocalese," was emerging.
In 1962, after six albums and countless miles on the road, Annie Ross left L,H&R and was replaced by Yolanda Bavan. Two years - and three more recordings - later, the group broke up for good and Jon Hendricks began working as a single, embarking on a diverse, and still on-going, musical and personal odyssey.
Hendricks moved his family to London in 1968 and spent much of the next few years performing throughout Europe and Africa. He also was seen frequently on British TV, and appeared in the British film, Jazz Is Our Religion, and the French film, Hommage a Cole Porter.
Returning to the States in the early1970s, Hendricks settled for a number of years in California's Mill Valley and took on enough projects to keep three geniuses busy. He taught classes at California State University at Sonoma and the University of California at Berkeley, and worked as a jazz critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. He produced and staged a musical revue, Evolution of the Blues, that ran for five years at San Francisco's Broadway Theatre, and then for another year in Los Angeles. His CBS documentary, Somewhere to Lay My Weary Head, won Emmy, Iris, and Peabody awards. And during this time Hendricks started performing with his wife, Judith, and daughter, Michele. Since then he has continued to feature his talented family members on recordings and gigs, including, most recently, his younger daughter, Aria.
As a singer, Jon Hendricks has served as a role model and inspiration for subsequent generations of vocal artists. George Benson, Al Jarreau, Bobby McFerrin, and Kevin Mahogany are just a few of today's finest jazz voices who have either recorded or performed live with him. The Pointer Sisters sang Hendricks' songs and appeared on his 1975 Tell Me the Truth album. The Manhattan Transfer wisely asked him to both sing on and write lyrics for their 1985 recording, Vocalese, which ultimately won seven Grammies. And among singers, Hendricks' fans are numerous, far-ranging, and word-class. Tony Bennett lists him as "one of my five favorite vocalists." And even Mick Jagger has said that Hendricks is "definitely an influence on me."
As a wordsmith, Hendricks' body of work is nothing short of prodigious, especially in the genre of "vocalese," that special craft of inventing lyrics to previously recorded improvised jazz solos. He has set lyrics to classic big band recordings by Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Woody Herman. Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis, Frank Foster, Benny Golson, Gigi Gryce, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, and Randy Weston number among the eminent modern jazz composers whose works have been enriched by Hendricks' hip, witty, and uplifting wordplay. And he has crafted English lyrics for over a dozen songs by Brazilian bossa nova masters Joao Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim, many of which can be heard on his wonderful 1963 album, Salud! Joao Gilberto.
In 1993, the National Endowment for the Arts officially recognized Hendricks as a "Jazz Master." But this much honored and widely respected elder statesman of the jazz community has in no way rested on his many laurels. During 1998 and 1999 he and Annie Ross took part in a joyous reunion tour. He returned to his hometown in 2000 as a Distinguished Professor of the Performing Arts at the University of Toledo. There he formed a fifteen-voice student ensemble, the Jon Hendricks Vocalstra, which performed to a standing ovation at the Sorbonne in Paris. In 2005 he received a Governor's Award for the Arts is in Ohio and a lifetime Grammy Award for his accomplishments in vocal jazz.
He also has appeared in films (White Men Can't Jump, Foreign Student, People I Know), is working on two books, and continues to write lyrics, record, teach, and tour, currently with his latest project, "Lambert, Hendricks & Ross Redux." Today, at the age of 85, Jon Hendricks remains what he always has been: a consummate artist, a gifted and engaging entertainer, and jazz's true poet laureate.
© Bob Bernotas, 2007. All rights reserved.
Photo: Carol Steuer