Have Some Jon Hendricks To Take The Edge Off A Little

W/O.C. Smith — Lambert, Hendricks and Ross perform “Every Day I Have The Blues”

Jon Hendricks (born September 16, 1921) is an American jazz lyricist and singer. He is considered one of the originators of vocalese, which adds lyrics to existing instrumental songs and replaces many instruments with vocalists (such as the big band arrangements of Duke Ellington and Count Basie). Furthermore, he is considered one of the best practitioners of scat singing, which involves vocal jazz soloing. For his work as a lyricist, jazz critic and historian Leonard Feather called him the “Poet Laureate of Jazz” while Time dubbed him the “James Joyce of Jive.” Al Jarreau has called him “pound-for-pound the best jazz singer on the planet—maybe that’s ever been”.[1]


Here’s Lambert, Hendricks and Ross from 1959. Video editing removes some of Jon’s solo.

Jon Hendricks is not only one of the world’s favorite jazz vocalists, but is widely considered to be the “Father of Vocalese”, the greatest innovator of the art form. Vocalese is the art of setting lyrics to recorded jazz instrumental standards (such as the big band arrangements of Duke Ellington and Count Basie), then arranging voices to sing the parts of the instruments. Thus is created an entirely new form of the work, one that tells a lyrically interesting story while retaining the integrity of the music. Hendricks is the only person many jazz greats have allowed to lyricize their music, for no one writes hipper, wittier, or more touching words, while extracting from a tune the emotions intended by the composer, more sympathetically than Hendricks. For his work as a lyricist, jazz critic and historian Leonard Feather called him the “Poet Laureate of Jazz” while Time dubbed him the “James Joyce of Jive.”


Miles Davis’ tune, “Freddie The Freeloader”

In 2000, he returned to his hometown of Toledo, Ohio to teach bright-eyed freshman the bliss and blues of jazz. The University of Toledo awarded him an honorary Doctorate of the Performing Arts and appointed him Distinguished Professor of Jazz Studies. In the ’70s Hendricks taught at several universities in California; hence, he’s no stranger to the classroom.

“And this is how I continue, on day one: You will earn an automatic A just for taking this class because this is the only country in the world that systematically degrades its own cultural art form. And while it does that, it pays servile attention to all the world’s other art forms. When I say servile, I mean they spend millions of dollars on huge ornate, gaudy opera houses. That’s Italian. Each city has a grandiose, sumptuous art museum. That’s French. Cities, towns and municipalities subsidize ballet companies. And that’s very cultured and very wonderful. Except that’s Russian. And they all have symphony orchestras that play symphonic music. That’s Russian too. And they have Shakespearean theatres. That’s English.”

“Remember, this is me talking to freshman kids: And what do they have for American culture? Dark cellars, mostly funky bars where women and drugs are for sale. And then on top of that, with their lying selves, they tell you and anyone else within earshot, that that nigger music was born in the whorehouses of New Orleans. The truth is that jazz is the secular music of our Christian church.”

After he explains how Ray Charles transformed the spiritual “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In” into “I Got a Woman” he continues: “The music is spiritual. Only the words are changed, to protect the guilty. That’s why you have to sit up here, all 200 of you, in the largest lecture hall in this university and listen to stories about your culture while six-year old children across the world can show you the houses of their culture. But our own, they ignore completely. The last thing is, every other country, whose cultural ass they kiss, adores the culture that they spurned, which is jazz.”


Lambert, Hendricks and Bavan — Yolande Bavan, originally from Sri Lanka (note the sari!) replaced Annie Ross in 1962.

“As a jazz musician, I would like to be remembered as a poet. That’s the highest level, because poetry is the highest use of the word,” Hendricks asserts. “The language that one speaks attains its height in poetry; a person reads a great poem and his soul is ennobled. The Bible is poetry, great literature is poetry. A good lyricist is a poet. Johnny Mercer was a poet: ‘Footsteps that you hear down the hall, the laugh that floats, on a summer night, that you can never quite recall.’ That’s poetry. So if I can be remembered as a poet, I’ll be happy.”


Horace Silver Quintet and Jon Hendricks – The preacher – Berlin 1968
(Horace Silver, p; Jon Hendricks, voc; Randy Brecker, t; Bennie Maupin, sax; Jeff Williams, b; Billy Cobham, d)

With a bunch of his kids in 1991, doing Horace Silver’s “Come On Home.”

From an interview with Jazz Wax’ Mark Myers:

JW: Eventually your family settled in Toledo, Ohio.
JH: Yes. And Art Tatum lived five houses from ours. He was from Toledo, too. When I started to sing as a kid, he accompanied me on the radio. Soon he began calling me for gigs. Can you imagine? Art Tatum calling me to sing with him? When I was 9 years old, I was known as Little Johnny Hendricks and sang at the Rivoli Theater in Toledo. Art was 21 years old.

JW: What was it like to sing with Tatum?
JH: Like singing with the Minneapolis Symphony. I once asked Tatum how had learned to play like that. He said his mother had bought him a piano roll featuring two pianists. Tatum, being blind, didn’t know that. He just listened and learned the piece being played on the roll. It turned out to be two guys playing at once. He had learned to play four hands anyway and didn’t think anything of it [laughs].

2008, jamming with Kurt Elling. Each takes turns “playing bass” for the other.

Jon Hendricks is 89 this year. I hope I have half his energy when I’m fifty. Wait. I’m more than fifty, and I don’t have half his energy!

just amazing… !!


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