Jon Hendricks, a singer, songwriter and lyricist who pioneered vocalese—the art of crafting words to famed jazz solos—and was a co-founder of the vocal group Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, died November 22. He was 96.
Jon died on the same day as producer George Avakian. (See my obit and complete interview with George here.) I interviewed Jon in 2009 for JazzWax. Here is my complete interview with him:
Jon Hendricks’ pure sense of swing, poetic word-play and conversational vocalese remain unmatched. Truth be told, Jon’ s splendid contribution to jazz has never been fully acknowledged or appreciated. Jon not only has written the words to dozens of songs based on famous jazz solos, he also has perfectly captured their infectious intent by singing every nuance of the original instrumentals. Which requires enormous skill, sensitivity and depth. If you wave off Jon’s gifts as nothing more than a vocal magic trick, try this exercise: Grab the lyrics to Cloudburst or Everyday and sing along with the record. Not so simple. Jon can swing, he’s bop hip, and since the early 1950s has been jazz’s impersonator-in-chief, getting saxophone, trombone and trumpet solos up on their hind legs and walking.
Jon’s recording career began in earnest in 1954 on a King Pleasure session that featured vocalese singer Eddie Jefferson and the Three Riffs. In 1955, Jon and the Dave Lambert Singers recorded three tracks. But his big break came in 1957, when a failed recording session led to the formation of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. The group’s first album, Sing a Song of Basie, won a Grammy Award and ignited a fresh vocal concept that was both fun and sophisticated.
JazzWax: Where did you grow up?
Jon Hendricks: I was born in 1921, in a railroad switch town called Newark, Ohio. It was just a hamlet with a dirt road running through it. My father was pastor of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which served the area. No one was famous there. If you were alive back then in the Depression, you were a celebrity [laughs]. There were 17 of us—14 boys and 3 girls. There was no TV then, so getting along with each other was necessary and easy. You had no choice.
JW: That’s a lot of brothers and sisters.
JH: In number only. There was a lot of love in my family. There also were strict rules of living. In the morning, we had a crowd of children who needed to use the bathroom. So we lined up according to height and age, with the smallest in the front of the line. And it worked. Order always works. You can have a mob, but if they’re ordered, they can break down the strongest wall. Like everyone else in our neighborhood, we had a vegetable garden that helped put food on the table.
JW: Did your family remain in Newark, Ohio?
JH: No. My father could preach better than Peter, so the church moved my father to many different parishes to energize congregations. I went to 13 different schools. The church paid for our relocation, and there was always a parsonage that went with the church, so we always had a house. We had to sleep three to a bed, of course, but we were used to that. That’s good for a family. It forces closeness. [Bishop Richard Allen, founder of the A.M.E. Church]
JW: What did your father do to keep all of you in line?
JH: Nothing. We were just exhorted to love one another. We had no problem with that. The problem came when my father would get all 17 of us downstairs on our knees to pray. We didn’t stand up or sit in a chair or anything like that. We got down on our knees to supplicate to a power that was bigger than us. Every morning he prayed for good and for the safety of all the world. And he exhorted us every morning to know, not to believe, to know that we were alive by the grace of god. He told us that there’s nothing living that we can dislike.
JW: What was the problem?
JH: My father told us that every living thing is our brother and sister. He warned us that outside our front door, nobody believed that. So he said our task was to take that knowledge with us when we went outside, so that we behaved that way whenever we met someone. The problem was the real world didn’t always work that way or respond in turn to kindness and love.
JW: But your father’s message helped you.
JH: Oh yes. My father taught me to fight for the right things, not the wrong ones. My father’s way of looking at life gave all of us a strong humane-ness. Everybody to this day likes my brothers and sisters.
JW: What was your first instrument?
JH: When I was a teen I took up the drums.
JW: What did your father think?
JH: I never knew what he thought. He never imposed anything on us. He told us how he expected us to behave but never said we could only do one thing and not another. He just urged us to be kind. If we were, he said, most men and women would like us and respect us. The problem is he never taught us how to go about doing that, except simply to treat everyone as a brother and sister.
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].
JW: When did you first hear bebop?
JH: On the boat coming home from Europe after World War II. I had just won $300 playing craps and was in my bunk reading when I heard someone playing Charlie Parker’s records. His music made complete sense to me because I was already familiar with Art Tatum. When Dizzy [Gillespie] and Bird [Charlie Parker] came on the scene, they were just following Art Tatum. Most people don’t realize that Tatum was the father of bebop.
JW: How so?
JH: In later years, when I asked Bird where he had learned all the things he was playing, he said he had worked as a dishwasher at the Onyx Club on 52nd St. in the early 1940s just to hear Art Tatum play. Then, he said, he went back to Kansas City and learned to play with all the creativity and wisdom and speed of Tatum. And that’s what he did.
JW: What did you do after the transport ship docked in New York?
JH: When I got back in 1946, I moved back home and enrolled at the University of Toledo on the G.I. Bill. I majored in English and minored in history and was studying pre-law. I got all A’s in English—including the only A awarded in creative writing in seven years. My English professor was Milton Marks, who had written a book on creative writing used in all the universities.
JW: Eventually you decided to move to New York. Why?
JH: Racism. I had married an Irish girl in Ohio, and we had a son. I had a 3.5 average at the university and was on track for law school. Because of my high academic average, I was to going to be appointed Juvenile State Probation Officer. That would have given me the privilege of socializing with police court and juvenile court judges. They didn’t want that because my wife and I were an interracial couple. But they couldn’t just dismiss me. I had earned the grades I got and the position I was to receive. So they got the guy with next highest grades, a black guy. They told him that if he didn’t convince me to move out of town, they were going to fire him.
JW: What happened?
JH: The guy came over to my house and laid out the situation for me. He said he had a wife and two kids and that they told him to come over to my house and threaten me or he’d lose his job. The guy said to me, “I’m not going to do that. I’m just going to say that if you prevail and stay on your job, they’re going to fire me. I have two kids. But I’m just going leave it with you.” So I decided to leave. Didn’t make much sense staying after that.
JW: Why New York?
JH: Because of Bird. I had sung with him first in Toledo. He came through on a tour in 1949. I scatted with him. Miles had just left the quintet and Kenny Dorham [pictured] replaced him on trumpet. Al Haig took Duke Jordan’s place. I had Bird’s records and had researched everybody in the group. So when I went up to sing with him, I took about eight choruses. Then I started to exit the stage. But I felt this hand on my coattail. Kenny was up taking his solo so his chair was empty. I looked back and saw my coattail was in Bird’s hand. Bird motioned for me to sit in Kenny’s chair.
JW: What happened after the set?
JH: Bird asked me what I wanted to do. I told him I wanted to be a lawyer. Bird said, “You ain’t no lawyer. You’re a jazz singer.” I said, “What can I do with that?” Bird said, “You have to come to New York.” I said, “I don’t know anybody there.” Bird said, “You know me.” I said, “Where will I find you?” Bird said, “Just ask anyone” [laughs]. I left thinking, “This guy’s crazy.”
JW: So you never forgot that invitation.
JH: Right. So two years later, when that guy came to my house and told me to quit and get out of town, I decided I would first go with my wife and son to Canada to live. Racism didn’t seem to exist up there. I had $350 in my pocket. But when we arrived at the border, they wouldn’t let us into the country to emigrate unless we had at least $1,000.
JW: What did you do?
JH: My wife, child and I drove to Buffalo, N.Y. But our car broke down. We went to the bus station and, remembering what Bird had said, bought tickets and took the bus to New York City. When I arrived, I had only my wife and son, and a set of drums.
JW: What did you do when you arrived in New York after leaving Toledo, Ohio?
JH: Right away I called Joe Carroll, Dizzy Gillespie’s singer. I knew Joe because he was with Dizzy when Dizzy offered me a job years earlier, when I was still in school. That’s when Dizzy came to Detroit. I sang with him there. I knew what they were playing at the time because it was what Art Tatum had taught me.
JW: What did Carroll say?
JH: He said to stay at a hotel up at 116th and Broadway near Columbia University that charged $18 a week.
JW: Did you ask Carroll for a job?
JH: No. All I asked Joe was, “Where’s Bird?” Joe said “At 125th and 7th Ave., at the Apollo Bar.” So I went uptown to see Bird. When I arrived at the bar, I put my hand on the doorknob but pulled it back. I started to feel silly. I thought, “This cat was doing one-nighters all over the Midwest. He’s not going to remember me." So I started to walk away from the bar, toward my hotel. But soon I stopped. I said to myself, “The only guy who knows what I do is in that place. I have to go in there.”
JW: Did you go back?
JH: Yes. I went back, gritted my teeth and walked in. Roy Haynes was on drums, Curly Russell was on bass, Bud Powell on piano, and Bird and Gerry Mulligan were playing. You had to walk right past the bandstand in that place to get to the tables.
JW: What happened?
JH: Bird stopped playing when he saw me walk by the stand. He shouted out, “Hey Jon, want to come up here and sing something?” It was two years and four months since I had seen him last during that one-nighter in Toledo. And he had remembered me.
JW: Parker had some memory, didn’t he?
JH: Oh, man. Amazing. The guy had a great mind. Back in 1945, the British publisher of Cherokee wouldn’t let Bird record the song because they thought it would be a desecration of the copyright. So Parker played the same chord changes but made up a different melody. Parker told Teddy Reig, the [Savoy Records] producer of the session to call it Ko-Ko. Years later, Teddy asked Bird what Ko-Ko meant. Bird said it was the name of the Lord High Executioner in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado [laughs]. Charlie Parker not only knew the work but the irony of the name and its use for the song. He was an intellectual. Later Bird kept a tape in his luggage of Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps. He liked the part where the woman screams [laughs].
JW: Did you go up and sing with Parker and the group?
JH: First I sat down at a table. When they got off the set, the musicians went off in different directions to buy their stuff. Roy didn’t use. He sat with his girl at the bar. Then they all came back. It was the last set.
JW: What did Bird say to you?
JH: He said, “We’ll play a few tunes first and then call you up.” On the third tune, Bird announced, “In Toledo, Ohio, an amazing young cat jumped up on stage and scatted. He happens to be here tonight. Come up, Jon.”
JW: Sounds like a confidence-building introduction.
JH: It was—until Roy Haynes [pictured] said real loud, “No, no, we don’t want no singers, Bird.” Parker said, “Roy, cool it and sit down and play the drums.” I got up with them and sang three numbers, and the house went wild. I’ve always thought of myself as a horn, so that’s what I did. I scatted as though I were another horn in the group. They loved it.
JW: In December 1954, you recorded a track with vocalese pioneer King Pleasure.
JH: King Pleasure [pictured] brought me onto the record date. I had met him uptown at the Turf Bar a week or so earlier. He gave me a sheet of paper with his words to Stan Getz’s solo on Don’t Get Scared, which Stan had recorded in ’51 with his Swedish All-Stars. I said, “I see your words, but where are my words?” King Pleasure said, “You’re a writer. Write your own words.” So I did. That’s why when you listen to the recording, his words sound like a father talking to his son and I’m responding. I came up with that concept after leaving the bar. Quincy [Jones] arranged that session.
JW: You’ve always been a fast thinker and lyric writer.
JH: I write on demand like that. That’s how I wrote the words to Four Brothers around that time. I lived in New York and was on the streets for years before I got famous. I worked first in a newsprint factory. On my lunch break I’d hang out on Broadway in the 50s, where the songwriters were. They’d surround me and say, “Jon, what are you working on?”
JW: What would you tell them?
JH: I’d sing a ditty using my way of putting words together. Soon I’d hear what I sang on the radio a few weeks later. They were stealing my stuff.
JW: You had quite a fast mind.
JH: I did. I took pre-law at the University of Toledo because of my mind. When I was 9 years old I got all A’s in English. I loved books and always was adept at the language. My father always chose me to help him with the text for his Sunday sermons. He’d ask me to copy out text from the bible each week. This made me curious about everything and eager to research whatever I didn’t know. If I’m onto something, I don’t stop until I get to the truth. I do the same thing with my lyrics. I’ve always had a love of words and word combinations. After spending time on the streets and in the clubs of New York in the early 1950s, it all came together.
JW: How did Sing a Song of Basie come about—Lambert, Hendricks & Ross’ first album.
JH: Dave Lambert and I were like brothers. But when we first went in to record that album, Dave brought too many Dave Lambert Singers. They didn’t swing. They were like a commercial choir, without that hip feeling. After a while, it wasn’t working. I told Dave, “We have to get some more African-Americans in here" [laughs]. Dave said, "Well, I guess so." Creed said, “No, no, no more singing. No more mass. I don’t have any more money. Whatever we do, you three have to do it.”
JW: What did you say?
JH: Dave said, "We’ll multitrack." Annie, me and Creed looked at each other and said, "What’s that?" Dave said, "Well, we’ll put three voices on a roll of tape. We’ll do it four times and we’ll have the 12 pieces of the Basie band and that will be it." We already had the rhythm section track recorded.
JW: You guys had never multitracked before, had you?
JH: Nobody had [to that extent with vocals]. And nobody had ever put the lyrics on the back of an album before. I invented that. I said this will let the listeners follow along. It will be better than some disc jockey writing about how great or not great the album is.
JW: So Creed saw the genius of that right away?
JW: So did you write all your parts?
JH: I can’t write music. I can’t read music. I just sing music. Dave did all the writing.
JW: How did you sing all the parts without reading music?
JH: Dave gave me the tapes of the Basie parts and I learned them. I learn very fast.
JW: So in the tape, you could hear what each saxophone was playing through the band?
JH: Well, Dave isolated all the different parts on one tape. He’d just take off the different parts he needed right from the recording. Instead of the whole band, you’d hear just one saxophone—the first alto and the second alto, the first tenor and the baritone, one after the next. Annie had the same thing but with the trumpets, and Dave had the trombones.
JW: So you’d learn the four parts. You’d put down the lead track first and then come back and sing the other harmonizing saxes until all four parts were recorded. What an amazing invention.
JH: It was. I don’t even know the right word to describe it. It was god at work.
JW: If any one of you couldn’t pull that off, you would have been in trouble.
JH: Well, Annie had already recorded the way we sang. Twisted was out already. She was singing vocalese before Dave and I did.
JW: But not the multitracking.
JH: No. But that’s not a creative process. That’s just a creative use of electricity [laughs].
JW: But it was still tricky to pull off.
JH: Well, I guess so. But for us it was so easy, it’s hard to see the difficulty in that now.
JW: What happened next?
JH: We recorded the tracks over the next month and a half. But when Dave put all the tracks together and we came in to hear it, the master was a mess. [Jon imitates the sound of the distorted voices on the tape]. When assembling all the parts onto one master tape, we had put the least-heard voices—the alto, the second trombone and the baritone parts—on top. And the others next. So it was inaudible. There was no blended order to the parts. We should have recorded each section separately and then brought them together by modulating the sections by the dials.
JW: Did you three flip out?
JH: We were a little stunned. Creed [pictured] started moaning, “Oh god, I’m going to lose my job.” He was in tears. Creed was such a sweet cat. We all loved him. So Dave said, “Give us another month and a half. What time do you close?" Creed said, "At 8 [p.m.]. Dave said, "We’ll be in here at 8:15 p.m. What time do you open?" Creed said, "At 7 [a.m.]." Dave says, "We’ll leave at 6:45. Just give us the time." Creed said, "I won’t be able to come up with any more money." Dave waved him off, saying, "We don’t need the money. Just give us the time and we’ll come in and do this right.”
JW: What did you three do?
JH: We came in and re-recorded everything at night, the way it should have been done in the first place. And when we heard the master the next time around, all four of us sat down and cried like babies. You could hear instantly how good it was. And to this minute, till right now, I can truthfully say that it’s the best vocal album I have ever heard in my entire life.
JW: So you worked through the night, every day for a month and a half?
JH: That’s right [pause]. What else did we have to do? [roaring laughter]. Those were good days.