Monday, September 17, 2012

Happy Birthday Jon Hendricks! Part 2: The James Joyce of Jive

Happy Birthday Jon Hendricks!   
Part 2: The James Joyce of Jive

Two years and four months after sitting in with Charlie Bird Parker (1949), Jon Hendricks followed his music muse which took him to New York City. He walked into The Apollo Bar, where Bird was appearing. Bird was in the middle of a solo as Hendricks passed the bandstand.
   Bird said, “Hey, Jon!  How y’doin’, man?  You wanna’ sing some?”
   Hendricks held on to the wall to keep his knees from buckling then collapsed into a chair. 

“Gerry Mulligan was on baritone saxophone with his thick shock of blood-red hair, raggedy once-blue jeans and tennis shoes, no sox and playin’ pure Be-bop like a demon!” he remembered. “Bud Powell was on piano, inspiring the whole wide world.  Curley Russell, Bird’s buddy from Jay McShann and the K.C. days, was on bass and The Little Giant, Roy Haines, was on drums.”

Jon described what happened next. “After intermission, Bird called me up to sing. ‘Naw, Bird,’ yelled drummer, Roy Haines, ‘this is our last set. We don’t want no singers, man, we wanna’ play.’  I thought I was going to die from embarrassment, but Bird cooled Roy out and presented me.  After that night I knew everything was going to be cool because Bird was my PR Man, and I started giggin’ almost immediately all around the City.”

Not long after that, Hendricks heard “Moody’s Mood for Love” by King Pleasure and immediately recognized new possibilities for telling whole stories in poetry using great established Jazz big-band instrumentals. Listen to his lyric writing on “Four Brothers,” the Jimmy Guiffre composition for Woody Herman’s Third Herd:
   We're in the modern school, we always play it cool, we never play the fool/ The honkers and the squeakers might be stealin' the show/ But we don't go for that, so while we blow Hi-ho, lackadaise, for it's a natural fact/ I ain't no kin, but I would like to get in the act!”

This led to a recording with singers organized by Dave Lambert, Bird’s favorite Be-bop singer. A partnership was born when the two men decided to arrange a vocal album of Count Basie’s music. Looking for someone to sing the higher trumpet parts, they found Annie Ross. This led to the formation of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross and the release of “Sing a Song of Basie,” in 1957. They became the Number One Jazz Vocal Group in the world and were together for five years from 1957-1962. They introduced what Jazz Critic, Leonard Feather, dubbed “Vocalese,” and changed jazz singing throughout the world. It is Americana as much as Appalachian fiddle music and old time country is, though still an unacknowledged part of the new genre.

Little Johnny had grown up to become Jon Hendricks, famous singer, lyricist and drummer, and now a founding father of the vocalese tradition.  Lambert Hendricks and Ross released their second tribute album to Basie’s music in 1958. This time, “Sing Along With Basie,” was recorded with the orchestra of the Count himself. Chappell and I sometimes perform one of the tunes, “Goin’ to Chicago Blues” in our live show.
Other jazz songs (non-vocalese) by Jon Hendricks that Chappell and Dave perform are “Gimme That Wine,” “Yeh Yeh,” (see photo, a hit for Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames in 1964) and we get our audiences to enjoy vocalese scat-singing on “Doodlin’” (Horace Silver and Jon Hendricks). 

1985 was a great year for vocalese. Hendricks wrote an album titled “Vocalese,” for The Manhattan Transfer. Here is some of Jon’s poetry from the song “Joy Spring”:

“Life is over in a minute an' they never dug it/ in it or enjoy a minute of it/ 'cause they put too much above it that was gross/ somethin' that was worth a couple bucks at mos'/ So there is the reason that the maker of man included there in his plan/ A certain fountain deep within' where there was laughter, youth 'n gold/ for human beings t'have 'n hold …”

   The album won a total of seven Grammys, including one each for Jon Hendricks and Bobby McFerrin, guests on the album.

Ninety one years old today, September 16th, Jon is still be-bopping, creating jazz lyrics, and teaching master classes at the Jazz Jiversity, the University of Toledo.

This article is partly based on Jon’s recollections found at

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