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Jon Hendricks: An Essential Top Ten Albums

Jon Hendricks: An Essential Top Ten Albums

Courtesy Alan Messer


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I wrote the shortest jazz poem ever heard. Nothin’ about lovin’ and kissin’… one word… listen!
—Jon Hendricks
Considering he reached the ripe old age of 37 before recording an album, Jon Hendricks' jazz legacy is remarkable. Although a singer, in his head he was more of an instrumentalist. When he improvised, he would imitate the tenor saxophone, the flute, the trombone, or the double-bass. His professional singing career lasted from 1932, when he was 11, to 2015 when, aged 94, he recorded some of his own lyrics to a collection of Thelonious Monk tunes (these recordings are as yet unreleased). In between, his life was a richly-embroidered tapestry of 20th century American history. Some of the embroidery was Hendricks' own—he was nothing if not a showman, and he rarely let the facts interfere with a good story.

Born into abject poverty in Ohio, Jon Hendricks was the seventh son in a household of 16 children. As a child, he knew Fats Waller, whose father was a friend of Hendricks Sr. He first sang in church, then was schooled in the rudiments of jazz harmony by Art Tatum, who lived on the same street in Toledo. By his early teens Hendricks was opening for headlining artists like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Harry "Sweets" Edison, Count Basie and Teddy Wilson. After letting him sit in at a gig, Charlie Parker encouraged him to pursue his singing career in New York. Once there, Hendricks began writing songs for Louis Jordan. His first recording was a single with King Pleasure ("Don't Get Scared"), but it was only when he teamed up with fellow jazz singer Dave Lambert that his career finally took off. Together they devised vocal arrangements of their favourite Basie numbers and recorded them with Annie Ross—in the process becoming pioneers of multi-tracking. In later years Hendricks employed unknown singers like Al Jarreau and Bobby McFerrin, who became stars in their own right, and profoundly influenced others, including Joni Mitchell and Kurt Elling.

He was a master of scat singing: with Lambert, Hendricks & Ross he would reel off chorus after chorus, eyes closed, his hands twiddling the air in front of his chest, as he imagined himself playing a saxophone. His other great contribution to jazz was as a lyricist, following the lead of Eddie Jefferson, King Pleasure and Annie Ross in the development of vocalese—the writing of lyrics to recorded instrumental solos. Somehow he never learned to read music. In fact, he claimed not to have the slightest inkling of music theory. When a colleague suggested Eb might be a better key for him than E, Hendricks asked, "Which one's higher?" He was a dyed-in-the-wool improviser who believed that listening was the most essential skill in playing jazz—hence the quotation at the top of this article. He argued that music starts to die as soon as it is written down. Charles Mingus took the same view, despite knowing perfectly well how to do it.

Gene Lees wrote that what Hendricks did when he first came to fame with Dave Lambert and Annie Ross was "difficult to the verge of impossibility." He continued: "Indeed, the only thing that proved it possible at all is that they actually did it." I have chronicled Hendricks' extraordinary life and achievements in This is Bop: Jon Hendricks and the Art of Vocal Jazz (Equinox, 2020).

After the glory days of the late fifties and early sixties he trod water for decades, recording less and less frequently as time went by, preferring the spontaneity and joy of live performance. He believed that bebop was the highest form of jazz, and was enough of a purist to distrust later developments such as John Coltrane's sheets of sound and the funk-based jazz of the early seventies. However, he was an ardent champion of Brazilian music, recording songs by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Edu Lobo and others.

As a group of albums, this Top Ten captures the humour, inventiveness and energy of Jon Hendricks' singing, his unmatched gifts as a lyricist, and his mastery of vocalese.

Sing a Song of Basie (Lambert, Hendricks & Ross)
ABC Paramount, 1958

Hendricks and Lambert blew their tight budget on the first day of recording with a choir who didn't know how to swing. In desperation, they hit on the idea of multi-tracking, splitting the instrumental parts between them and bringing in the hip and versatile Annie Ross for the higher registers. After recording the basic tracks with the Basie rhythm section, they embarked on a regime of sneaking into the studio after hours and working all night on the vocal multi-tracks. After several weeks of this, fuelled by large quantities of booze and reefer, they were reduced to tears of exhaustion. But against all odds they succeeded in making the music sound vibrant, sophisticated and spontaneous. The result was a palpable hit that led to the formation of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross as a performing unit. Hendricks continued to sing many of these tunes for the rest of his life, including Memphis Slim's "Everyday" (aka "Every Day I Have the Blues") and "It's Sand, Man"—here with Annie Ross's trademark bat-squeaks.

The Hottest New Group in Jazz (Lambert, Hendricks & Ross)
Columbia, 1959

Backed on this album by Ike Isaacs' trio, plus Sweets Edison on trumpet, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross were by now a highly successful touring act. They had realised early on that a small group was a better context for them than a big band. Here, with their first set for Columbia, they arguably reached the high point of their career. The sheer brilliance of the arrangements and the singing could have been off-putting in a look-ma-no-hands kind of way, but the sheer wit and exuberance of Hendricks' and Ross' lyrics puts paid to any such criticism. And the album title (taken from a Down Beat cover feature) was no idle boast. Not the hottest new vocal group, note, but the hottest in jazz—period. Highlights include the mysterious "Bijou," originally written with many different sections by Ralph Burns for the Woody Herman orchestra. This version is stunningly good, as is a breakneck (300bpm) "Cloudburst," followed on side two by the classic "Centerpiece," memorably covered in later years by Joni Mitchell.

Evolution of the Blues Song
Columbia, 1960

The conservatism of Hendricks' later years should not blind us to the creative energy and inventiveness of his early career. In 1960, the founder of the Monterey Jazz Festival, Jimmy Lyons, commissioned him to write a Sunday afternoon entertainment for that year's festival, adding that it should be "something about the blues." On this album of studio recordings we get a glimpse of what that occasion was like. Musically, of course, it's all blues, including Big Miller's up-tempo "I Had My Share" and Percy Mayfield's slow "Please Send Me Someone to Love," sung here by Jimmy Witherspoon. There is also African chant ("Amo"), field hollers ("Aw Gal"), spirituals ("Swing Low, Sweet Chariot") and jazz ("Jumpin' with Symphony Sid," featuring Ben Webster). Between the tracks, Hendricks narrates entirely in rhyme. The whole enterprise links the themes of childhood, slavery, song, dance, the community, the bible and the blues. It was one of the greatest accomplishments of his career, conceived and performed at a time when any mention of slavery was considered tasteless in the extreme.

High Flying (Lambert, Hendricks & Ross)
Columbia, 1961

The poverty of Hendricks' childhood explains his lifelong obsession with food and drink, which was often reflected in his lyrics. There are two Horace Silver examples on this, the group's sixth and final album together: "Cookin' at the Continental" is taken at a lunatic tempo and includes a classic Hendricks scat solo, while "Home Cookin'" presents him with the perfect excuse to slurp nostalgically over soul food, with risqué lyrics reminiscent of Wynonie Harris' "I Like My Baby's Pudding." The trio's increasingly nutty humour is given full rein in "Halloween Spooks," in which they compete to see who can make the silliest noises. But the album also includes more contemplative songs like the slow, sweet, hymn-like "With Malice Towards None," on which there is something almost Beach Boyish about the vocal harmonies. "Blue," by the group's pianist Gildo Mahones, is slow, beautiful, and sombre to the point of gothic, complete with celeste and bowed bass.

¡Salud! João Gilberto
Reprise, 1963

Hendricks became obsessed by a Joao Gilberto album with the clumsy American title Brazil's Brilliant João Gilberto Pops in Portuguese with Antonio Carlos Jobim's Ochestra. "Listening to Gilberto has been one of the greatest singing lessons I've ever had," Hendricks reported, adding, "What a pleasure to sing softly, gently, after years of so much volume. It's a relief and a pleasure." He recorded this album in Los Angeles in 1961, when the bossa nova craze was well under way, having already written English lyrics for "Desafinado" and "One Note Samba" (neither of which is featured here). Although he is sometimes off-key with this more delicate material, the best of the tracks reveal a gentler, more sensitive side of Hendricks that emerged only rarely with Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. Among them are "O Pato" by Jayme Silva and Neuza Teixeira, and Carlos Lyra and Vinicius De Moraes' "Voce e Eu (Me and You)." Four arrangers are credited on ¡Salud! , including Jobim himself and Johnny Mandel. Curiously, the guitarist is not credited.

Recorded in Person at the Trident
Smash, 1965

Many of Hendricks' albums were recorded live, but this is perhaps the best of them, capturing a typically upbeat performance at a restaurant in Sausalito. It's notable for early vocal versions, with his own lyrics, of "Watermelon Man" and "Yeh Yeh." The latter became a massive hit in the UK for Georgie Fame. "This Could Be the Start of Something" is a hip, energetic take on a tune he had recently recorded with Dave Lambert and Yolande Bavan (the latter having replaced the departed Annie Ross in 1962). There's a cool solo from tenor player Noel Jewkes, who also shines on "One Rose," a Gildo Mahones ballad delivered with touching vulnerability by Hendricks.

Times of Love
Philips, 1972

Belatedly released in the US on the Stanyan label in 1975 as September Song, this album was actually recorded in 1972 during Hendricks' five-year sojourn in London. Most of his usual trademarks are absent: this is not live but a studio recording; secondly it features neither scat nor vocalese; and thirdly Hendricks is accompanied by a full orchestra rather than a small group. The lush arrangements are by Wally Stott, all of them ballads and all rendered with dreamy melancholy—quite unlike the usual Hendricks fare. Only some of the cuts on ¡Salud! had hinted at this side of him. Frustratingly, apart from tenor saxophonists Ronnie Scott and Bob Efford, the personnel are not listed, but Scott is typically expressive on two tunes by French songwriter Cyril Azzam: the title track and "Where?," a version of which had previously appeared on Lambert, Hendricks and Ross' The Swingers.

Tell Me the Truth
Arista, 1975

Pianist and producer Ben Sidran was largely responsible for the quality of Tell Me the Truth. The feel-good vibe is established from the start with Slim Gaillard's nonsense song "Flat Foot Floogie," re-created from its 1945 recording by Jack McVea, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and pianist Dodo Marmarosa. The latter's part has been transcribed and recreated in voices by The Pointer Sisters. Elsewhere there is some rocking' guitar from Boz Scaggs and several fine contributions from reeds man Hadley Caliman, the latter providing sensitive solos on "Naima" and "Old Folks." The eight-minute "On the Trail" is a drifting ballad by Ferde Grofe from the latter's 1931 Grand Canyon Suite, which bookends a lengthy upswing scat passage by Hendricks. The title track, his own composition, starts as a slinky latin shuffle, then gets fast'n'funky as he starts ranting about hypocrisy and injustice ("I feel I'm drownin' in a sea of jive.") The song was recently re-recorded for the Trump era by Roseanna Vitro.

Love (Jon Hendricks & Company)
Muse, 1982

Joined by his wife Judith Hendricks, daughter Michele Hendricks and baritone singer Bob Gurland, Jon Hendricks excels in this varied collection of tunes cut in dribs and drabs between tours, with various accompanists. He had recorded several of them at least once before, but rarely as well as they are rendered here. The upswing bop tune "I'll Die Happy" dates from his days with Louis Jordan, Hendricks singing the tenor solo, followed by Gurland's extraordinary "vocal trumpet." "Tell Me the Truth" gives his previous album's title track another spin around the block. One of the best tracks is "Angel Eyes" sung with smouldering passion by Michele Hendricks, accompanied only by Raymond Scott on acoustic guitar..

Freddie Freeloader (Jon Hendricks and Friends)
Denon, 1990

The last album Hendricks recorded under his own name was arguably his best, with a huge and star-studded list of contributors including Larry Goldings, George Benson, Al Jarreau, Bobby McFerrin, Tommy Flanagan, Jimmy Cobb, daughters Michele and Aria Hendricks, Wynton Marsalis, Al Grey, The Manhattan Transfer and the Count Basie Orchestra. "The Finer Things in Life" features a typical Hendricks devil-may-care lyric, and the Basie band shout the chorus in the old-school manner. Miles Davis' famous title track is another winner— the harmonised voices singing "Freddie" at the start are thrilling. Hendricks wrote the torrent of words, and the all-star vocalese singers are on top form. Another highlight is "In Summer," actually the Bruno Brighetti standard "Estate," with new lyrics by Hendricks that are more than a match for the two existing English versions. He sounds old and vulnerable, the sensitivity of his vocal rendition adding to the poignancy of the song itself.

September 16, 2021 would have been Jon Hendricks' 100th birthday.

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