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Jon Hendricks: Vocal Ease

Greg Thomas By

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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.
Scat and vocalese master Jon Hendricks and his wife Judith have maintained a residence at Gateway Plaza in Battery Park City for a quarter century. Their high-rise apartment overlooks the Hudson River going north. From the living room window you see the Battery Park City promenade directly below and the New Jersey shoreline across the river. The view is so expansive that the petite size of the place, with walls lined with framed posters of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday and of Jon Hendricks performing with daughters Aria and Michelle, isn't important.

Hospitality and warmth greet you upon entering, as Judith Hendricks gracefully says, "Come in Greg and make yourself comfortable." Her husband soon makes a grand entrance, clad leisurely in a robe. Small talk follows the firm handshake and hearty hug, after which we sit down at the dining room table, joined also by Kristina, Judith's assistant from Ohio. Nuts, berries, whole grain bread, cups of mayonnaise and Dijon mustard and white meat chicken slices adorn the table and are washed down with tasty Earl Grey tea. These items are components of the protocols designed for Judith by the Gerson Institute after she was diagnosed with melanoma in January 2006. (A recent ultrasound revealed that her tissue has returned to normal.) Then we start swingin':

"My class, 'Jazz in American Society,' is still number one on campus, at the University of Toledo," Jon Hendricks says, beaming with pride. "My course is considered an easy A because, I tell them, I think anyone who registers to take a jazz class has earned an A as far as I'm concerned."

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."



Hendricks says that his time at the University of Toledo has given birth to a missionary zeal to reveal the cultural value of jazz. This fervor is a natural product of a 70+ year career, which began for him in Toledo, Ohio singing on the radio as a teen, rehearsing and being mentored by the great Art Tatum, also from Toledo. Charlie Parker heard him there and urged him to come to New York. Several years later, when he moved to the Big Apple, he searched for Bird, who upon seeing him said "Hey Jon! What took you so long?"

In 1958, he collaborated with fellow vocalists Dave Lambert and Annie Ross to form Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. Their path-breaking recording Sing a Song of Basie established them as the most successful jazz vocal group in history and was one of the first recordings to utilize overdubbing. They took the art of vocalese—putting lyrics to instrumental jazz solos and arrangements—to another level. According to Hendricks, King Pleasure originated the practice in the early 1950s with "Moody's Mood for Love," based on James Moody's improvisation on "I'm In the Mood for Love." Yet never before had a vocal group taken entire big band arrangements and performed vocalese lyrics to every note.

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