Today is Jon Hendricks’ 90th birthday. As singers go, Jon fairly embodies the characteristic “sound of surprise” that Whitney Balliett ascribed to jazz, both in his work with the legendary vocal group, Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, and his skill at setting lyrics to jazz tunes in the vocalese style. Hendricks has brought me many musical surprises over the years, none more so than an unanticipated encounter last June 25. On a beautiful Saturday evening in New York, my wife and I went by Small’s Jazz Club in the West Village to hear an early set by the pianist Tardo Hammer’s trio with bassist Lee Hudson and drummer Leroy Williams.
We’ve gotten to know Tardo in recent years, and as we entered the basement club on West 10th Street, he and his wife Rebecca greeted us, and then introduced us to their companions, who just happened to be Jon and Judith Hendricks. Jon looked as resplendent as ever in a white linen suit, two-toned shoes, and white fedora. Once it was established that we were visiting from Amherst, he recalled some of his appearances in the Valley and asked about a few friends who live in the area.
Jon and Tardo are old friends too, as the pianist has been Annie Ross's musical director for nearly 20 years. He’s also one of the finest piano trio leaders on the scene, and opened his set with a rarely-heard hard bop gem, Sonny Clark’s "Somethin' Special.” Tardo took a moment to ask the house to acknowledge Hendricks’s presence, and Jon responded not only with a bow, but accepted Tardo’s invitation to join him for a tune, in this case Hendricks’s lyrical celebration of “hip studs” and jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie, Don Byas, Oscar Pettiford, and Bud Powell on Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud.” Jon then related that Monk dug the lyrics to “In Walked Bud” so much that he authorized him to lyricize more of his tunes.
Hendricks needed little encouragement to give us a few more, and he proceeded to spend the rest of the set singing “Crepuscule With Nellie,” “Rhythm-a-ning,” “Bye Bye Blackbird,” and two Yip Harburg classics, “Last Night When We Were Young,” and “Brother Can You Spare a Dime.”
There are few things more poignant than hearing an 89-year-old master sing “Today the world is old/You flew away and time grew cold/Where is that star that shone so bright/Ages ago last night?”
We’ll listen to Jon Hendricks in tonight’s Jazz à la Mode.