Today is Jon Hendricks’ 90th birthday. As singers go, Jon embodies the characteristic “sound of surprise” that Whitney Balliett coined to describe jazz. Jon’s comes in two forms, first as a singer who came to prominence with the vocal trio, Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, and in his skill at setting lyrics to jazz tunes in the vocalese style pioneered by Eddie Jefferson and King Pleasure, and popularized by L,H&R. 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, it was Hendricks’s lyrical celebration of “hip studs” 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 proceeded to spend the rest of the set singing “Crepuscule With Nellie,” “Rhythm-a-ning,” “Bye Bye Blackbird,” and two Yip Harburg classics, “Brother Can You Spare a Dime,” and “Last Night When We Were Young.” 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?” (Click here to download Jon’s recording of “Last Night…” with pianist Cedar Walton.)
Like Dizzy Gillespie, Hendricks was ahead of the curve in anticipating the popularity that bossa nova would enjoy with North American audiences, and in recognizing the influence of jazz on the Brazilian creation of the late fifties. One of his finest albums is his 1961 collection of songs by , ¡Salud! João Gilberto, Originator of the Bossa Nova. From YouTube, here’s Jon singing “Chega de Saudade,” the samba by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes that’s often sung in English as “No More Blues.” It was performed at a tribute concert to Jobim at Sao Paulo’s Free Jazz Festival on September 27, 1993.
Here’s the irrepressible Mr. Hendricks in 1997 on Conan O’Brien singing a tight arrangement of an old favorite by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. Wynton Marsalis is the trumpet soloist.
And here he is only a couple of months after our encounter at Smalls at the North Sea Jazz Festival with two of his famed proteges, Al Jarreau and Kurt Elling.