Jon Hendricks, Vocalese Master and Lyricist Extraordinaire, 1921-2017

Nov 24, 2017

Jon Hendricks, who died on Wednesday at 96, was for over seven decades an artist who embodied the characteristic “sound of surprise” that the late New Yorker writer Whitney Balliett coined to describe jazz. Jon’s came in two forms, first as a singer who came to prominence with the vocal trio, Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross in the late ‘50s, and in his extraordinary skill as a lyricist. 

Hendricks’s art flourished in the unique style of jazz singing known as vocalese, which involves fitting words and scatted phrases to the contours of classic solos and arrangement. Vocalese was pioneered by Eddie Jefferson and King Pleasure in the early 1950s, and popularized by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross on its 1957 debut album, Sing a Song of Basie, and the subsequent releases The Swingers,  The Hottest Group in Jazz, and High Flying

Lambert, Hendricks & Ross
Credit Downbeat

For the Basie album, Hendricks composed lyrics for a group of instrumentals, and added intros to tunes that were already lyricized. His seven-word opener for “Everyday I Have the Blues” managed to signify three  elements: Basie's magic; the ritual power of the blues; and a then-current Joe Williams hit with Basie. Here it's performed by L, H & R with Williams, and the out-of-view quartet of Basie, Freddie Green, Eddie Jones, and Sonny Payne on a Playboy Penthouse special in 1959. Tony Bennett, who sang the tune several years ago with Stevie Wonder on his album Playin' With My Friends, is seen smoking in the wings while Lambert and Hendricks harmonize and Annie Ross declares, “Dig Count Basie blow Joe’s blues away.” 

Hendricks brought me one of the greatest musical surprises of my life a few years ago in New York. On June 25, 2011, a beautiful Saturday evening, my wife Meg 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’d gotten to know Tardo through his association with saxophonist Grant Stewart, and as we entered the basement club on West 10th Street that night, 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 the Amherst area, he recalled some of his appearances at UMass and asked about a few of his friends in the Valley.

Jon and Tardo were old friends too, as the pianist had been Annie Ross’s musical director for nearly 20 years. He’s also one of the finest piano trio leaders on the scene, and he opened his set with a rarely-heard hard bop gem, Sonny Clark’s “Somethin’ Special.” Tardo then 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 Thelonious Monk's "In Walked Bud," complete with Jon's celebratory lyric about "every hip stud" who dug Don Byas and Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and "O.P." (Oscar Pettiford), "Mr. Max Roach," who "beat a mean axe," and of course Monk, "who was thumping."

Jon told us that Monk dug the lyrics to “In Walked Bud” so much that he authorized him to lyricize more of his tunes. And then with the audience clamoring for more, he continued with Monk's “Crepuscule With Nellie,” and “Rhythm-a-ning,” Miles Davis's classic take on “Bye Bye Blackbird,” and two Yip Harburg ballads, “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 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?” Now I'll long cherish the memory of the last night I saw Jon.