Jon Hendricks was 11 years old when he met Louis Armstrong in Toledo.“I had to come and wake him up, and I came down to the boarding house — you know, Negroes couldn’t stay in downtown hotels at that time; they had to come over to the Negro neighborhood, called the ghetto, and stay in somebody’s house,” the UT Distinguished Professor of Jazz recalled.
“He took me for this walk and told me about his experiences in the streets of New Orleans singing on street corners. And I told him about my job selling newspapers up on the corner. And we exchanged incidents, and he said, ‘You know, you remind me of me.’ And I said, ‘Oh sure, flattery,’” Hendricks said and then laughed. “And he said, ‘Yeah, you do — a lot!’”
It seems fitting that the Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine presented its What a Wonderful World Award to Hendricks and three others last week in New York City.
“Our honorees are emulating the legacy of Louis Armstrong, a great musician and humanitarian,” said Dr. Joanne Loewy, director of the center named after the trumpeter and singer at the Beth Israel Medical Center. “Each one of them is making a difference in the lives of many people, and we are pleased to recognize and celebrate their contributions and achievements.”
“I’m very honored. [The award] means everything to me,” Hendricks said prior to a concert in Toledo to celebrate his 91st birthday. “[Armstrong] was a beautiful man, a great soul. Meeting him was one of the best things that ever happened to me.”
A lot of incredible things have happened to the legend, who struck a lasting note in the music world.
Hendricks, who was born in Newark, Ohio, but grew up in Toledo, is considered the father of vocalese — the art of setting lyrics to established jazz standards. Time magazine dubbed him “the James Joyce of jive,” and music critic Leonard Feather called him “the poet laureate of jazz.”
In 1957, he formed the jazz vocal group Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. The trio refined vocalese, whereby voices are arranged to sing the parts of instruments. Vocalists Bobby McFerrin, Al Jarreau and the Manhattan Transfer cite the group’s work as a major influence.
“Everything for me started right here in Toledo,” the superstar said. “When I was 12 or 13, I stood in front of the juke box at Stanley Cowell’s hamburger joint on Indiana Avenue and learned every song. And when people would come up to play it, I’d say, ‘What are you going to play?’ And they’d say, ‘What’s it to you?’ I said, ‘Give me the nickel, I’ll sing it.’ And they’d say, ‘I’d like to hear that.’ So they’d give the nickel and I’d sing them the song they were going to play.
“As I look back on it, that’s where vocalese came from,” Hendricks said, adding that story and plenty more will be in his autobiography, Mind on Fire, he’s writing.
The honor from the center named for Satchmo is one of many for the jazz singer. He has won Emmy, Peabody and Grammy awards. His name was added to the Jazz Wall of Fame of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. And he earned a National Endowment for the Arts’ Jazz Masters Fellowship and France’s highest civilian commendation: the Legion of Honor in the class of knight or chevalier.
“I’m proud of the fact that I’ve given my life over to the [music] culture that my people left this country. And although some of them didn’t do anything to make [jazz] what it should be, it’s become one of the best-known cultural art forms in the world,” Hendricks said.
“People are swinging all over the world; they’re swinging everywhere but in America. It sounds awful, but it’s true. We have the most popular cultural art form, and we do every other one but ours. Where is it on TV? Where is it on radio? Where is it? Where is it in civilization?”