Jazz legend to celebrate 90th birthday in Toledo

November 9, 2011 | Arts, UToday
By Vicki L. Kroll


On Sept. 16, Jon Hendricks turned 90. And he was busy planning for a party Sept. 24, when he helped open the season for Jazz at Lincoln Center.

“I had an unofficial celebration at Lincoln Center. We had a full house. We had Dianne Reeves and Bobby McFerrin, and my daughter, Michele, flew in from Paris. And it was reviewed in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Rave reviews — well, they better,” he said and then laughed.

The media and music fans continue to extol the superstar, who wrote a new chapter in the world of jazz.

Hendricks 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 McFerrin, Al Jarreau and the Manhattan Transfer all cite the group’s work as a major influence.

The jazzman, who said he’s a Virgo and ruled by Mercury, the fastest planet, continues to work and be a force in the music world.

“Miles Davis had an album arranged by Gil Evans, Miles Ahead, with Miles Davis soloing with 18 musicians, one of the greatest jazz albums of all time. I’m lyricizing it to be sung,” Hendricks said during a call from his New York City home.

Dave Lambert, left, Annie Ross and Jon Hendricks in 1961

And he’s still writing his autobiography, Mind on Fire.

What is the legend most proud of?

“I had an open, free and constant invitation to sing with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra and Count Basie and his Orchestra. In other words, wherever they were, if I walked in, I could walk right up on the bandstand and sing,” he said. “And that kind of invitation, that was fantastic.”

Hendricks marveled at the magic.

“With Duke Ellington, I would just go up on the bandstand and I would turn to his saxophone player, Paul Gonzalez, the tenor player, and I would ask him, ‘What do I sing?’ And he’d say, ‘Anything.’ And I’d say, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said, ‘Just sing anything, we’ll be with you.’

“And I thought this man was crazy, and I started singing a song. And after the first note, the entire band came in, each on his part: The first tenor saxophone on his part, the second tenor saxophone, the third, the first alto, the second alto, the baritone, the three trombones and four trumpets, all on their parts as a part of an arrangement. It was the most magnificent thing I ever heard in my life, and I haven’t heard it from anybody [else] ever.”

UT students have the luxury of hearing about jazz greats from the luminary who played alongside them. Hendricks, who was named UT Distinguished Professor of Jazz in 2000, returns to campus to lecture.

“I just told the students what kind of man Duke Ellington was and how he got around things nobody else got around like, for example, racism in the South in the ’30s and ’40s,” the singer said. “Duke went through it once. The next time he went down, he went down on two private Pullman [railroad] cars, and the band stayed on those cars and they had cooks and waiters there — that was their hotel. So they didn’t have to go through the racism, not being able to stay in a first-class hotel that Duke would want to stay in.”

Jon Hendricks began singing — and playing drums — while growing up in Toledo.

The icon is happy to share such stories in the classroom.

“It’s essential that students know what these people went through to produce our cultural art form and what an artistic, emotional wreck it is that this country has chosen to take no recognition of it at all,” Hendricks said. “It was in France that jazz was first written about on the level with symphonic music seriously, and there’s still not much serious jazz writing done in this country.”

Still, the National Endowment for the Arts American Jazz Master does his best to spread the gospel, performing around the globe.

“I want people to take away the beauty of the music. When you know what the jazz orchestra comes from, which is the church choir, you see how it was done,” he said. “The three sections of the trumpet, trombone and reeds are from the tenor, basses and baritones of the choir. They actually do the same thing. And church choirs are always very, very rhythmic because there are some very rhythmic hymns that you sing.

“And when you realize that the jazz orchestra stems from the church choir, then you see how the culture spread from the church outward to the world.”

The Grammy Award winner will take the stage of Crystal’s Lounge at the Ramada Inn, 3536 Secor Road, for a belated birthday celebration and concert Monday, Nov. 14, at 7:30 p.m.

The UT Faculty Jazz Ensemble and Vocalstra are among the acts slated to perform.

Tickets are $5.

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