Jon Hendricks, a legend in the jazz world who taught at The University of Toledo 16 years, died Nov. 22 at age 96 in New York City.
The UT Distinguished Professor of Jazz struck a lasting note in the music world.Many considered Hendricks to be 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 modern 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.
Hendricks was born in Newark, Ohio, in 1921. His family moved to Toledo when he was 4 years old. They lived on the same street as Toledo’s other jazz legend, pianist Art Tatum.
“Everything for me started right here in Toledo,” the superstar said in a 2012 interview. “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.
At age 14, he started performing at the Waiters and Bellmen’s Club on Indiana Avenue in Toledo. “I met a lot of people at 14 — Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Lucky Millinder, Andy Kirk, Don Redman. I met just about anybody that there was because everybody came to hear Art Tatum.”
The Scott High School graduate sang in Detroit and in the Glass City — until he was drafted into the army in 1942.After serving his country, Hendricks returned to Toledo. In 1946, he enrolled at The University of Toledo, where he studied literature and law. Some of his poetry was published in The Collegian, UT’s student newspaper. All the while, he worked as a singer and drummer at night. Hendricks even sat in with Charlie “Bird” Parker when he played the Civic Auditorium in Toledo in 1950. It was the saxophonist who encouraged him to go to New York City.
With $27 in his pocket, Hendricks went to the Big Apple in 1952 and found Parker playing at the Apollo Bar. “[Parker] had already told everybody about me, so I had an instant entry into the jazz world. I had sung with Dizzy [Gillespie], so I knew Dizzy and he talked about me, too. So everybody knew me,” he recalled in a 2004 interview.
Hendricks started writing and trying to sell his songs. After some success on his own, he teamed up with Dave Lambert. In 1955, they wrote “Four Brothers,” which they recorded as Jon Hendricks and the Dave Lambert Singers.
The two continued to be innovative in the studio and began recording vocalese versions of Count Basie songs. Enter British jazz singer Annie Ross. She performed the trumpet and piano parts; Lambert took trombone and middle-tone sections; and Hendricks sang saxophone sections. Thanks to multi-track recording, the result was an orchestral sensation.
“Sing a Song of Basie” by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross was released in 1958. Accolades abounded. The trio continued their success, teaming up with the Count Basie Orchestra for “Sing Along With Basie” in 1959. Buoyed by their growing reputation as masters of setting lyrics to jazz standards, the group released two more albums that same year — “The Swingers” and “The Hottest New Group in Jazz.” The title of the latter was courtesy of a critic.
The three became a force in the music world and recorded nearly 30 albums. Ross left the group in 1963, and Lambert and Hendricks went their separate ways a year later.As a solo artist, Hendricks continued to gain attention behind the microphone. His early recordings included “Bossa Man” (1963), “Salud!” (1964) and “Watermelon Man” (1965). He also sang with the Count Basie Band from 1959 to 1965 and with Duke Ellington from 1965 to 1974. Another collaboration found Hendricks recording a song with the Grateful Dead in 1966.
After living in London from 1968 to 1973, Hendricks moved back to the States and was a jazz critic at the San Francisco Chronicle for three years. He also added teaching to his resumé. He taught jazz classes at California State University at Sonoma and the University of California at Berkeley. And the records kept coming: “Cloudburst” (1972), “Tell Me the Truth” (1975), “September Songs” (1976). He also took his family into the studio. Released in 1982, “Love” featured his wife, Judith, and their children. Other albums included “Freddie Freeloader” (1990), “Boppin’ at the Bluenote” (1995) and “Live at the Bluenote” (1999).
While always in demand as a singer, he never got far away from his way with words. Over the years, he penned lyrics for music written by Ellington, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and Antonio Carlos Jobin. Thelonious Monk wouldn’t have anyone else but Hendricks write words for his songs.
The Manhattan Transfer paid tribute to Hendricks in 1979. They asked him to write lyrics for Joe Zawinul’s “Birdland” for their album titled “Extensions.” That song won a Grammy Award. He teamed up with the group again in 1985 for “Vocalese”; he provided words for the whole album. His duet with McFerrin on that record earned a Grammy Award for best jazz vocal performance. In 1997, Wynton Marsalis asked Hendricks to contribute to the libretto for the concert opera, “Blood on the Fields,” which won a Pulitzer Prize. Hendricks also narrated and sang in the show about slavery in America.
Through the years, Hendricks received numerous awards. In 1992, he was the recipient of the highest honor given to a jazz artist — the National Endowment for the Arts American Jazz Masters Fellowship. He was given a French Legion of Honor in the class of knight — France’s highest civilian commendation — in 2004. And in 2014, he took home the Satchmo Award for his lifetime commitment to jazz.In 1999, Hendricks received an honorary doctorate from The University of Toledo in recognition of his iconic career. One year later, he was named Distinguished Professor of Jazz at the University. UT students had the luxury of hearing about jazz greats from the luminary who shared the spotlight with them. “It was such an honor for me to be invited back to my hometown to teach what I do,” he said in an interview for “The University of Toledo Alumni Who Have Changed the World.”
“What I would like students to learn most is that as citizens of the United States of America, they, like any other country in the world, have a cultural art form, like the Russians have ballet, the French have painting, the English have drama; well, in America, we have jazz, and it is a great cultural art form. And it stands up with any of them in its greatness.”
The legend retired from his UT teaching gig in 2016.
Earlier this year, Hendricks saw the premiere of a longtime project, “Miles Ahead.” He began writing lyrics for the Davis album arranged by Gil Evans nearly 50 years ago.