Jon Hendricks, 96, Who Brought a New Dimension to Jazz Singing, Dies
By PETER KEEPNEWSNOV. 22, 2017
Jon Hendricks performing at his 75th birthday concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center in 1996. James Estrin/The New York Times
Jon Hendricks, a jazz singer and songwriter who became famous in the 1950s with the vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross by putting lyrics to well-known jazz instrumentals and turning them into vocal tours de force, died on Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 96.
His death, in a hospital, was confirmed by his daughter Aria Hendricks.
Although he was a gifted vocal improviser in his own right, Mr. Hendricks was best known for adding words to the improvisations of others.
He took pieces recorded by jazz ensembles like the Count Basie Orchestra and the Horace Silver Quintet and, using their titles as points of departure, created intricate narratives and tongue-in-cheek philosophical treatises that matched both the melody lines and the serpentine contours of the instrumental solos, note for note and inflection for inflection.
Mr. Hendricks did not invent this practice, known as vocalese — most jazz historians credit the singer Eddie Jefferson with that achievement — but he became its best-known and most prolific exponent, and he turned it into a group art.
Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, with Mr. Hendricks as principal lyricist and ebullient onstage between-songs spokesman, introduced the concept of vocalese to a vast audience. Thanks not just to his clever lyrics but also to the group’s tight harmonies, skillful scat singing and polished showmanship, it became one of the biggest jazz success stories of the late 1950s and early ’60s.
Jon Hendricks - "Gimme That Wine" (featuring Wynton Marsalis) Live 1997
Jon Hendricks - "Gimme That Wine" (featuring Wynton Marsalis) Live 1997 Video by devoidzer01
The trio’s success extended beyond the jazz world. They appeared in upscale nightclubs and on national television in addition to the traditional round of jazz clubs and festivals. Their 1961 album “High Flying” won a Grammy Award for best performance by a vocal group. At a time when rock ’n’ roll was taking over the airwaves, the group’s good-natured humor and show-business panache helped persuade listeners that jazz could be an entertaining experience rather than a daunting one.
Not everyone was impressed. The critic Martin Williams wrote that Mr. Hendricks’s “trivial” lyrics tended to make jazz seem like “pretty light stuff.” In contrast, his fellow critic Leonard Feather christened Mr. Hendricks “the poet laureate of modern jazz” and said his writing showed “a talent bordering on genius.”
Mr. Hendricks himself shied away from describing himself as a poet, and not all his lyrics hold up well on their own, divorced from the music. But at his best he could put words to improvised solos that captured the musicality of their source material while adding a verbal vitality of their own.
For example, he turned Horace Silver’s piano solo on the medium-tempo blues “Doodlin’ ” into a meditation on the hidden meaning of doodles, with lines like these:
Those weird designs
They only show what’s going on
In weirder minds
’Cause when you doodle, then your noodle’s flyin’ blind.
Every single thing that you write
Just conceivably might
Be a thought that you captured while coppin’ a wink.
Takes you beyond what you see,
Makes you write what you think.
Lambert, Hendricks & Ross’s debut album, released in 1958, was a hit and made the trio’s partnership permanent. J.P. Roth Collection
John Carl Hendricks (he dropped the “h” from his first name when he went into show business) was born on Sept. 16, 1921, in Newark, Ohio, near Columbus. His father, Alexander Hendricks, was an A.M.E. Zion minister, and his mother, the former Willie Mae Carrington, led the choir at the church where Mr. Hendricks first sang in public, at age 7.
He began singing professionally seven years later, after moving to Toledo with his parents and his 14 brothers and sisters. He sang on the radio and at a local nightclub, where for two years his accompanist was Art Tatum, then little known outside Ohio but soon to become celebrated as the foremost piano virtuoso in jazz.
Mr. Hendricks became a full-time singer in Detroit after high school and then served overseas in the Army during World War II. He later studied English literature at the University of Toledo and harbored thoughts of attending law school. At night he sang and played drums in a jazz band, and when his G.I. Bill scholarship money ran out, he decided to forget about the law and make music his career.
After moving to New York City in 1952, Mr. Hendricks worked as a clerk-typist and achieved a modicum of success on the side as a songwriter, but found little work as a performer. He was inspired to put lyrics to jazz recordings after he heard King Pleasure’s record of “Moody’s Mood for Love,” based on a James Moody saxophone solo on “I’m in the Mood for Love,” for which Eddie Jefferson had written new words.
“I was mesmerized,” Mr. Hendricks told The New York Times in 1982. “I’d been writing rhythm-and-blues songs, mostly for Louis Jordan. But I thought ‘Moody’s Mood for Love’ was so hip. You didn’t have to stop at 32 bars. You could keep going.”
He began collaborating with his fellow jazz singer Dave Lambert in 1953, and four years later their efforts paid off. “Dave Lambert said, ‘You know, before we starve, we ought to leave something to let people know we were here,’ ” he recalled in a 1996 NPR interview. “I said, ‘O.K., what do you think?’ He said, ‘Well, write some words to some Basie things, and I’ll arrange them, and we’ll sing them. And then if we starve to death, at least they’ll know, “Boy, great artists were here.” ’
Mr. Hendricks proceeded to write words for 10 songs from the Count Basie band’s repertoire, based on the original recordings. Mr. Lambert wrote vocal arrangements. ABC-Paramount Records agreed to turn the concept into an album.
Mr. Hendricks and Mr. Lambert hired a rhythm section to accompany their vocals and a 12-piece choir to simulate the sound of the Basie band’s reed and brass sections. When the choir had trouble mastering the rhythmic nuances of the Basie style, Annie Ross, a British-born jazz singer who had made some vocalese recordings of her own, was brought in to coach it.
Ms. Ross’s efforts to imbue the studio vocalists with the proper jazz feeling proved futile, and they were let go. She ended up singing on the session with Mr. Lambert and Mr. Hendricks; their voices were multitracked, a rarity in those days.
The resulting album, “Sing a Song of Basie” (1958), was a hit. In the wake of its success, the three vocalists decided to make their partnership permanent.
Mr. Hendricks performing in 2008 with his daughter Aria Hendricks at the Jazz Standard, a club in Manhattan.
Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
Lambert, Hendricks & Ross went on to record several more albums, including one with the Basie band itself for Roulette and one devoted to the music of Duke Ellington for Columbia. Although vocalese remained the group’s emphasis, its repertoire also included a number of songs for which Mr. Hendricks wrote the music as well as the lyrics, and many of their songs were used as springboards for their own flights of wordless improvisation.
Annie Ross left the group in 1962 and was replaced briefly by Anne Marie Moss and then by Yolande Bavan, with whom Mr. Hendricks and Mr. Lambert recorded three albums for RCA Victor. The trio disbanded in 1964. Dave Lambert died in a highway accident in Connecticut two years later.
Mr. Hendricks moved to London with his family in 1968 but returned to the United States in 1973. For the next two years he wrote jazz reviews for The San Francisco Chronicle and taught classes in jazz history at the University of California, Berkeley, and California State University at Sonoma.
Mr. Hendricks’s stage show “Evolution of the Blues,” in which he traced the history of African-American music in song and verse, opened at the Broadway Theater in San Francisco in 1974 and ran for five years. His focus later shifted to Jon Hendricks and Company, a vocal quartet that carried on the tradition of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross.
His wife, the former Judith Dickstein, who had first sung with him during their years in England, was a member of the group from its inception in the late ’70s and also served as his manager. (His first marriage, to Colleen Moore, ended in divorce.) Over the years its ranks also included Mr. Hendricks’s daughters Michele and Aria and his son Eric, as well as the singer Bobby McFerrin and the actor Avery Brooks.
Mr. Hendricks and Mr. McFerrin shared a Grammy in 1986 for “Another Night in Tunisia,” a track from the Manhattan Transfer album “Vocalese,” for which Mr. Hendricks wrote all the lyrics.
Judith Hendricks died in 2015. In addition to his daughter Aria, Mr. Hendricks is survived by another daughter, Michele Hendricks; a son, Jon Hendricks Jr.; three grandchildren; and a niece, Bonnie Hopkins.
Mr. Hendricks remained active into the 21st century. He taught for many years at his alma mater, the University of Toledo. He was one of the three featured vocalists in the touring ensemble that performed Wynton Marsalis’s jazz oratorio “Blood on the Fields,” which received a Pulitzer Prize in 1997.
He continued to perform occasionally with Jon Hendricks and Company and periodically reunited with Ms. Ross. In 2015 the two of them were among the veteran jazz singers who recorded alongside a vocal group called the Royal Bopsters and performed with the group at Birdland in New York.
In his role as a teacher and a critic, Mr. Hendricks proved that he was adept at dealing with jazz in an analytical way. But he always maintained that words could go only so far in explaining the music’s importance and endurance.
“I wrote the shortest jazz poem ever heard,” he once wrote by way of explaining his philosophy. “Nothin’ about huggin’ or kissin’. One word: ‘Listen.’ ”