Jon Hendricks obituary

Jazz singer who brought the vocalese technique to global audiences with the trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross

When the singer Jon Hendricks declared, during a gig at the age of 80, that the next stop was 100, the likelihood of him getting there seemed almost self-evident. Back in 2002, as he bounded onstage at the Jazz Cafe, London, in a glittering gold suit, hat cocked over one eye, his yodelling, scatting, tone-bending reinvention of jazz classics by Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk or Count Basie sounded like the work of an indestructible musical force. Hendricks, who has died aged 96, was a funny, articulate and creatively intelligent master of a hard art, who took chances with vocal gymnastics and unpremeditated improv flights that few jazz singers had attempted or imagined before him, and he could mimic the sounds of instruments with uncanny fidelity.

He was a model for some of the best male singers in jazz history, including Bobby McFerrin, Al Jarreau, Mark Murphy and Kurt Elling, but Hendricks’ most lasting legacy was his expansion of the art of vocalese, the technique of fitting wittily hip lyrics to the melody lines of instrumental jazz themes and improvisations, as pioneered by the singers Eddie Jefferson and King Pleasure in the early 1950s. Some of the jazz cognoscenti disliked the style’s occasional invitation to technical tightrope-walking and showbiz bravura, but Hendricks was to give vocalese a global platform through his collaborations with Dave Lambert and Annie Ross in the vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.

Hendricks was born in Newark, Ohio, one of 15 children born to Alexander Hendricks, a minister of the African Methodist Episcopal church, and his wife, Willie Mae (nee Carrington), a choir leader. The boy first sang in public with the choir at his parents’ church, and on the family’s move to Toledo in 1935 he began singing on local radio, and working in the city’s Waiters and Bellmen’s Club with a sensational young pianist, Art Tatum, that the wider world was on the verge of discovering. After school, Tatum would give the boy informal music lessons – often playing him a dizzying improvised run and not letting him off the hook until he could flawlessly sing it back.

Hendricks worked as a singer in Detroit in the 40s, and served in the US army following the Normandy landings – a traumatising experience for reasons other than combat, since the military police took to firing on him and other black servicemen for the suspicion they had consorted with French women. They went Awol to avoid their tormenters and were imprisoned for desertion.

On his release at the war’s end, Hendricks continued to sing and play drums around Toledo, took an English literature course at the city’s university, and considered studying law. But in 1950, he met Charlie Parker at the Civic Auditorium in Toledo. His wife, Connie, asked the saxophone star if her shy young husband could sit in with him, and after their performance Parker reportedly told Hendricks to forget the law and come to New York.

In 1952, Hendricks wrote some songs in New York for the “jump-music” star Louis Jordan (Jordan’s hit I Want You to Be My Baby was a Hendricks song), but struggled to make an impact as a singer. However, when he encountered Jefferson’s lyrics for the James Moody saxophone solo on Moody’s Mood For Love, Hendricks became fascinated by the possibilities that vocalese opened up, and the following year he began exploring them with Lambert. When Lambert suggested they should apply the technique to the much-loved riff-packed hits of Count Basie, Hendricks obliged with enough new lyrics for an album, originally built around the two singers, a rhythm section, and a vocal choir mimicking the big-band horns.

But the chorus could not catch the supple magic of the Count Basie band sound, so Ross was brought in to coach it, on the strength of her own successful vocalese composition, Twisted – a witty 1952 take on psychoanalysis based on a Wardell Gray saxophone solo. But the music still did not work, until the impromptu trio of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross dispensed with the choir and performed all the vocals, with the big-ensemble feel captured by the experimental studio technique of overdubbing. “It was one of the greatest moments of my life when I heard those tapes back,” Ross told me in 1997. “I knew we had something incredible.”

Jon Hendricks, right, performing with the trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross at the Newport jazz festival, 1959.
Jon Hendricks, right, performing with the trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross at the Newport jazz festival, 1959. Photograph: Ted Williams/ Iconic Images

The results formed the hit album Sing a Song of Basie (1958), and the trio’s catchy collective-vocalese sound and canny jazz timing made them a popular draw. The group worked with Count Basie’s own band, lent their unique sound to Duke Ellington’s repertoire, and won a Grammy for their last album, High Flying (1962). Ross left in 1962 to be replaced by Yolande Bavan, and the new lineup continued until 1964. The prospect of further re-formations ended with Lambert’s death in a road accident in 1966. Hendricks had made his first album, A Good Git-Together, as a leader in 1959, and in 1963 he paid his respects to the bossa nova fashion of the time by writing classy lyrics to João Gilberto songs, most notably Chega de Saudade (No More Blues).

He lived in London for five years from 1968, performing throughout Europe, appearing on TV, and in the British director John Jeremy’s film Jazz Is Our Religion (1972). On his homecoming – now to the west coast – he began a new career as a jazz journalist, and as a teacher of jazz history at the University of California and California State University. He wrote a stage show, Evolution of the Blues, which ran for five years in San Francisco, and revisited the Lambert, Hendricks and Ross agenda with Jon Hendricks & Company – his second wife, Judith (nee Dickstein), was both performer and manager, and his daughters, Michelle and Aria, son Eric, and his gifted disciple McFerrin were members at various times.

In 1986, Hendricks and McFerrin shared a Grammy for their contribution to an album, Vocalese, by their most successful vocal heirs The Manhattan Transfer, which received an almost unprecedented 12 Grammy nominations and won three. In 1988, Hendricks was a contributing lyricist to Carmen Sings Monk, Carmen McRae’s covers album. He was named an American Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1992, performed a series of reunion gigs with Ross, and in that decade also toured with Kurt Elling, Mark Murphy and Kevin Mahogany as the Four Brothers.

In 1997 he joined the vocalists Cassandra Wilson and Miles Griffith in performances of Wynton Marsalis’ moving Pulitzer-prizewinning slave-story Blood on the Fields (in which he shrewdly and wittily played the griot-like sage Juba). He taught jazz singing at the University of Toledo from 2000 to 2015, and toured internationally with his own ensemble of Toledo students and local singers. In 2015 he reunited with Ross to record and perform at Birdland in New York. Hendricks’s final performance came at his 95th birthday celebration the following year at the Iridium jazz club in New York. This year, his lyrics to the score of the classic 1957 Miles Davis/Gil Evans album Miles Ahead were completed, and a recording of that project is currently in the pipeline.

Judith died in 2015. Hendricks was predeceased by his son Eric and a daughter, Colleen, from his first marriage, to Connie (nee Moore), which ended in divorce. He is survived by the daughter, Aria, of his second marriage, a son, Jon, and daughter, Michelle, of his first marriage, and three grandchildren.

• Jon Hendricks (John Carl Hendricks), jazz singer, born 16 September 1921; died 22 November 2017


John Fordham

The GuardianTramp

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