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Master of vocalese' sings praises of new challenge

(ran HT, CI, PT editions)

Jazz singer and songwriter Jon Hendricks has acquired many titles during his 65-year show biz career, including "the poet laureate of jazz," "the master of vocalese" and, recently, "the king of jive at 75."

The last was bestowed by critics in September 1996 when Hendricks celebrated his 75th birthday by performing with an all-star cast in a first-rate jazz concert at New York's Lincoln Center.

Another performer might have slowed down after such a milestone, but Hendricks _ a trim, dapper, energetic man _ keeps taking on new challenges.

"I don't believe in age," he said. "I'm still like a 14-year-old kid, having the time of my life."

Hendricks talked about his current and future gigs while appearing at Washington's Warner Theater in Blood on the Fields, the three-hour oratorio for big band and voices written and directed by Wynton Marsalis.

One of three featured vocalists, Hendricks plays the wise elder, Juba. He is clearly an audience favorite, especially when he cuts loose on the scat song Look and See, written especially for him by Marsalis.

The touring production of Blood on the Fields opened in New Haven, Conn., in January and played 24 cities in this country and Europe before winding up in London on March 18.

Hendricks is now at work on his autobiography. He is under contract with the German publisher, Berlin Verlag, to write this by next summer.

His title is Mind on Fire, which comes, he said, from his study of metaphysics.

"When you think metaphysically, your mind burns up energy, but nothing's lost," Hendricks explains. "This is symbolized in the story of Moses and the burning bush. The bush burned, but when the fire went out the bush was still there."

Hendricks, a religious man, was one of 15 children born to a minister and his wife. He got his musical baptism singing in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Newark, Ohio, where he was born, and in Toledo, where he grew up.

Hendricks was singing on radio by age 11 and performing in Toledo's after-hours jazz clubs by age 14. The great jazz pianist Art Tatum lived five blocks from the Hendricks home, and young Hendricks spent many memorable Saturday afternoons improvising lyrics to Tatum's piano solos.

Fats Waller was also a family friend.

"When Fats visited he would hire a friend of mine to stand outside with his gin bottle," Hendricks recalled. "Then Fats would lean out the window to have a "taste' because he didn't want to drink in a minister's home."

Hendricks had a checkered career as an entertainer until 1957 when a record he made in New York with Dave Lambert and Annie Rose, titled Sing a Song of Basie, catapulted him "from starvation to stardom."

The trio put lyrics to jazz instrumentals and imitated the horns of Count Basie's entire band with their vocals. This was the difficult art of vocalese, which differs from scat.

"With scat you use the voice as a horn and completely improvise riffs," Hendricks explained. "With vocalese you are more structured because you put words to existing horn solos."

The popular Lambert, Hendricks and Ross trio worked together for six years, with Hendricks as key lyricist. When they broke up, Hendricks continued to perform around the world, solo and with vocal groups.

He appeared frequently on British television, had roles in several movies, made award-winning albums and wrote countless lyrics for Thelonious Monk and others.

His vocal group today is a family affair featuring Hendricks; his wife, Judith; his daughter, Aria, and baritone Kevin Burke. For special club, concert and recording dates, Hendricks puts together a "vocalstra" composed of the vocalists, five horns and a rhythm section.

"We usually range in age from about 20 to 75," he laughed.

A man of many words, Hendricks will write his autobiography without a collaborator. He has ample credentials. He was an English major at the University of Toledo, where he had the "poet's corner" on the school paper until his GI bill ran out.

He has been a jazz critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and has taught courses on "Jazz in American Society" at the University of California at Berkeley and California State University at Sonoma.

He has also written magazine articles in rhyme, including one for Down Beat in 1959 about his famous vocalese trio.

"I didn't end it," he said. "I just wrote "As for what's going to happen to Lambert, Hendricks and Ross' and then stopped. No period.

"I'm going to end my book the same way _ with no period, because this story isn't over yet."

Whether or not he produces a literary gem, Hendricks _ once described as "an incurably happy man" by the late jazz critic Leonard Feather _ is certain to show the reader a good time.