Eddie Jefferson: The Scientist of Vocalese

Ed Hamilton remembers the legacy of jazz singer Eddie Jefferson

Detroit had a reputation as the “Killer Capitol”, meaning figuratively, what it states...Things have changed. Dave Bing, basketball Hall of Famer, is now the mayor and is striving to clean up the city. But, 32 years ago actress Brenda Vaccarro and alto saxophonist Richie Cole witnessed the drive-by shotgun slaying of the architect of Vocalese---Eddie Jefferson at Bakers’ Lounge. Jefferson was shot and killed May 8, 1979 walking out of Baker’s Lounge after playing a set with his co-leader Richie Cole.

Vocalese was created by his lyrical writings to James Moody’s “Moody’s Mood for Love”, taken from “I’m In the Mood for Love.” Moody first recorded it with the Swedish Symphony. Jefferson’s lyrics were again redone by King Pleasure who sang it in 1952, making it a tremendous hit. He extended Jefferson‘s lyrical popularity around the world with his interpretive rendition of Moody’s playing and Jefferson’s vocalesed stylings.

Jon Hendricks was inspired by Jefferson’s interpretive lyrical writings to jazz passages with the incarnation of the group Lambert Hendricks and Ross, in 1957. It included himself, Dave Lambert, and Annie Ross. Lambert, Hendricks & Ross’s first interpretations were on “Sing A Song Of Basie”, their first album, Centerpiece, and later on with ”Come On Home” by Horace Silver. This was the vanguard that catapulted their popularity.

Oscar Brown Jr. vocalesed renditions of pianist Bobby Timmons’ “”Dis Here” and “Dat Dere”. He later wrote to cornetist Nat Adderley’s “Work Song’”....and Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue.”

Jefferson created a spontaneous combustion among singers who could write. His lyrics focused on the artist’ musical linings as in “So What” by Miles Davis---’’ Miles Davis left the Stage--- rehearsals were over”---So What.” Some of his lyrics were humorous like “Bennies from Heaven” borrowed from “Pennies From Heaven” the Broadway hit---’Bennie May Be From Heaven, but he sure ain’t from me’.

Many followed with their conversions of jazz playing:Carmen MacRae wrote to Dave Brubecks’s “Take Five”...not Al Jarreau as so many thought. But Jarreau did write for Freddie Hubbard’s “Little Sunflower.” Johnny Guitar Watson and Larry Williams wrote to Joe Zawinul’s “Mercy Mercy.” Gloria Lynne did the same to King Curtis’ “Soul Serenade.” Bill Henderson wrote and sang lyrics to Horace Silver’s “Senor Blues” and to Benny Golsons’s “Whisper not”. Mark Murphy laid vocalese to Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments.” George Benson became world-wide famous for his recording of Jefferson’s
lyrics to “Moody’s Mood For Love.”

Manhattan Transfer met Jefferson and commissioned him to wonderfully translate Zawinul’s “Birdland” and Charlie Parker’s “Joy Spring.” Others followed in Jefferson’s vocalesed footsteps, including Betty Carter, Kurt Elling, Bob Dorough, Mel Torme, Nancy Wilson, DeeDee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves and Karrin Allyson to name a few.

Yes, a shotgun blast ended the life of Eddie Jefferson, the Scientist of Vocalese; but he is the Phoenix, reincarnated forever within the inner sanctums of lyrical jazz---’There I Go, There I Go—James Moody, You Can Come On in man and blow now if you want to, I’m through’.

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Ed Hamilton