In May, during Jazz Congress 2021—held online rather than at the conference’s usual location, Jazz at Lincoln Center in midtown Manhattan, because of the pandemic—a group of lauded vocalists met to discuss the life and work of Jon Hendricks (1921-2017), whose 100th birthday was September 16 of this year. An innovator of lyric writing in jazz and in the art of vocalese, rightly dubbed by Time magazine “the James Joyce of Jive,” Hendricks wrote for the royalty of American composers: Ellington, Basie, Monk, Horace Silver, Benny Golson, and countless others. He co-founded the most significant and artistically successful vocal trio the modern world has ever known (Lambert, Hendricks & Ross). And he was a musical father to generations of singers, including all five artists who gathered in our virtual auditorium. For one, he was a literal father as well.
The members of the panel require little introduction. Two of them, Bobby McFerrin and Sheila Jordan, are NEA Jazz Masters. Another, Jazzmeia Horn, is a swiftly rising star. Besides having had her own career since the mid-1980s, Michele Hendricks just happens to be Jon Hendricks’ eldest daughter. And the moderator, Kurt Elling, is on just about every short list of the 21st century’s most outstanding male jazz singers.
Without further ado, here’s an edited transcript of their conversation. If you’d like to experience the whole thing, you can find the video on Jazz at Lincoln Center’s YouTube channel.
“Dizzy said, ‘How do you lead a band without knowing how to read music?’ And Jon said, ‘I told them it’s a process of osmosis—I’se Moses, and they all follow me!’”— Kurt Elling
KURT ELLING: Bobby, what role did Jon Hendricks play for you early on?
BOBBY McFERRIN: Well, I had sat in with Jon at a piano bar. I think the piano player was Larry Vuckovich—would that be right? Do you remember, Michele?
MICHELE HENDRICKS: Yeah, Larry. This was in San Francisco.
McFERRIN: San Francisco, California. And I went to his gig and sat in with him. About two and a half to three months later, at four o’clock in the morning, Jon called me and said, “Get on the next flight to Los Angeles.”
HENDRICKS: New York.
McFERRIN: That’s right, we went to New York, but I was in San Francisco, so I had to first fly down to L.A. to learn more words than I’ve ever learned before in my entire life [for an engagement with Hendricks’ band Jon Hendricks and Family, including Michele]. I had to learn … six songs was the minimum and each song had a million words. Michele basically sat with me for hours, just singing these songs over and over again and getting me to get the right inflection and the right nuance.
HENDRICKS: He learned the entire repertoire. He came in on that Saturday and we opened on Tuesday. He had it all down. [Laughs]
McFERRIN: Well, I was scared!
ELLING: How long did you stay?
McFERRIN: In the band? March to November [of 1979]—November 4, as a matter of fact. I remember the day because that’s my daughter’s birthday.
ELLING: So you had the whole immediate immersion experience. Had you already spent a lot of time on stage at that point?
McFERRIN: No, I had only been working as a singer for three years. I didn’t learn how to work with an audience until I was working with Jon. We’ve got some stories, haven’t we, Michele? [Both laugh]
HENDRICKS: Oh, my goodness. We were playing somewhere with a pickup band. Sometimes pickup bands can be okay, but sometimes they aren’t good at all. And Bobby was so disgusted, he just told them all to lay out. That’s when he started singing a cappella. [Laughs] He just said, “I got it.”
ELLING: Is that true, Bobby?
McFERRIN: If Michele says so, that’s the way it went down.
ELLING: I’ll take it. Jazzmeia, on your very first record you sang “Social Call,” which is Jon’s lyric, and you’ve recorded “Moanin’” and “Ask Me Now” with Jon’s lyrics. You do “No More” on your second record [2019’s Love & Liberation], which finally does that piece the funky justice it deserves. Can you tell us what captivated you about Jon’s work and a little bit about your relationship with Jon?
JAZZMEIA HORN: Well, Jon was a mentor to me before I even met him. The first song that I heard with Jon Hendricks on it, I was about 18. My teacher had given me this compilation CD of a bunch of different singers and I felt like there weren’t enough males on there, so I had asked for male singers and he gave me [Elling’s 1999 album] Live in Chicago, [featuring] “Don’t Get Scared” with you and Jon. I just remember letting everything go and just focusing on that one song for about three or four weeks, and then going back and listening to the original [King Pleasure] solo that you guys transcribed and I was just like, “Oh, so this is what it really means to transcribe.”
When I finally, years later, got to New York, one of my friends said to me, “You should go to the Jazz at Lincoln Center rehearsal to see Jon. People know who you are now because you’ve been winning competitions, so I think you should just go.” I was so afraid to go because I just knew that I probably would get kicked out. So I just sat there and I was so quiet. Jon walked over to me and he was like, “Hey!” with this super-preppy spirit. I was like, this is the coolest person on the planet, and to just come over to me and be like, “Hey, what’s up, Miss Horn?” That rocked my world. That became the beginning of our friendship, or mentorship for me. He was teaching at Peabody and I would go and listen in on lectures—I wasn’t supposed to be there, but I would try to get in as much time and hear as much as possible. Any time he was in New York, I would try to be there. And I just transcribed everything that I heard, not to be able to sing and reiterate—that wasn’t what it was about for me—but just really getting that language in my belly and in my soul.
ELLING: You’ve mentioned before that he was an example to you not only as a musician and a performer, but as a man of color—for his willingness and his ability to stand up and have some spine.
HORN: Absolutely. God, every time you ask somebody my age what did they know Jon Hendricks for, they’ll tell you “Freddie Freeloader” or Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. But for me, Tell Me the Truth  was my album, because he just laid it out. There was no sugar-coating anything. It’s almost like a sermon. It’s like you’re thirsty and you hear these lyrics and you hear the intent and the passion and the message behind the lyrics, and automatically you’re not thirsty anymore. It was very much like the feeling of the Southern Baptist church that I grew up in. You hear it and it gets you through your week. “No More,” I felt like I had to record it. We’re dealing with a lot of the same things as Black people in 2021 that we were dealing with in the ’70s. And the ’50s, and the ’40s. I think it’s imperative that we talk about that in our music. So that has been very inspirational, to hear that in a lot of his music as well.
ELLING: Before everybody came on, Michele and I were talking about some of our favorite stories. Michele, could you lay out that story about Jon as a seven-year-old, walking in the so-called “wrong neighborhood”?
HENDRICKS: Yeah. He was with a friend of his and they were walking in a neighborhood that they weren’t supposed to be walking in, a very ritzy white neighborhood. The police stopped them and were trying to hassle them. And he was just a little kid! It affected him so much that I don’t know how many years later—70? 80?—he went back and bought that house.
ELLING: He bought the house where the cops had stopped him as a little boy. And he parked his big white Cadillac out front?
HENDRICKS: I think it was a Lincoln. He was determined that nobody was going to tell him that he couldn’t be in that neighborhood. He went back and bought that house and lived in it.
“Jon Hendricks was the first rapper. He was on George Russell’s New York, N.Y. and he rapped.” — Sheila Jordan
ELLING: There’s an example. Well, while we’re talking about lineage, Sheila, you are in many ways the living lineage, straight out of Bird. Like you, Jon talked about Bird finding him out in Toledo and saying, “If you’re ever in New York City, come and find me.” You both did. Did you share a lot of time with Jon in the early years? Did Bird ever talk about him?
SHEILA JORDAN: Yes, Bird did talk about him. What I loved about Jon was beyond color. I never felt that Jon looked at me like I was this white chick. He knew that I was from a Native background. But I always felt that I was Sheila and he accepted me as who I was.
ELLING: One of my favorite memories with Jon and with you is when we got to do a show called “Four Brothers and a Mother.”
JORDAN: That’s right, and I was the “mother.” And I never let Jon forget it because during the solo I started improvising with him about how I was his mother—or whatever, I don’t remember, but we had a good time.
I wanted to say one thing about Jon, which I’ve written about and told kids about a lot: Jon Hendricks was the first rapper. He was on George Russell’s [1959 album] New York, N.Y. and he rapped. He did the “Think you can lick it? Get to the wicket, buy you a ticket … New York, New York, a city so nice they had to name it twice. It may seem like a cold town, but man, let me tell you, it’s a soul town.” I mean, the whole record is him rapping. And I had never heard that in my life, and I was so impressed.
ELLING: Jazzmeia, can you hear those lines between what Jon created as a spoken-word artist and as a writer of incredible vocalese and what’s happening in the world these days?
HORN: Yeah, I think they don’t have it in the world these days. There’s a lot that’s missing. Everything’s about the flesh instead of the spirit, what they can see and not what they can feel. It’s totally missing. I miss Jon, and others who have also written in the same tradition. And that’s all I’m going to say about that! Because I don’t want to offend nobody.
HENDRICKS: Well, that was very well-said, I have to say.
ELLING: Sheila, there were all kinds of folks putting lyrics to Bird or Lester Young solos back in the day. There was Eddie Jefferson writing the lyric to “Moody’s Mood.” You and your friend Skeeter Speight and Leroy Mitchell were already writing individual lines for individual singers back in Detroit, right?
JORDAN: That is true. And Skeeter Speight was probably the greatest scat singer that I ever heard, he was incredible. Never took a lesson, was just all from his heart and soul. Boom, he learned those Bird solos and put words to them.
ELLING: So even kids in high school were trying to do this. And Michele, your dad was, for my money—for anybody’s money—the greatest jazz lyricist, period. Yet I always felt that Jon was maybe a little in competition, in his mind, with other lyricists. Did you feel like that? I mean, he certainly deserved to be proud of his work. But did you feel that there was a little bit of “Well, Eddie [Jefferson] wasn’t the man compared to me,” anything like that? Am I just wrong?
HENDRICKS: I never got the feeling that he was competitive. If anything, I got the feeling that he was underappreciated. I always found his lyrics weren’t just words put to melodies—it was as if he could hear what the soul was saying. While he was playing his solo, he could hear the story that the musician was telling and he was able to capture that and write it down in rhyme.
ELLING: I’ll second that. I think that Jon belongs right up there with Stephen Sondheim and Oscar Hammerstein, anybody you can name.
HENDRICKS: For me, he’s the top of the top.
ELLING: It seemed like Jon was always either singing or just about to sing, just walking around the house. But as I recall, he was kind of a last-minute artist—by that I mean that he didn’t really start warming up his voice or preparing it for a performance until very late in his career. Am I wrong about that?
HENDRICKS: No, you’re absolutely right. He was very spontaneous. He was not the type to prepare. He would even tell students, when people would ask him, “Can you give me some lessons or teach me something?” He would just tell them, “Listen. That’s all you have to do.”
ELLING: Would he even practice the vocalese solos when they were new, when he finally wrote them down? Or was it all in his head and he would just start singing and they were already pretty much note-perfect?
HENDRICKS: Well, I think by the time he would finish the lyric to a song, he had gone through that solo so many times he had it memorized already.
ELLING: That was his way, right? He would just listen to it so many hundreds of times, and then write everything down all at one time.
HENDRICKS: Yeah, it was amazing. I’ve seen him sit down and write out a whole lyric to a song in 20 minutes.
ELLING: Jazzmeia, when you talk about doing a transcription—Jon never did a transcription, he just listened and listened and listened.
HENDRICKS: Well, he couldn’t read music, let alone write it.
ELLING: And still he sang the hell out of everything he touched. Bobby, how do you explain Jon’s brilliance?
McFERRIN: I think it involves something that I call ancestral memories. When you find your purpose, you find your spirit; somehow you connect to memories that were basically poured into you as a kid. And Jon just tapped into that. He did New York Times crossword puzzles every day, just about. I did a session with him [in 1990], we did “Freddie Freeloader.” We got into the studio and, as we were recording, he left out a verse—he’d forgotten to write it. So he sat there for about 15 minutes and came up with a lyric, just wrote it out for this particular solo. I was blown away because he just had words coming out of the tip of his tongue. Very, very gifted.
ELLING: Jon told me this story one time, which I’m sure he told to many people many times, but it’s one of my favorites. He was talking about the first sequence of events when he was working with Dizzy Gillespie, and Dizzy took for granted that Jon read music tremendously and put a music stand out for him on the bandstand, and they did a series of dates together. Jon said, “Kurt, I was just so ashamed because I didn’t want Dizzy to find out that I couldn’t read, so I would just pretend to read every night. Even when we went into the studio I was looking at it, and Dizzy found out—Dizzy came over to me and he said, ‘Hey Jon, you’re not really reading that stuff, are you?’ Well, I couldn’t tell him I lied, so I said, ‘No, Diz. I don’t really read music.’ And Dizzy says, ‘Well, how do you lead a band? You have complicated charts in your repertoire! How do you even rehearse?’” And Jon said, “I told them it’s a process of osmosis.” Dizzy said, “Osmosis? What do you mean?” Jon said, “You know, Dizzy—osmosis. I’se Moses, and they all follow me!” [All laugh]