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Jon Hendricks: Poet Laureate, Godfather of Jazz Vocalese

Roseanna Vitro’s interview with the influential singer and lyricist

Jon Hendricks
Jon Hendricks (photo: Richard Conde)

If there was ever a more swinging bebop singer than Jon Hendricks, I don’t know who it was. He was clearly born to scat sing, easily maneuvering through difficult twists and turns in Charlie Parker solos, swinging through Count Basie’s book and singing Duke Ellington’s music with integrity and spirit. At 93, he’s still ready to meet life’s struggles as an artist, with a twinkle in his eye. He was raised in a family with fourteen siblings and developed strong survival skills from his father, a preacher at the Warren, Ohio A.M.E church. With Art Tatum living down the street, Jon’s ears were fed the right notes and feel from his youth forward.

In 1957, Jon teamed up with Dave Lambert and Annie Ross to form the most influential vocal jazz group the world has known. Jon discovered his talent for writing lyrics to jazz solos, as did the great Annie Ross. Hair-raising scat solos flowed with the speed of light from Dave Lambert and Jon. Lambert, Hendricks and Ross unquestionably remain an inspiration to all jazz singers around the world today.

I met Jon Hendricks when I first moved to New York City in 1980. My friend and great jazz singer, Marion Cowings, introduced us and we sang together one night at the Soho Club known as Greene Street. I’d studied Jon’s music and I was beyond thrilled to utter even one ooh bop sha bam with Jon and Marion. It was a thrill to do this interview with Jon in his New York apartment. No one has better bebop stories than Jon as he sings solos while he’s talking! I also had the opportunity to catch up with his wife, vocalist, Judith Hendricks.

Roseanna Vitro: Jon, how would you describe your concept in jazz singing?

Jon Hendricks: I play the song, and then I put words to it, adding to something that already exists. But to take a type of music, and replay that type of music verbatim and think it’s a contribution-that’s wrong. The song that you play is a composition already. So leave the other guy alone, and do something on your own. I tend to speak in rhymes [laughing].

RV: I appreciate your concept. It’s one of the reasons I’m here. I recall our mutual friend, vocalist Marion Cowings, introducing us years ago. I could hear his improvisation was informed by yours. Marion’s a wonderful singer.

JH: Yes he is, and you are, too!

RV: Jon, you know you have a very special place in jazz history.

JH: I don’t want a place in history. I want a place in the House of Lords. They made me an honorary member of the House of Lords, and an honorary member of the House of Congress, and in France, they made me a member of the Legion D’Honneur, comprised of musketeers—the regiment who protects the King. Athos, Porthos and Aramis, the famous Three Musketeers, belonged to the Legion D’Honneur. That means I can go to the Mayors mansion in Paris and show them my pin, and go right into the Mayor’s office. They’ve given me much more than my own country.

RV: Yes, most jazz musicians and jazz lovers in the U.S. have very strong feelings regarding how jazz music is perceived and pigeonholed by the media in this country.

JH: We are the cultural arbiters of the nation. It’s disgraceful. You have to fight, because America is an ignorant country. My magazines are best sellers around the world. I just finished a magazine on the Miles Ahead album. I put words to that for jazz choirs to sing.

RV: Jazz choirs are very popular right now in high schools and colleges around the globe. Almost all vocal jazz directors know your book of vocaleses from Lambert, Hendricks and Ross recordings and your solo albums, such as Freddie the Freeloader.

JH: I have one in London waiting for me now. They’ve got the words and they’ve got the choir.

RV: I can’t wait to hear it! Freddie the Freeloader and Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, The Hottest New Group in Jazz are required listening.

JH: You have that Miles Ahead album, right? It’s got all those great tunes, plus that great J.J. Johnson ballad “Lament.” And I love to sing Miles. Miles is a singing teacher.

RV: Absolutely. You’re learning hip altered scales, note choices and phrasing when you sing with Miles. The space is as important as the note choices.

JH: I want to have everybody on it, all my friends, Bobby McFerrin, Al Jarreau. [Singing:] “Every soul I encounter, I regard is just another me. It’s part of my heart constantly. Always, Always. Living like that rule can be a lonely life. If you taste the sweetness of life, while you’re avoiding the trials. The minute that I’m weeping, each tear that trickles down over my face, I see it for the whole human race. Another soul’s in trouble…so am I. That’s why I cry. Through each song I see a large desire, just the way it should be, If nobody ever sees me. I wanna be kissed…”

RV: Oh, that’s amazing. I could listen to you sing solos all day and I’m spellbound with inspiration. I’d like to ask some questions about your boyhood. What were you dreaming of when you were young?

JH: When I was young I was hoping for a time that I could learn to sing opera. I lived in a neighborhood in Toledo and learned to speak some Italian, because there were a lot of Italians there, and some of them were the Mafia. They came into the neighborhood without any problem. They wanted to have a place where they could have a good time, so they set up a club called the “Waiters and Bellman’s Club.” Those jobs—waiter and bellman—were two of the only jobs a Negro man could get in those days that had respect and could earn a living. Five houses from me was the home of Arthur Tatum. I was about 12 years old and I used to come out of junior high school past his house. One day I was walking by and he came out of his house and invited me in. He asked me what I was doing, and I told him I was coming from school. He said, “Oh, you go to Robinson? My brother goes there.” So I would stop and see him after school sometimes. After a time, I asked him what he was up to and he said he was playing all night in a little joint downtown where artists would stop and jam when they were crossing the country. So I was talking to him and I said, “You wanna work in your home town? You want to be close to your family? ” I told him he should get a gig at this after-hours joint over on Indiana Avenue that I was working in. “You get the house bass and drummer and you have two sets, and you play my two numbers that I sing.” I was 12 or 13 years old at the time. I asked Art if I could mention his name to them. He said, “Sure! Mention my name to them.” I did, and they asked him to come in and play. They hired him immediately! At that time he couldn’t find singers that would stay, because they would come and stay two weeks and end up going and covering Cleveland, Columbus, Louisville, then back to New York. They never stuck around.

RV: When did you actually start singing?

JH: I started singing when I was 6. My father was the pastor at Warren A.M.E. Church, A.M.E is for African Methodist Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church was the one that the English ship captain belonged to who transported and dumped over 180 slaves. When they came ashore, they had to provide the information about where they came from, and John Nelson, the ship’s captain, was found out. He was so sorry for what he did, and he started going to church and wrote the classic hymn, “Amazing Grace.”

RV: Many a good singer began their musical journey in a church choir. Tell me more about your working relationship with Art Tatum.

JH: My mother would save my supper for me, because she knew I was up at Art’s getting my nightly lessons. I’d leave about 9 p.m. and I wouldn’t come back until 2 or 3 a.m. the next morning. Everybody of any consequence who played an instrument, that means all the great bands, Benny Goodman’s entire band, was listening to Art Tatum.

Louis Armstrong heard me, and said, “Boy, you can sing!” I said, “Thank you very much.”

He said, “What are you doing tomorrow about 12 o’clock?” I said, “Nothing.” He said, “Come to the place I’m staying. You know they couldn’t check into the white hotels, and there weren’t any hotels in the ghetto, so he had to get a room in a boarding house. So he said, “Come by and wake me up and I’ll take you for a walk.” So I got up and I went down to the boarding house where he was staying and he was dressed and ready—you know, most people would make you wait, but he was dressed and ready. We walked down Indiana Avenue to the downtown area and across the street and all the way back down into the ghetto. He talked all the way down and all the way back. He said, “You know something? You remind me of me when I was the little cat. I knew all I wanted was to learn to play the trumpet.”

RV: How incredible that you met Art Tatum and Louis Armstrong. Louis, like you, was so entertaining and joyous. I recall reading some musicians didn’t dig his persona because he was entertaining.

JH: They called him an Uncle Tom because they thought that he was trying to make the white men happy. Well, of course he was!

RV: Well, everybody’s trying to make a living, right?

JH: That’s what entertainers do. I’m not going to come out on stage and say, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m here to entertain only the black people.” No. I wasn’t going to do that. No, you can’t think like that. And that’s what those people were doing. Artists like Louis, Duke and Count Basie, talked them out of that. Everything they did involved white people.

RV: Fortunately, Benny Goodman broke a color barrier when he hired Teddy Wilson. Musicians began building the bridges even amidst the terrible racial climate.

What was the catalyst and inspiration that put your talent on the path of a bebop lyricist to jazz solos? I’ve taught your lyrics to countless students and audiences on the road. “Everybody’s Boppin'” is fun for rhythm changes and “Centerpiece” for a twelve bar blues form.

JH: I would forget lyrics. I’d think, what is that next line? Then I’d make up my own, and nobody noticed. That’s exactly how it happened. I didn’t know what I was doing when I wrote them. I thought I was doing it for LH&R. It just flowed right out.

RV: So forming Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross was your inspiration. I’ll post a list of your vocalese catalog at the end of our interview. The scat solos you and Dave Lambert traded inspired generations of vocal improvisers. Annie Ross wrote some unforgettable lyrics, too: “Twisted,” “Jackie,” and “Farmers Market.” I look forward to chatting with Annie very soon.

JH: Yes, I needed to give Dave and Annie something to sing. It just flowed right out. I was an English major in school, all the way through college.

RV: So in school, you were reading a lot of good prose. Were you a big dreamer?

JH: Poverty can be valuable, because if you suffer like that, it strengthens you for all of the things you need to get through. That strength you get from hard times can be put into your work, and it helps you get through the work you need to do.

RV: I understand. I too grew up with very little money, but big dreams. I advise my students to ignore the negative people. You must have a dream, a vision and work hard, focus and stay on your path.

JH: No. Never listen to them! My brother says, “Shurrup!” I also never say you can’t. Don’t tell me what I can’t do, because that’s what I will do. That’s the way I am about “Can’t.” “John, you can’t do this.” Then BOOM! “John, you did that?” Well, don’t tell me what I can’t do!

RV: A strong mindset is very important.

JH: You’ve got to have a positive mindset, especially if you want to be an artist, because you have to be in a position to be helped by ghosts. You know there are spirits who are all around us all of the time. The human family is surrounded by spirits at all times. And they actually are taking care of us. If we were paying attention to what they tell us, we wouldn’t have these tragedies that we go through.

RV: You’ve truly lived a magical life. Your ghosts have done a fine job watching over. What are a few of your favorite memories?

JH: Art Tatum’s mother scrubbed floors in a bank building downtown. One day she came home and said, “Arthur, I saw a piano roll and this fellow said he’d sell it to me cheap because nobody was buying them, so I bought it and brought it home.” I don’t know if you remember piano rolls, but there were player pianos set up to automatically play these pieces that were recorded on the paper rolls, while you pumped the pedals. When she heard this roll being played she said, “That’s pretty. I wonder if Arthur can play it.” She didn’t understand it was two guys playing the music on the piano roll. She took it home and said, “Arthur, I’d like to hear you play this when I come home from work tomorrow.” Art said, “Momma, I’ll be ready for you to hear it tomorrow. I’ll spend today learning it.” He didn’t know it was two guys. She came home the next day and she asked him, “How are you coming along with that?” He said, “I’m ready!” And he played it! I said, “Whoooo, look at that!” Then I whispered in her ear, and told her it was two guys playing. She said, “It is?” I said, “Yeah!” She was so surprised. He not only played it, he learned it by ear and played it in a day. To this day, I’ll never forget that.

Do you know who Martha Raye is? I’m reminded of a story. Martha Raye came into this joint where we were jamming. She starts scatting, and she’s trying to cut me. That’s her job. I knew it; she knew it. I was laughing. She was scatting like, “Spack! Shog-in-dit Dit! Shadle-do-bom-bop dee-ter! Shpee-keee do-ah-da-wop!” Then she put the huge old microphone completely in her mouth. Man—I got off the bandstand.

RV: What amazing stories. I never knew Martha Raye could scat sing! Sounds like a very funny moment. Art Tatum must have been blessed with a very focused mind. Meditation is a popular discipline for the mind. Do you meditate?

JH: Oh, yes.

RV: I noticed Judith making a healthy green drink for you guys when I walked in today. It’s obvious you guys are into a holistic lifestyle. You look great!

JH: Oh, yeah. I’m 93. I’m not finished. I’m just on the third rail.

RV: I know you still teach in your hometown at the University of Toledo. What’s the first thing you tell a student who wants to learn to sing jazz?

JH: The first thing you need to know is… I wrote a jazz poem:

Nothing about hugging or kissing.
One word—Listen!

You’ve got to listen. If you can hear it, you can sing it. If you can hear it and sing it, you can play it.

RV: Who were your biggest influences for developing your scatting?

JH: Louis Armstrong, Harry “Sweets” Edison, and Dizzy. I always held my hands like I was playing a saxophone. If you move your hands like an alto or tenor player, that’s how you’re gonna sound. There are other cats who do that too, like Al Jarreau. You’d be surprised how many notes come out.

RV: Did you ever study singing?

JH: No.

RV: Did you ever study the piano?

JH: No, but I know enough to play a few chords.

RV: So, the majority of your work is by ear. “Listen” is your first step.

JH: Yes, like my poem says:

Nothing about hugging or kissing.
One word—Listen!

RV: Do you have any other pearls of wisdom you’d care to mention for the benefit of student singers? You’ve seen the jazz business go through many changes.

JH: I would say this: What you want to know, some person possesses. So you get as close to that person as you can. The way to do that, the way I did it, the way everybody I know does it, is: “Hey, I’m gonna hang out with you so that I can learn what you know and how you came to know it. In turn, I’m going to serve you in some way. If you need a person to run errands, or to be of help to you, I’m here for that, in order to learn what I need to know.” And nobody will turn you down, because you are offering to be a personal assistant. People are flattered by that. If you do that, you can get all the knowledge you want. Many band singers that I worked with helped me. I later asked them why they had taken the time to share with me. They told me that it was because they knew I was sincere, that I wanted to better myself, and I wasn’t trying to “out-star” them. So they gave me all the knowledge they could.

RV: That’s such good wisdom to pass along to younger musicians.

JH: It’s also a good way to hold your ego down. Some people have an attitude, “I don’t serve nobody!” I say, that’s okay. You don’t have to serve me. Then I’m gone. I wouldn’t say that’s a good friend to have.

RV: It pays to be humble and listen.

JH: Why, sure.

RV: Were you always disciplined? A lack of discipline has stopped many a good musician from completing their goals.

JH: I was always disciplined, thanks to my father. My father looked after me and looked out for me. He wouldn’t want me to work under the wrong circumstances. Now, in the club where Art played, there were guests all the time. They had one room downstairs for the dancing ladies. Nowadays, dancing ladies are very skinny, no meat on the bones. That’s not good, really. The best of the dancers had some meat on their bones. At the club, they put me in the room with the ladies. I was just 12 years old. They all knew me and my father, mother, all my brothers and sisters. I was one of 15 siblings, 9th child, 7th son, of 12 boys and 3 girls, born September 16, 1921. They were right givers, a lot of marijuana in the men’s room at the club, and I knew that was bad. But there were a lot of ladies in the ladies’ room. They would come in between acts to change costumes and rip off their blouses and their brassieres, and bare breasts would be flopping everywhere. They would say, “Oh, Jonny, come here! Come here, Jonny!” They would take my head and bring it to their bosoms and press. [He motions with hands squeezing face on both sides.] I’d be like, “Hey, bus driver! Open the door!” [Laughter] Yes, these ladies would get me in trouble.

RV: Yes, I can see your introduction to women at such an early age was a young boy’s dream.

Let’s talk about your favorite piano players. In today’s college jazz programs, instrumentalists are taught very hip technique and improvisation theory. But seldom are they taught the value of lyrics and how to play with different styles of singers. What advice would you give to pianists?

JH: It’s called “accompaniment.”

RV: Some pianists bristle at that label, feeling it’s pejorative, and they are insulted if you call them an accompanist.

JH: Then take that cat’s name off the roles, and get yourself another cat that’s got more sense! “What do you mean, it’s what you want? You know, you’re not here to get what you want and just be here for that only. You get what you want, when you give something back.”

RV: Yes, a relationship with respect should be about give and take musically.

JH: That’s the only way to be in show business.

RV: When you’re performing on the road and sing one of your beautiful ballads, instead of a bebop song, what do you tell the pianist?

JH: I would explain to them what the word accompanist means. When you are accompanying a singer, you are playing the chords of the song in such a way that you never get in the way of the melody the singer is singing. You always lay it down, and then, 3 bars later, the next phrase, and then it becomes a marriage. It’s a work in which everybody takes part as an accompanist somehow, and it’s healthy. If it’s done right, it’s artistic as hell.

RV: Who’s one of your favorite pianists to sing with?

JH: Art Tatum. It was like I had the whole Philadelphia Symphony back there when I was singing with him.

RV: What do you look for in a bassist?

JH: In a bassist you look for thumpin’! BOOM! Ding! Ba-doom, dup, dup [sings killin’ bass line]. You’re looking for that!

RV: How about the drummer? A drummer can make or break the band. Do you say anything to the drummer before you start?

JH: You’ve got a vocalist here. No instrument is weaker than the human voice. So to accompany something as weak as the human voice, you’ve got to stay under it. And you have to have the willingness to do that. Everybody knows you want to be heard, so you should have a solo to show the audience that you are an artist, and be heard. But all of that “being heard” should not be going on over the singer. If you feature the band and let them blow on something so they can shine, it’s good for them and for the audience.

RV: What is your favorite jazz club?

JH: I like the Blue Note. Arturo’s is fun here in NYC. But my favorite is Ronnie Scott’s club in London. The best way to teach singers is to sing. People ask me if I teach and I say, “No,” but I’m lying. Because I’m going to Ronnie Scott’s that night to perform and the students are all there studying what I do. They can learn from what they hear. We performers are teachers. That’s what we do.

Many thanks to Jon and Judith Hendricks for opening up their home and taking the time to chat with me. This interview is a small peep into the life and history of a jazz icon. I believe all jazz students should hear Jon’s lyrics and solos on ballads and bebop. “Just Listen.

Required listening:

1. The Hottest New Group in Jazz – Lambert, Hendricks and Ross
2. Sing a Song of Basie – Lambert, Hendricks and Ross
3. Freddie the Freeloader – Jon Hendricks featuring Bobby McFerrin, Al Jarreau, George Benson

More information about Jon Hendricks here. Originally Published

Roseanna Vitro

Roseanna Vitro is a jazz vocalist who has released 14 albums on the Concord, Telarc, Challenge, and Motéma labels—achieving a Grammy nomination in 2010 for The Music of Randy Newman—and has toured as a featured artist on every continent but Antarctica, including two tours as a Jazz Ambassador for the U.S. State Department. Also an educator, she taught college-level courses for New Jersey City University, SUNY Purchase, and NJPAC over the course of 20 years. As a jazz advocate, she has produced records for fellow musicians, chaired seminars, lectured and presented clinics globally, and regularly interviews other singers for JazzTimes; a full list of her JT columns is here. Contact her at