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Jon Hendricks, Jazz Vocalese Innovator, Dies

The influential vocalist and lyricist was 96

Jon Hendricks
Jon Hendricks

Jon Hendricks – one of the originators of jazz vocalese – died on Wednesday, Nov. 22, in New York City. Perhaps best known for his collaboration with Dave Lambert and Annie Ross in the vocal group Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, Hendricks was 96 years old. He had been hospitalized with broken hips. The death was confirmed by the vocalist Kurt Elling, who considered Hendricks a mentor and major influence.

“Jon Hendricks always will be the greatest of jazz lyricists,” Elling said. “I can’t imagine him being surprised that his wife, Judith, thought of him as a mystical offspring of William Shakespeare. His ingenuity and mother wit were always on full display, and his word-twist devices were nothing short of miraculous. His command of the jazz language and the interpretive nature of his improvisation were parallel to the greatest instrumentalists. He was as generous with his words as a lyricist as he was as a mentor and friend to all the jazz singers who have followed him. The last I encountered Jon was in his final days, and he was in the same spirit of joy and interaction.”

Hendricks was born on Sept. 16, 1921, in Newark, Ohio, one of 15 children. His father was a pastor and eventually settled in Toledo, which was where Hendricks developed as a musician and singer. “I started singing when I was 6,” Hendricks told Roseanna Vitro in an interview for “My father was the pastor at Warren AME Church.” Remarkably, the young Hendricks was an early adopter of the legendary pianist Art Tatum—or, perhaps more accurately, it was the other way around.

“I was about 12 years old, and I used to come out of junior high school past his house,” he told Vitro. “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 hometown? 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 bassist and drummer and you have two sets, and you play my two numbers that I sing.’”

He continued: “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.”

As he told Vitro, Louis Armstrong was another important and very direct influence. “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. … ‘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.’”

After serving in the Army during World War II, Hendricks returned to go to college at the University of Toledo, where he was a pre-law student. When his G.I. Bill funds ran out, he took Charlie Parker’s advice to move to New York City, and he soon fell in with another singer named Dave Lambert.

In 1955, the two did a vocal recording of “Four Brothers,” and started work on an album they planned to call Sing a Song of Basie. Their plan was to use a group of studio singers, but it was the producer Bob Bach who connected them with fellow vocalist Annie Ross.

Ross told JT’s Gene Lees that she was basically brought in to coach the group. “Frankly,” she said, “I was a little miffed that they didn’t ask me to do it.” Eventually, with the group struggling, the two turned to the coach—and one of the music’s most important and influential vocal groups was born. “Dave said, ‘Let’s keep Annie, and we’ll overdub the parts,’” Ross said. “We did it, and it was incredible.”

The trio became a sensation thanks to the Basie album and a subsequent string of live performances at concerts and festivals all over the world. They released a series of albums, including The Swingers! (1959), The Hottest New Group in Jazz (1959), Lambert, Hendricks & Ross Sing Ellington (1960) and High Flying (1962).

Cover of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross album
Cover of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross album

Nothing quite like it had been seen or heard before. Hendricks quickly developed a gift for writing lyrics to song melodies as well as instrumental solos. The term vocalese seemed to be created just to describe his style—one that would influence generations of jazz singers, from Al Jarreau to Bobby McFerrin to the Manhattan Transfer to Elling.

For his part, Hendricks admitted that he stumbled into lyric writing. “I would forget lyrics,” he told Vitro. “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.”

But the group’s career was cut short by tragedy in the mid-’60s, when Lambert died in a roadside car accident. “He was always a good Samaritan,” Hendricks told Lees about Lambert. “If anyone was in trouble on the road, he’d always stop and help.” On Oct. 3, 1966, Lambert was driving on the Connecticut Turnpike on his way back to New York from Cape Cod, where he had played a gig without Hendricks and Ross. He saw a motorist on the side of the road dealing with a flat tire and stopped to help.

“It was the damnedest thing,” Hendricks told Lees. “He was kneeling down, working on the lugs of the wheel. A big semi went by and sucked him in.” Lambert died instantly.

Despite their grief and loss of a musical soulmate, both Hendricks and Ross continued their careers as solo artists. Hendricks spent some time in England in the late-’60s and early ’70s, while raising his four children and also touring in Europe and Africa. He eventually settled in Northern California, where he added professional writer to his résumé.

Although his recording career would be somewhat sporadic over the next few decades, he continued to be a vibrant presence on the jazz scene through performances and collaborations with such kindred spirits as the Manhattan Transfer. In 2003, Hendricks toured with a multigenerational male vocal group that was built around him; also featuring Elling, Mark Murphy and Kevin Mahogany, it was billed as “The Four Brothers.” He also loved performing with his wife, Judith, and daughters, Michele and Aria, as the Hendricks Family.

In his later years, he returned to his hometown to teach at the University of Toledo, where he continued to influence and mentor countless singers, songwriters and instrumentalists.

His influence on subsequent jazz singers was profound—and it didn’t stop with jazz stylists. Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell were both directly affected by Hendricks. “I had jazz records in high school,” Mitchell told JT’s Geoffrey Himes in 2007. “Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, Oscar Brown Jr. and Billie Holiday.” Indeed, Mitchell would later record her version of LH&R’s “Twisted,” with Ross’ lyrics.

Hendricks is survived by his daughters, Michele and Aria, and son, Jon Jr., as well as three grandchildren, Colleen, Azaria and Daniel. Hendricks’ wife and partner of 57 years, Judith, died two years ago.

Listen to this Spotify playlist of songs from Jon Hendricks –

Read Gene Lees’ profile of Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross.

Read Roseanna Vitro’s interview with Jon Hendricks from her Voices in Jazz series at Originally Published