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Peter Jones: This Is Bop: Jon Hendricks and the Art of Vocal Jazz (Equinox)

Review of new book that examines the icon of vocalese

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Cover of This Is Bop: Jon Hendricks and the Art of Vocal Jazz
Cover of Peter Jones’ book This Is Bop: Jon Hendricks and the Art of Vocal Jazz

Having a fellow jazz singer and the author of the award-winning This Is Hip: The Life of Mark Murphy tackle the roots of bop vocalese and its firestarter, athletic crooner/lyricist/actor/raconteur Jon Hendricks, is sort of like asking one of the Apostles to take on the entire Bible. An origin story such as that of this wildly charismatic jazz and theater creature, leading back to the lions of the form before there was a form (mentor Art Tatum, genius Charlie Parker, and arranger/traffic cop Dave Lambert), requires nothing less than a surgeon’s skills and a comedian’s ability to pace oneself to the punchline. 

Combining a history of bop singing with a vivid portrayal of the gospel of the griot Saint Jon and a study of language itself, Jones gets to the point and lingers there with love, laughter, and impactful details based on deep research and thoughtful hypothesis. To quote from Jones’ quoting of author/pianist Ben Sidran quoting Hendricks himself, “Bebop was the most elegant way of speaking ever invented.” With that, Jones shows that he is just as invested in the idea of the word, bending it, harmonizing it, shooting it, as he is in the swerving, sliding semiotics of the man singing that word. 

“Jon Hendricks thought big, and he knew no boundaries,” writes Jones, who had to be energetically boundless himself while considering a subject who came from a religious background yet eschewed it early in his life; got shot at by U.S. troops in World War II before deserting the Army (and having several documentaries made on being a Black man in America’s military); arrived in the Big Apple of his dreams and fell prey to all the vices and addictions a man could embrace; wrote for Louis Jordan and sang with Louis Armstrong, King Pleasure, Thelonious Monk, and Duke Ellington, to say nothing of his forming the superstar vocalese trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross—all explained in thorough dispatch by Jones.

Along with an exhaustive mapping of Hendricks’ hard and happy road and a much-needed chronological discography of sessions (if anyone requires several box sets of guest appearances alone, it’s Hendricks), Jones provides a solid back-end appendix, “The Wisdom and Philosophy.” This long chapter simply allows Hendricks to make wild pronouncements, presenting the choicest of quotations on everything from white people and race relations to diet and medicine, the art of talking (“You very seldom hear a junkie talking in high literary terms”), and his legendary inability to read music (“The secret of my art is ignorance, because I [didn’t know] that you can’t do this and you can’t do that”). If Jones sold this section of This Is Bop separately, it would be worth a mint. That it’s merely colorful icing makes the whole bippity-bopping, oob-a-dee-boobading cake all the sweeter, and richer.

Learn more about This Is Bop on Amazon!