The great jazz singer Jon Hendricks died in New York earlier today at the age of 96. In his New York Times obituary, Peter Keepnews writes that “Mr. Hendricks did not invent this practice, known as vocalese — most jazz historians credit the singer Eddie Jefferson with that achievement — but he became its best-known and most prolific exponent, and he turned it into a group art.”
His work with Lambert, Hendricks and Ross was one of my gateways into jazz music. My childhood home had only a few mostly dreadful record albums (and my beloved mother’s favorite radio station was KABL/San Francisco, with Mantovani and 101 Strings in heavy rotation on the Philco clock radio on the kitchen counter), but somewhere in the bowels of the house was Sing a Song of Basie LP that would somehow occasionally make its way on to our Hoffman stereo system’ turntable — in competition for time with Creedence and the Doors and Beatles 45’s. Even as a little kid I could tell this was “hip” music, and it ultimately led me to an unforgettable experience.
When I was living in Berkeley in the late seventies I went to see him on stage in a small North Beach theater — the On Broadway — performing in a long-running show he wrote and starred in called Evolution of the Blues. I will always remember him singing a spine-tingling, thrilling, and impeccable rendition of “Everyday I Have the Blues,” which was quite a thing to witness as a 23-year old white guy from suburban Oakland. It was one of those experiences that help shape who we become.
His longtime collaborator and close friend, Kurt Elling issued this statement:
“Jon Hendricks always will be the greatest of jazz lyricists. 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 was always on full display, and word twist devices was nothing short of miraculous. His command of the jazz language and interpretive nature of his improvisation was on parallel with the greatest instrumentalists. As a lyricist, he was as equally generous with his words, as he was as a mentor and friend of all the jazz singers who have followed him. The last I encountered Jon in his final days, and he was in the same spirit of joy and interaction.”
You can read the entirety of Keepnews’ New York Times obituary of Hendricks by clicking here.
(for Jon Hendricks)
The wordsmith paints a picture,
A kind of bebop exchange,
Rambling around the neighbourhood,
Curbside to parkside,
Phrasing with style,
All the way uptown,
To the forest of words,
Dense and eloquent,
Connected to the sky,
A canvas on which to portray,
The presence, the humour,
the hustle and the warmth,
The wide open window,
That Jazz blows through.