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Interview: Jon Hendricks (Part 1)

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Jon Hendricks' pure sense of swing, poetic word-play and conversational vocalese remain unmatched. Truth be told, Jon' s splendid contribution to jazz has never been fully acknowledged or appreciated. Jon not only has written the words to dozens of songs based on famous jazz solos, he also has perfectly captured their infectious intent by singing every nuance of the original instrumentals. Which requires enormous skill, sensitivity and depth. If you wave off Jon's gifts as nothing more than a vocal magic trick, try this exercise: Grab the lyrics to Cloudburst or Everyday and sing along with the record. Not so simple. Jon can swing, he's bop hip, and since the early 1950s has been jazz's impersonator-in-chief, getting saxophone, trombone and trumpet solos up on their hind legs and walking.

Jon's recording career began in earnest in 1954 on a King Pleasure session that featured vocalese singer Eddie Jefferson and the Three Riffs. In 1955, Jon and the Dave Lambert Singers recorded three tracks. But his big break came in 1957, when a failed recording session led to the formation of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. The group's first album, Sing a Song of Basie, won a Grammy Award and ignited a fresh vocal concept that was both fun and sophisticated.

In Part 1 of my two-part interview with Jon, 87, the legendary singer and lyricist talks about growing up in Ohio, singing on the radio with neighbor Art Tatum, singing with Charlie Parker on a whim, encountering racism on the brink of law school, and traveling to New York at the urging of Parker:

JazzWax: Where did you grow up?
Jon Hendricks: I was born in 1921, in a railroad switch town called Newark, Ohio. It was just a hamlet with a dirt road running through it. My father was pastor of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which served the area. No one was famous there. If you were alive back then in the Depression, you were a celebrity [laughs]. There were 17 of us--14 boys and 3 girls. There was no TV then, so getting along with each other was necessary and easy. You had no choice.

JW: That's a lot of brothers and sisters.
JH: In number only. There was a lot of love in my family. There also were strict rules of living. In the morning, we had a crowd of children who needed to use the bathroom. So we lined up according to height and age, with the smallest in the front of the line. And it worked. Order always works. You can have a mob, but if they're ordered, they can break down the strongest wall. Like everyone else in our neighborhood, we had a vegetable garden that helped put food on the table.

JW: Did your family remain in Newark, Ohio?
JH: No. My father could preach better than Peter, so the church moved my father to many different parishes to energize congregations. I went to 13 different schools. The church paid for our relocation, and there was always a parsonage that went with the church, so we always had a house. We had to sleep three to a bed, of course, but we were used to that. That's good for a family. It forces closeness. [Bishop Richard Allen, founder of the A.M.E. Church]

JW: What did your father do to keep all of you in line?
JH: Nothing. We were just exhorted to love one another. We had no problem with that. The problem came when my father would get all 17 of us downstairs on our knees to pray. We didn't stand up or sit in a chair or anything like that. We got down on our knees to supplicate to a power that was bigger than us. Every morning he prayed for good and for the safety of all the world. And he exhorted us every morning to know, not to believe, to know that we were alive by the grace of god. He told us that there's nothing living that we can dislike.

JW: What was the problem?
JH: My father told us that every living thing is our brother and sister. He warned us that outside our front door, nobody believed that. So he said our task was to take that knowledge with us when we went outside, so that we behaved that way whenever we met someone. The problem was the real world didn't always work that way or respond in turn to kindness and love.

JW: But your father's message helped you.
JH: Oh yes. My father taught me to fight for the right things, not the wrong ones. My father's way of looking at life gave all of us a strong humane-ness. Everybody to this day likes my brothers and sisters.

JW: What was your first instrument?
JH: When I was a teen I took up the drums.

JW: What did your father think?
JH: I never knew what he thought. He never imposed anything on us. He told us how he expected us to behave but never said we could only do one thing and not another. He just urged us to be kind. If we were, he said, most men and women would like us and respect us. The problem is he never taught us how to go about doing that, except simply to treat everyone as a brother and sister.

JW: Eventually your family settled in Toledo, Ohio.
JH: Yes. And Art Tatum lived five houses from ours. He was from Toledo, too. When I started to sing as a kid, he accompanied me on the radio. Soon he began calling me for gigs. Can you imagine? Art Tatum calling me to sing with him? When I was 9 years old, I was known as Little Johnny Hendricks and sang at the Rivoli Theater in Toledo. Art was 21 years old.

JW: What was it like to sing with Tatum?
JH: Like singing with the Minneapolis Symphony. I once asked Tatum how had learned to play like that. He said his mother had bought him a piano roll featuring two pianists. Tatum, being blind, didn't know that. He just listened and learned the piece being played on the roll. It turned out to be two guys playing at once. He had learned to play four hands anyway and didn't think anything of it [laughs].

JW: When did you first hear bebop?
JH: On the boat coming home from Europe after World War II. I had just won $300 playing craps and was in my bunk reading when I heard someone playing Charlie Parker's records. His music made complete sense to me because I was already familiar with Art Tatum. When Dizzy [Gillespie] and Bird [Charlie Parker] came on the scene, they were just following Art Tatum. Most people don't realize that Tatum was the father of bebop.

JW: How so?
JH: In later years, when I asked Bird where he had learned all the things he was playing, he said he had worked as a dishwasher at the Onyx Club on 52nd St. in the early 1940s just to hear Art Tatum play. Then, he said, he went back to Kansas City and learned to play with all the creativity and wisdom and speed of Tatum. And that's what he did.

JW: What did you do after the transport ship docked in New York?
JH: When I got back in 1946, I moved back home and enrolled at the University of Toledo on the G.I. Bill. I majored in English and minored in history and was studying pre-law. I got all A's in English--including the only A awarded in creative writing in seven years. My English professor was Milton Marks, who had written a book on creative writing used in all the universities.

JW: Eventually you decided to move to New York. Why?
JH: Racism. I had married an Irish girl in Ohio, and we had a son. I had a 3.5 average at the university and was on track for law school. Because of my high academic average, I was to going to be appointed Juvenile State Probation Officer. That would have given me the privilege of socializing with police court and juvenile court judges. They didn't want that because my wife and I were an interracial couple. But they couldn't just dismiss me. I had earned the grades I got and the position I was to receive. So they got the guy with next highest grades, a black guy. They told him that if he didn't convince me to move out of town, they were going to fire him.

JW: What happened?
JH: The guy came over to my house and laid out the situation for me. He said he had a wife and two kids and that they told him to come over to my house and threaten me or he'd lose his job. The guy said to me, “I'm not going to do that. I'm just going to say that if you prevail and stay on your job, they're going to fire me. I have two kids. But I'm just going leave it with you." So I decided to leave. Didn't make much sense staying after that.

JW: Why New York?
JH: Because of Bird. I had sung with him first in Toledo. He came through on a tour in 1949. I scatted with him. Miles had just left the quintet and Kenny Dorham replaced him on trumpet. Al Haig took Duke Jordan's place. I had Bird's records and had researched everybody in the group. So when I went up to sing with him, I took about eight choruses. Then I started to exit the stage. But I felt this hand on my coattail. Kenny was up taking his solo so his chair was empty. I looked back and saw my coattail was in Bird's hand. Bird motioned for me to sit in Kenny's chair.

JW: What happened after the set?
JH: Bird asked me what I wanted to do. I told him I wanted to be a lawyer. Bird said, “You ain't no lawyer. You're a jazz singer." I said, “What can I do with that?" Bird said, “You have to come to New York." I said, “I don't know anybody there." Bird said, “You know me." I said, “Where will I find you?" Bird said, “Just ask anyone" [laughs]. I left thinking, “This guy's crazy."

JW: So you never forgot that invitation.
JH: Right. So two years later, when that guy came to my house and told me to quit and get out of town, I decided I would first go with my wife and son to Canada to live. Racism didn't seem to exist up there. I had $350 in my pocket. But when we arrived at the border, they wouldn't let us into the country to emigrate unless we had at least $1,000.

JW: What did you do?
JH: My wife, child and I drove to Buffalo, N.Y. But our car broke down. We went to the bus station and, remembering what Bird had said, bought tickets and took the bus to New York City. When I arrived, I had only my wife and son, and a set of drums.

Tomorrow, Jon talks about searching for Charlie Parker in New York, discovering his talent for lyric writing, teaming with Dave Lambert, and the story behind the famed Sing a Song of Basie album.

JazzWax tracks: To hear the Art Tatum Jon knew in Toledo, Ohio, download Art Tatum: 1932-1934 (Classics), his earliest recordings, for $5.99 here. To hear Charlie Parker with Kenny Dorham in 1949, try The Complete Live Performances on Savoy, which you can download at iTunes. Dorham joined Charlie Parker in Late December 1948. Dorham's period on this box set starts with track No. 12 (Half Nelson).

JazzWax appreciation: To appreciate Jon's way with words, dig his opening lyrics to Cloudburst. They're as precious as they are shrewd and economical:

I was blue and I was always wearing a frown
Because my gal had turned me down
Then we met and you can bet I knew from the first,
You were my love cause that's when the old gray cloud burst!
My heart really flew the day you caught my eye
I hope that we two will never say goodbye
Clouds of gray have silver linings when they're reversed
I found your love, and that's when the old gray cloud burst!

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2021. All rights reserved.

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