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Interview: Jon Hendricks (Part 2)

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Jon Hendricks thinks like a saxophonist curled up in a bass drum. His sense of timing has always been rooted in his early skills on the snare and cymbals. His gift for wordplay comes from curiosity and a deep passion for literature. And his swing? Well, that's a New York thing--an early 1950s marinade of uncertain ingredients that includes interactions with showboats, corner hipsters, bop braggarts and nocturnal nihilists.

When I saw Jon at the ASCAP Wall of Fame Awards in June, he took the Rose Hall stage with Annie Ross and sang four songs flawlessly, the words pouring out with enormous joy and nostalgia. If you want to hear what the year 1958 sounded like, catch Jon and Annie if you can. They are perfect together, and sound so much like they did 50 years ago. It's infectiously optimistic and amazing music.

In Part 2 of my two-part interview with Jon, the legendary singer talks about singing with Charlie Parker in New York, how Parker's Ko-Ko got its name, recording with King Pleasure in 1954, and the mistake that nearly ruined Sing a Song of Basie--Lambert Hendricks & Ross' first album in 1957 that put the vocalese trio on the map and went on to win multiple Grammy Awards:

JazzWax: What did you do when you arrived in New York after leaving Toledo, Ohio?
Jon Hendricks: Right away I called Joe Carroll, Dizzy Gillespie's singer. I knew Joe because he was with Dizzy when Dizzy offered me a job years earlier, when I was still in school. That's when Dizzy came to Detroit. I sang with him there. I knew what they were playing at the time because it was what Art Tatum had taught me.

JW: What did Carroll say?
JH: He said to stay at a hotel up at 116th and Broadway near Columbia University that charged $18 a week.

JW: Did you ask Carroll for a job?
JH: No. All I asked Joe was, “Where's Bird?" Joe said “At 115th and 7th Ave., at the Apollo Bar." So I went uptown to see Bird. When I arrived at the bar, I put my hand on the doorknob but pulled it back. I started to feel silly. I thought, “This cat was doing one-nighters all over the Midwest. He's not going to remember me." So I started to walk away from the bar, toward my hotel. But soon I stopped. I said to myself, “The only guy who knows what I do is in that place. I have to go in there."

JW: Did you go back?
JH: Yes. I went back, gritted my teeth and walked in. Roy Haynes was on drums, Curley Russell was on bass, Bud Powell on piano, and Bird and Gerry Mulligan were playing. You had to walk right past the bandstand in that place to get to the tables.

JW: What happened?
JH: Bird stopped playing when he saw me walk by the stand. He shouted out, “Hey Jon, want to come up here and sing something?" It was two years and four months since I had seen him last during that one-nighter in Toledo. And he had remembered me.

JW: Parker had some memory, didn't he?
JH: Oh, man. Amazing. The guy had a great mind. Back in 1945, the British publisher of Cherokee wouldn't let Bird record the song because they thought it would be a desecration of the copyright. So Parker played the same chord changes but made up a different melody. Parker told Teddy Reig, the [Savoy Records] producer of the session to call it Ko-Ko. Years later, Teddy asked Bird what Ko-Ko meant. Bird said it was the name of the Lord High Executioner in Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado [laughs]. Charlie Parker not only knew the work but the irony of the name and its use for the song. He was an intellectual. Later Bird kept a tape in his luggage of Stravinsky's Sacre du Printemps. He liked the part where the woman screams [laughs].

JW: Did you go up and sing with Parker and the group?
JH: First I sat down at a table. When they got off the set, the musicians went off in different directions to buy their stuff. Roy didn't use. He sat with his girl at the bar. Then they all came back. It was the last set.

JW: What did Bird say to you?
JH: He said, “We'll play a few tunes first and then call you up." On the third tune, Bird announced, “In Toledo, Ohio, an amazing young cat jumped up on stage and scatted. He happens to be here tonight. Come up, Jon."

JW: Sounds like a confidence-building introduction.
JH: It was--until Roy Haynes [pictured] said real loud, “No, no, we don't want no singers, Bird." Parker said, “Roy, cool it and sit down and play the drums." I got up with them and sang three numbers, and the house went wild. I've always thought of myself as a horn, so that's what I did. I scatted as though I were another horn in the group. They loved it.

JW: In December 1954, you recorded a track with vocalese pioneer King Pleasure.
JH: King Pleasure [pictured] brought me onto the record date. I had met him uptown at the Turf Bar a week or so earlier. He gave me a sheet of paper with his words to Stan Getz's solo on Don't Get Scared, which Stan had recorded in '51 with his Swedish All-Stars. I said, “I see your words, but where are my words?" King Pleasure said, “You're a writer. Write your own words." So I did. That's why when you listen to the recording, his words sound like a father talking to his son and I'm responding. I came up with that concept after leaving the bar. Quincy [Jones] arranged that session.

JW: You've always been a fast thinker and lyric writer.
JH: I write on demand like that. That's how I wrote the words to Four Brothers around that time. I lived in New York and was on the streets for years before I got famous. I worked first in a newsprint factory. On my lunch break I'd hang out on Broadway in the 50s, where the songwriters were. They'd surround me and say, “Jon, what are you working on?"

JW: What would you tell them?
JH: I'd sing a ditty using my way of putting words together. Soon I'd hear what I sang on the radio a few weeks later. They were stealing my stuff.

JW: You had quite a fast mind.
JH: I did. I took pre-law at the University of Toledo because of my mind. When I was 9 years old I got all A's in English. I loved books and always was adept at the language. My father always chose me to help him with the text for his Sunday sermons. He'd ask me to copy out text from the bible each week. This made me curious about everything and eager to research whatever I didn't know. If I'm onto something, I don't stop until I get to the truth. I do the same thing with my lyrics. I've always had a love of words and word combinations. After spending time on the streets and in the clubs of New York in the early 1950s, it all came together.

JW: How did Sing a Song of Basie come about--Lambert, Hendricks & Ross' first album.
JH: Dave Lambert and I were like brothers. But when we first went in to record that album, Dave brought too many Dave Lambert Singers. They didn't swing. They were like a commercial choir, without that hip feeling. After a while, it wasn't working. I told Dave, “We have to get some more African-Americans in here" [laughs]. Dave said, “Well, I guess so." Creed said, “No, no, no more singing. No more mass. I don't have any more money. Whatever we do, you three have to do it."

JW: What did you say?
JH: Dave said, “We'll multitrack." Annie, me and Creed looked at each other and said, “What's that?" Dave said, “Well, we'll put three voices on a roll of tape. We'll do it four times and we'll have the 12 pieces of the Basie band and that will be it." We already had the rhythm section track recorded.

JW: You guys had never multitracked before, had you?
JH: Nobody had [to that extent with vocals]. And nobody had ever put the lyrics on the back of an album before. I invented that. I said this will let the listeners follow along. It will be better than some disc jockey writing about how great or not great the album is.

JW: So Creed saw the genius of that right away?
JH: Yeah.

JW: So did you write all your parts?
JH: I can't write music. I can't read music. I just sing music. Dave did all the writing.

JW: How did you sing all the parts without reading music?
JH: Dave gave me the tapes of the Basie parts and I learned them. I learn very fast.

JW: So in the tape, you could hear what each saxophone was playing through the band?
JH: Well, Dave isolated all the different parts on one tape. He'd just take off the different parts he needed right from the recording. Instead of the whole band, you'd hear just one saxophone--the first alto and the second alto, the first tenor and the baritone, one after the next. Annie had the same thing but with the trumpets, and Dave had the trombones.

JW: So you'd learn the four parts. You'd put down the lead track first and then come back and sing the other harmonizing saxes until all four parts were recorded. What an amazing invention.
JH: It was. I don't even know the right word to describe it. It was god at work.

JW: If any one of you couldn't pull that off, you would have been in trouble.
JH: Well, Annie had already recorded the way we sang. Twisted was out already. She was singing vocalese before Dave and I did.

JW: But not the multitracking.
JH: No. But that's not a creative process. That's just a creative use of electricity [laughs].

JW: But it was still tricky to pull off.
JH: Well, I guess so. But for us it was so easy, it's hard to see the difficulty in that now.

JW: What happened next?
JH: We recorded the tracks over the next month and a half. But when Dave put all the tracks together and we came in to hear it, the master was a mess. [Jon imitates the sound of the distorted voices on the tape]. When assembling all the parts onto one master tape, we had put the least-heard voices--the alto, the second trombone and the baritone parts--on top. And the others next. So it was inaudible. There was no blended order to the parts. We should have recorded each section separately and then brought them together by modulating the sections by the dials.

JW: Did you three flip out?
JH: We were a little stunned. Creed [pictured] started moaning, “Oh god, I'm going to lose my job." He was in tears. Creed was such a sweet cat. We all loved him. So Dave said, “Give us another month and a half. What time do you close?" Creed said, “At 8 [p.m.]. Dave said, “We'll be in here at 8:15 p.m. What time do you open?" Creed said, “At 7 [a.m.]." Dave says, “We'll leave at 6:45. Just give us the time." Creed said, “I won't be able to come up with any more money." Dave waved him off, saying, “We don't need the money. Just give us the time and we'll come in and do this right."

JW: What did you three do?
JH: We came in and re-recorded everything at night, the way it should have been done in the first place. And when we heard the master the next time around, all four of us sat down and cried like babies. You could hear instantly how good it was. And to this minute, till right now, I can truthfully say that it's the best vocal album I have ever heard in my entire life.

JW: It can't be duplicated, that's for sure.
JH: Nope. Annie and I will be brother and sister for the rest of our lives. Dave, too, bless his heart.

JW: So you worked through the night, every day for a month and a half?
JH: That's right [pause]. What else did we have to do? [roaring laughter]. Those were good days.

JazzWax tracks: Jon's recording, Don't Get Scared, can be found on King Pleasure Sings/Annie Ross Sings. The entire album is terrific, including a little-known instrumental called Funk Junction featuring J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding. You'll find the recording as a download at iTunes and Amazon. Stan Getz's original solo on Don't Get Scared is on The Smoothest Operator: 1951 Stockholm/New York/Boston at iTunes. Or you can download it here off Stan Getz: 1951 (Classics).

A few words about Sing a Song of Basie. This is an astonishing album by any definition. While Lambert's decision to multitrack the parts was a stroke of genius, the singing and swing itself are exciting and pure. It's impossible to listen to the album without moving your feet. And if you've heard it a few times, you'll likely find yourself trying to sing along with the group. Jon's lyrics are hip, and how Dave Lambert, Jon and Annie Ross managed to overtrack their horn parts to sound like Basie's band remains a marvel to this day. You'll find the album at iTunes, Amazon and other e-music retailers. Or you'll find the CD here. The re-issue features three bonus tracks (Four Brothers, Cloudburst and Standin' on the Corner) from a recording date in 1955 featuring Jon Hendricks and the Dave Lambert Singers.

JazzWax clip: Need a smile on your face? Dig this clip of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross with O.C. Smith and the Count Basie Orchestra singing Everyday. It was recorded in1961, and that looks like Budd Johnson on tenor sax in the section. If your right foot isn't counting off the beats, call the doctor...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.

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