A new book by Peter Jones (*),This is Bop: Jon Hendricks and the Art of Vocal Jazz is published by Equinox later this month. Sebastian interviewed him:
What do you see as the real significance of Jon Hendricks to music?
First of all, he was the last living link to the ancient gods of bebop: he learned about jazz as a child from Art Tatum, who lived on the same street in Toledo, Ohio, where they were both born – Art in 1909, Jon in 1921. You might say Jon was subsequently “discovered” by Charlie Parker when, at the urging of his wife, he got up on stage and scatted with Bird at a gig, and afterwards Bird told him he ought to move to New York to pursue his jazz singing career – which he did a few years later. As a child, he knew Fats Waller and Duke Ellington, and later worked with Ellington. He wrote lyrics for Monk, and recorded with him. He found fame doing vocal versions of Basie tunes, and played a lot of gigs with him. He recorded with Dave Brubeck and Louis Armstrong. I could go on…
But it wasn’t just a question of schmoozing with the legends, he was extremely creative, both musically and lyrically. He couldn’t read a note on the page, and seemed to have no understanding of basic music theory, such what key something was in. (On one occasion Frank Griffith – also an LJN contributor – was arranging The Maids of Cadiz for him. Frank suggested Eb might be a better key for Jon than E, to which Jon enquired, “Which one’s higher?”) But Jon had a fantastic ear. He was able to scat so brilliantly because he had absorbed the lessons of harmony from Tatum. I’d say his most incredible talent was with lyrics. He wrote words to instrumentals so he could sing them, and then they became songs as well as tunes: things like Jive Samba, Moanin’, In Walked Bud, No More, Airegin, Freddie Freeloader, I Remember Clifford, and he did English versions of many Brazilian songs. He wrote the lyrics to Mongo Santamaria’s Yeh Yeh, which gave Georgie Fame his first big hit.
Jon took this lyrical genius much further by developing the art of vocalese: this is where you take a jazz recording and add lyrics to improvised solos. It’s extremely difficult to learn a vocalese song, because there’s no repetition. Most singers don’t get beyond Moody’s Mood for Love, which was Eddie Jefferson’s rendering into words of James Moody’s saxophone solo on I’m in the Mood for Love. Writing the words in the first place is even harder. Jon’s first big project was Sing a Song of Basie, with Lambert, Hendricks and Ross back in 1957, but right at the end of his life he was still at it. In 2017 he finally completed his lyricization of Miles’s entire Miles Ahead album, which he’d been working on for 50 years.
For people who don’t know his work, what should they listen to first?
Nothing beats the glory days of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. As a live act they were jaw-dropping, but in terms of studio recordings there’s not much to beat The Hottest New Group in Jazz. Of his own albums, I would say Freddie Freeloader is probably the best.
What status does Miles Ahead have in his output?
Hard to say, because although I’ve heard it performed live twice by a jazz choir, it still hasn’t been completed as a studio project, which would give us some way of comparing it with his other recorded work. As an achievement, of course, it’s just mind-blowing. First he had to write words for each head (except where they already existed, as with My Ship, The Meaning of the Blues and I Don’t Wanna Be Kissed). Then he had to lyricise all Miles’s solos, and all the background parts as well. It was a monumental undertaking, and it would not have happened at all if Pete Churchill hadn’t come along and essentially forced him at gunpoint to finish it.
In the interviews you did, what traits of his character came across strongest?
I talked to his surviving children at length – his daughters Michele and Aria and his son Jon Jr., whom I finally tracked down in Uruguay. I also interviewed a lot of musicians and singers who worked with him, and some industry people too. All of them described a man of huge charisma and equally huge ego. The musicians all commented on Jon’s immense storehouse of anecdotes. He would keep them in stitches with these stories, to the point where the band would sometimes miss a flight because Jon hadn’t quite made it to the punchline. They’re also unanimous that he was a great teacher. His former pianist David Leonhardt told me about a gig they were playing in Minnesota, where Jon called Every Time We Say Goodbye. David didn’t know it, and tried to fake the chords, but it sounded terrible. Halfway through, Jon walked over to him and said, very quietly, “No chord is better than the wrong chord.” By which he meant, don’t get in the way. If you don’t know what to do, don’t play. Larry Goldings told me about a time he was on stage with Jon In Paris, and Jon suddenly turned to him and yelled, “Stroll!” Larry had no idea what he meant, so in desperation he started playing in the stride piano style. It turned out that “stroll” was an old bebop term for laying out.
Much as everyone loved Jon, there were some distinctly unsavoury aspects to his character. I’ve included these in the book, but I think I’ll let people find out for themselves.
When/why did he start wearing those naval caps?
I don’t know. Probably when he started losing his hair and got fed up with wearing hairpieces.
And are there things he said that has really resonated with you?
Oh yes, a great deal. Apart from all the things he had to say about music, he had a lot to say about race. Jon’s father was a preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and was a strong influence on him, and taught him how black people should respond to racism. I’ve got one quote in front of me: “If someone has made any racial remark to me, I’ve always felt more like—I don’t know what word to use, but I’ve always felt a kind of pity for that person, rather than any pain to myself. I always felt, oh man, what a terrible way to go around looking at the world. I’ve always felt what a sadness in your life you must have.”
Was writing the book a breeze or were there moments/aspects you found tricky to get the right information or to strike the right balance?
I’m always terrified at the start of these projects that I’ll just hit a brick wall and be unable to find out what I need to know. There’s only so much you can get from books and newspaper interviews. Then you’ll be doing an interview, and suddenly someone will come out with a piece of information that opens everything up. With my previous book, for instance (This is Hip: the Life of Mark Murphy), I just couldn’t find out where Mark was living between 1972 and 1977 – which is a long time. In the end I discovered that his home was his camper van, which he also used to get to gigs. With Jon Hendricks I don’t think there was any great epiphany. It was more a slow accretion of facts. It’s always hard when you’re dealing with a subject who outlived all his contemporaries, and there’s no one left to tell the story, or they can’t remember any details, or else they’re too old and sick to talk, which sadly was the case with Annie Ross. I was in New York last year, and I had her phone number, but I was told by a friend that she had developed a condition that made speaking really difficult for her. I wasn’t going to harass someone in that state.
Your previous book was about Mark Murphy. Are there ANY similarities?
Surprisingly, yes. They were both flawed characters (the usual – sex, drink, drugs), and they both lived amazing lives. Hendricks and Murphy were such giants in their field that they left great legacies to future generations of jazz singers. But musically, Hendricks was quite conservative, whilst Murphy was an innovator and a fearless experimenter. Murphy was a huge admirer of Hendricks, though: he played a gig in Toledo on one occasion, and when he heard that Jon was in the audience, he scatted the entire set, just to prove to Jon how good he was. I’ve got a lovely photo in the book of the two of them embracing while they were at Kurt Elling’s house rehearsing for the Four Brothers tour.
Who were your most pleasant/ revealing/ chatty / helpful interviewees?
That’s a tough question, because everyone wanted to help. It was great meeting Jon’s niece, Bonnie Hopkins, in Toledo. My friend Gunnar Mossblad and I drove to her house to see if she was prepared to be interviewed, which thankfully she was. She’s in her nineties, and still as bright as a button. It had proved almost impossible to get hold of Hendricks family photographs: they just didn’t bother taking them. It took me ages to find a picture of Jon’s first wife, for example. But when I asked Bonnie if she had any photographs, her daughter went back in the house and brought out these portraits of Jon’s parents, and pictures of Jon with his brothers and his kids.
“All good things come in threes.” So who’s next, Peter?
I’ve just started work on a very exciting project. It’s another biography, but I’m not saying anything more about it until I’ve got a publisher. Not being cagey – I’m just superstitious.
(*) Peter Jones is a regular contributor to LJN and other publications