Jon Hendricks

Vocalist, Lyricist, Educator
Portrait of Jon Hendricks

Photo by Tom Pich/


Jon Hendricks helped create the singing style known as "vocalese," or crafting songs and lyrics out of the note sequences of famous jazz instrumental solos, as a member of the great jazz vocal ensemble Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. A gifted lyricist, he added words to classics by Count Basie, Horace Silver, Miles Davis, and Art Blakey, brilliantly mirroring the instrumental effects.

He grew up largely in Toledo, Ohio, one of 17 children. His singing career began at age eight at parties and dinners. Later he sang on a radio show on which he was occasionally accompanied by another Toledoan, the great pianist Art Tatum. Returning home from service in the Army, he studied at the University of Toledo and taught himself to play drums. In 1952, he relocated to New York and found his initial work as a songwriter, working for such artists as Louis Jordan and King Pleasure. One of his earliest recordings came on a version of the Woody Herman band feature "Four Brothers."

His collaboration with vocalist Dave Lambert began in 1957 when he re-recorded "Four Brothers," which led to their association with singer Annie Ross on a collection of Count Basie songs. Sing a Song of Basie, using innovative multitracked arrangement of vocals, became a hit when released in 1958 and gave birth to Lambert, Hendricks & Ross as a full-time act. They subsequently toured with the Basie band and were a top-selling act for nearly four years, until Ross left the band. Lambert and Hendricks continued for a while with new singer Yolande Bavan, eventually breaking up in 1964. Hendricks found work as a soloist, then moved to England in 1968. In the early 1970s he put together another trio, this time with wife Judith and daughter Michelle, an arrangement he has occasionally revisited over the years.

Evolution of the Blues, an extended stage work Hendricks had first performed with Lambert and Ross at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1960, went on a five-year run at the Broadway Theatre in San Francisco in the 1970s. Thereafter he took a variety of university teaching positions in California, and continued to work with Judith, Michelle, and youngest daughter Aria, with occasional male singers such as Bobby McFerrin, Kevin Burke, and Miles Griffith. He wrote for and played with the Manhattan Transfer, a jazz vocal group heavily influenced by Hendricks. Also, he was one of three singers in Wynton Marsalis' Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio, Blood on the Fields. He wrote lyrics to a number of jazz standards, including "Four," "Hi Fly," "Along Came Betty," "Desifinado," and "No More Blues." In 2000, he was appointed distinguished professor of jazz studies at the University of Toledo in Ohio. A documentary about Hendricks' time in the military, Blues March: Soldier Jon Hendricks, was released in 2009.

Selected Discography

Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, Sing a Song of Basie, Verve, 1957
Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, Everybody's Boppin', Columbia, 1959-61
Love, Muse, 1981-82
Freddie Freeloader, Denon, 1989-90
Wynton Marsalis, Blood on the Fields, Columbia, 1994


Interview by Molly Murphy for the NEA
January 10, 2008
Edited by Don Ball


Q: What was your first exposure to jazz?

Jon Hendricks: My father was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and in those days African-American people couldn't stay in white hotels, you know. We had to stay in the ghetto -- what they now call the "ghetto" we called "the neighborhood." Always had families that took in boarders, or rented rooms out to traveling bands like Andy Kirk's Clouds of Joy, or Basie, or Luis Russell's orchestra -- you know, territory bands. They always had places to stay because these people would have these big old houses and there would be the man and wife, and she would do the cooking and the cleaning, and he would do the upkeep. And bands would stay like that. A lot of the bands used to come to our house to eat dinner. They would solicit an invitation to come to dinner because my mother was a fabulous cook.

My father had twelve boys and three girls. In those days we didn't count the girls. Every time I say that my daughter hits me, bam! I say, "I'm talking about the old days!"

Q: Where did you fall in there?

Jon Hendricks: I'm the ninth child, and the seventh son. That's an exalted position.

Q: Your mother would have to be a good cook to feed all those.

Jon Hendricks: Oh yeah. She was fired from her job as a cook at Ohio State Penitentiary, and that was a good job because that was a State job, and they fired her for putting a dozen eggs in a pound cake!

Yeah, she was wonderful, and she was also a lyricist. That, I think that's where I came by my gift as a lyricist. She wrote lyrics to spirituals that we sang in church. And she was good. She was very good. She was an extraordinary woman.

Your parents, if you spend time with them closely, they may not be aware of it but they're subtly teaching you how to conduct yourself when you grow up, and my father and my mother did that with me. My mother taught me a lesson in spiritual behavior that I remember to this day, and I'll never forget it. A man had killed another man on the railroad tracks. You know, they were drunks and ne'er-do-wells and everything, and so he had shot this other guy, and the police were investigating and measuring distance from the place he stood and where the guy was when he got shot. We were all looking out our windows because we lived on the railroad tracks, and some of the itinerant travelers, which we used to call "hobos," would stop by the house. (One of them was [blues musician] Josh White when he was on the rails. He had his guitar on his back, and he knew my father and he knew my mother's cooking, so he would stop quite often.) So this guy, when he got shot, it kind of interrupted everything, and so all the women in the church came into my mother's kitchen to talk about this terrible thing. "That man, I knew he was never going to amount to anything! He was always out of work, and he was lazy, and he spent his money if he did get a job." They were really putting him down and castigating him. And so they finally all had to go home and cook supper for their families, so my mother must have forgotten that I was sitting on the stool by the window, because she looked out the window. She was washing the dishes, and she said, "Poor [man]." And I sat there very quietly because I didn't want her to know I was there, since she didn't seem to know. But she was having sympathy for the murderer, and I was amazed by that.

Later when I grew up and started to study Eastern philosophies, Buddhism says, "The murderer can be punished, but he can never wash away what he's done." He has killed another man. So he may think of himself as a murderer, but he actually is the victim, because he has to live the rest of his life with what he's done, and my mother had that feeling.

And I never forgot that to this day. I think of it all the time, you know? So she was a great influence on me. Then my father would have me pick texts out of the King James Bible because I was the best student in the family and the best scholar. I got the best grades, so he would say, "Joshua, Chapter 14, Verses 9 to 11," and I got so I knew where everything was. And I would find that [verse] and then after I was through giving it to him, I would look at what was said.


Q: When did you start singing?

Jon Hendricks: When I was 7. I didn't have a chance. They started me out in the church at 7, and by the time I was 9 I was in the street singing because the Depression was on -- when you say "The Depression," people don't know what you're talking about because you had to be in it to believe how awful it was in this country. There was no money anywhere. It had dried up, and nobody had any. And there was room for grave concern for what was going to happen to the United States of America, and Roosevelt became president, so the first thing he did was establish the Works Progress Administration, which is the WPA, and he hired people to tear up the streets that they lived on. They paid them $35 a week. Well, do you understand what that did to people? It gave them work when there was no work, and giving a man work who has been out of work and can't feed his family, which is a terrible thing to happen to a man, it's the next thing to death, you know. His pride is gone, and to give that back to him is a great thing. So they paved the streets, and then while they were working on the National Recovery Act, the NRA, to have some money come from the public treasury which was being replenished as fast as possible, they had them repave the streets at $35 a week, so the family continued to have dignity. The man was taking care of his wife. They began to shave. They began to wash their shirts and clean their fingernails. I was only 9 years old, but I saw men going from being bums to becoming dignified people just because of that. And for people today to disparage Franklin Roosevelt in any way, to me it's just a blasphemous crime, you know, because the man saved us. He saved us from complete indignity, and gave us back self-respect.

Q: Can you tell me about your first experiences performing on the radio?

Jon Hendricks: Yeah. I was 15 years old and there was this quartet called the Swing Buddies, and their lead singer had gotten a better job in New York, so he left Toledo. So Art Tatum told them, "Get Hendricks. This cat can sing." And they said, "Well, we're all grown men. He's only 16." And Art told them, "That doesn't matter. He's what you need." So they got me and I fit in with that group really well. So we got a job on the radio. I was making $107 a week in 1936. It was a whole lot of money. I supported my whole family, and had money left over to go to the movies and buy a pair of shoes and whatever I wanted to. I was a dignified member of society, and we were offered three years, so I was pretty stable.

We used to rehearse with The Mills Brothers. They were from Piqua, Ohio, and they would rehearse at the YMCA in Toledo, and we would go to their rehearsals, and they heard us on the air, and they respected us a lot. So they let us come to their rehearsals. They gave us pointers. They were beautiful people. Their father was a deacon in my father's church, and they were very respectful to him -- they were wonderful. They were talented people. It's incredible. They used to sound like horns -- the guitar player could sound just like a trumpet. You know, he'd purse his lips all on key and tune, and swing like a dog! They were remarkable. And they took a liking to us and that graced us. They helped us.


Q: You were friends with Miles Davis -- tell us a little bit about that friendship.

Jon Hendricks: Miles and I remained friends until his death. He allowed me the freedom to detest what he was doing when he died. He knew I hated it, but he never took umbrage at me, or even questioned me about it. I think the legacy he left jazz singers is wonderful. If you want to know how to sing, especially jazz music, Miles Davis is the greatest singing teacher I ever had. This man could sing. Ben Webster was another one. You want to know how to sing a ballad? Just listen to Ben Webster play a ballad. He teaches you how to sing.

Q: When you are writing lyrics, are you always thinking of the instrument?

Jon Hendricks: Oh yeah, sure. Dizzy Gillespie was a wonderful interpreter of songs. You know, he had a very good appreciation of melody. He did an arrangement on "I Can't Get Started with You" that was gorgeous. It was beautiful. He had a lovely background, and he was thinking of the original trumpet player that had the big hit on that song. Who was that? Bunny Barrigan. He was thinking of Bunny when he did that, and it was gorgeous. He stuck very close to the melody. It was beautiful. He sang it. Horn players sing. They're the best singers, and the most intelligent vocalists, you know, that use their voices. Listen to the great horn players. Ella, Ella was listening to everybody. She learned to scat by listening to the cats and copying their solos, and she was very much aware of Bird, of Diz, of Ben. Illinois Jacquet was another example of a good singer. Fast, sings very fast.


Q: How do you compose?

Jon Hendricks: When I write something, I understand what nobody else understands -- that I am not creating anything. I'm like a secretary, and I take the pen and the Entity dictates to me and I start writing. It's not mine, because I read every line and I say, "Whoo-hoo!" I laugh at the funny stuff. Well, if I was doing it and thinking it, I wouldn't laugh at the funny stuff. So I know what creative work is. It's out-of-body. So I think if you hem it in too much, you know, you kill it.
I like the way it happens with me. I get an idea that I want to do the lyrics to a song. I put it on, and I play it, and then I play it again, and then I put it on again, and I start writing. And the words come so fast that it can't be me thinking and putting it down. I'm taking dictation, and sometimes -- well no, not sometimes, most of the time -- my original lyrics are one-time.

Q: Does it ever just not happen?

Jon Hendricks: No, it always happens. And sometimes later I go over it and change maybe one word or something, but it comes out perfect. So I don't want to mess with that with any machine or any outside force. Because I think it's a gift from God. I don't know how a painter could use anything from a computer. I don't understand what kind of painting he [would] have. I don't think it would be to his liking. I think it's not for the arts.


Q: Will you tell me the story about the inception of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross?
Jon Hendricks: Oh yes. I was working in New York as a clerk-typist in a newsprint company, and I had a wife and son that I had to support so I had to have a day gig. But I spent my lunch hour uptown on 50th and Broadway in front of the Brill Building with Quincy Jones. And we were up there with all the songwriters. Everybody was trying to sell songs. There were two guys that would come out for lunch at the same time every day, 12:00, and they worked for Frank Loesser. They were working for Frank Loesser, so their songs came out under Frank Loesser's name. They came out for lunch one day and one of the wags on the corner said, "Here come Adler and Ross, the two evils of Loesser."

But those guys went on to write two of the greatest musicals in the history of Broadway: Pajama Game and Damn Yankees. They were remarkable. They were wonderful. They were good writers, lyricists. Adler was remarkable, and Ross the melodist, they did things like "Hey There" from Pajama Game. Everybody's heard that song, but the way it was presented in the show, the guy goes into shave in the morning and he says "Hey there, you with the stars in your eyes." It's gorgeously done. He's singing to himself about himself. They were very clever, very creative, very artistic, very musical. They loved jazz. They were in all the joints, watching everybody at Birdland. And I used to come up on the corner from work, and people would ask me, "What are you doing, Jon? What are you working on?" And I would sing what I was working on. Schumck! Because a couple weeks later I would hear it on the radio, you know?

So then I heard "Moody's Mood for Love" and I said, "Wow! That's great. You don't have to stop at 32 bars!" So I immediately wrote Woody Herman's "Four Brothers," and I got a guy that knew a guy that knew another guy that had a record company, and so Dave Lambert and I recorded it for this guy and it went to number one in England. So these guys on the corner, when I came up they asked me, "Jon, what are you working on?" And they'd all gather around because they're going to get their next hit. So I [started singing "Four Brothers."] And the corner began to thin out -- by the time I got to the end of "Four Brothers," I was by myself. Because they couldn't steal that, you know.

That became a big hit for Dave and me, and then it led to Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, because when that money dried up Dave said, very philosophically, "We ought to do something to let the people on the earth know that we were here, otherwise we're going to die and be anonymous." I said, "Well, what do you think?" He said, "You love Basie. I love Basie. You write ten Basie tunes and we'll sing them." I said, "Do you know how long it takes to lyricize one of those whole arrangements, all the horns and the piano, everything?" He said, "Well, you got anything better to do?"

I grabbed a pencil and the pad, we started, and we did four of them and we walked uptown. We didn't have any money. We walked from West 4th Street to 50th Street and we went to every record company, and they all thought we were crazy and kicked us out. There was a new one called ABC Paramount -- the American Broadcasting Company and Paramount Pictures had a record company -- and they hired a graduate from Yale University, Creed Taylor, as their first A&R man. And with what we were doing, he said, "This has merit." He said, "I'll try to get as much money as I can." And he got, I think it was $1,500 from them to do this jazz thing.

Dave had this idea of multi-tracking: Annie [Ross], he, and I doing three voices and take that tape off, and put on another tape, and do three more voices, until we had 12 voices, the entire band. Four trumpets, three trombones, five reeds, you know. And when we played it back, it sounded awful because we had piled all the secondary voices on the lead voices, which we did first. So Creed broke into tears because he knew he was going to lose his job -- 1,500 bucks in those days was a lot of money. So he said to Dave, "What can we do?" And Dave said, "Well, we can do it over again right." Creed said, "I'll never get another penny for that." Dave said, "What time does the place open in the morning?" "8:00." Dave said, "What time does it close?" "7:00." Dave said, "We'll start at 8:00 at night, and we'll leave at 7:00 in the morning, and we'll do it over again, and you don't have to pay us any more money." And so that's what we did, Dave, Annie, and me. We put the lesser voices first. And we did it like that, and when we played it back, we all sat down on the floor and cried like babies. It was the most beautiful thing we ever heard, and it's the most beautiful thing I've ever heard in my whole life, even right now.

No one had ever done that before. Dave invented multi-tracking. Creed said, "Nobody is going to hear all those words, so why don't you put them on the back of the album," so we put the words on the back. That was the first time that had been done. Now all those things are very common in the trade there. They're done all the time, but we invented all that.

Q: I want to ask you one last question: how do you relate to your audiences?

Jon Hendricks: I think what it's called is "establishing an intimacy," but I think that's just a phrase to describe how much you respect your audience or not, and I think when you're in show business your audience is everything. Your audience is everything, because if they love you, you're going to work for 40 years, you know? So your respect for them is boundless, and if you show that respect, they return it with love for what you do. So it's a kind of a marriage. I think if you respect and love your audience, they'll adore you.