Vocalese has been a developed musical vocal style that has been known in the jazz idiom for well over 60 years. It hasn’t just been in musical genre forever. Although all jazz and popular vocalists have been inspired and influenced by the likes of Ella, Sarah, Joe, and Dinah. The art of taking lyrics of a jazz tune and then improvise and phrase it where one scats and swings with their group, is a innovative and entertaining way to communicate a song in a new light.
In the spring of 1949 the late James Moody recorded a very influential record named “Moody’s Mood for Love” based on Jimmy McHugh’s “I’m In The Mood for Love,” written and recorded in 1935. Moody was living in Sweden at the time he recorded it and was hit here in states. A jazz vocalist from Detroit, Michigan named Eddie Jefferson in 1952 wrote some lyrics to Moody’s tune and improvised the words by scatting to the melody. Two years later, vocalist King Pleasure recorded the record to cult and million selling status. McHugh sued for an alleged copyright infringement for his song and later won and was awarded royalties from any future proceeds and sales from Pleasure and Moody’s records.
Vocalese took off and the world of jazz was almost never the same until a young man from Toledo, Ohio entered the scene in 1957 changing how the world heard modern popular music and also singing witty and thought-provoking lyrics that are now held as standards.
Jazz at Lincoln Center kicked off their 2011-12 season with An Evening with Jon Hendricks and Jimmy Heath. Heath, a dynamic saxophonist and reedman, as well as bandleader and composer, closed the evening with this Big Band featuring Sean Jones, Terell Stafford, Victor Lewis, Antonio Hart, and Jeb Patton.
Jon Hendricks, who is hailed as the “father of vocalese,” performed on his 90th birthday to a sold-out crowd. Hendrick’s set also featured some jazz luminaries that included Dianne Reeves, Bobby McFerrin, and Sachal Vasandani. The set kicked off with Lambert, Hendricks & Ross Redux featuring Jon’s oldest daughters Aria and Michelle Hendricks and vocalist Kevin Fitzgerald Burke.
The night was more of a reflection of Jon’s music, legacy, and how his music has impacted the the world of jazz and popular music.
Born on September 16th, 1921 in Newark, Ohio, Hendricks grew up one of 17 siblings. His father was a African Methodist Episcopal minister in Toledo, Ohio. It was the church where Jon’s mother taught him spirituals and the oral tradition of the gospel music. Jon also at this time developed a passion for music and singing. He began formal music training with another Toledo, Ohio native that would become a icon in jazz music as well as for the piano, Art Tatum. Tatum would go on to influence a generation of piano players ranging from Oscar Peterson to Ray Charles to Bud Powell.
Upon completing high school, Jon was drafted in the Army and served in World War II. After he served his tour of duty, he returned home to pursue is education by attending the University of Toledo. Music was still in his blood and took the advice of alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. Parker, who’d played a stint with pianist Art Tatum in Toledo, told the young Hendricks to call him up when he decided to sing professionally in New York City.
Finally, without thought, Jon came to New York City to pursue his passion for music as a vocalist and lyricist. For the first couple of years he struggled to make his way in the Big Apple. He met a vocalist from St. Parish, Louisiana named David Lambert. Lambert got his break in music when he was a featured vocalist in drummer Gene Krupa’s band. His record “What’s This,” was hailed as one of the first bop vocal records recorded in 1945. In late 1956 when the two brought vocalist Annie Ross in the cut, the vocal world would never be the same. In 1957 Jon formed the interracial jazz vocal unit Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. Their debut record “Sing a Song of Basie” put the art of vocalese on the map by taking Count Basie’s music and interpreting Jon’s lyrics with a improvisation style that enhanced both the vocalist as well as the rhythm section. From 1957 until 1962 (when Annie left the group), Lambert, Hendricks & Ross dominated the jazz vocal polls as well as toured extensively around the world. The group added vocalist Yolande Bavan but later disbanded in 1964. Two years later Dave Lambert was tragically killed in an automobile accident in 1966.
The legacy of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross influenced endless vocalists and music groups for the the last 70 years. Ranging from Bette Midler, Bobby McFerrin, Anita Baker, Al Jarreau, Take 6, The Manhattan Transfer, Michael Buble, and Dianne Reeves.
Jon has written over 350 songs including “Killer Joe,” “Airgin,” and “Hi-Fly.” Singing group The Manhattan Transfer recorded a tribute record featuring Hendricks in 1985 named “Vocalese,” winning them an unprecedented seven Grammy-Awards; introducing them to a new generation of music fans.
During Friday’s performance, Jon’s L, H & Redux performed some of the group’s legendary records backed by the fiery Andy Ferber Octet. The group hit home with hits like “Come on Home,” “It’s Sand, Man,” and “Every Time They Play This Song.” His daughters Michelle and Aria have been performing with their dad since they were in their teens and continue to carry the vocalease tradition. The duet featuring he and vocalist Bobby McFerrin was a show stopper as they performed “Scatting on the Corner.” Bobby started out singing the bass-line then midway during the song, Jon reversed and began singing the bass-line and McFerrin sang vocals. Grammy-Award winning vocalist Dianne Reeves sang one of Jon’s tunes he wrote with the late Gigi Gryce called “Social Call.” The set closed with Jon, his daughters, Bobby, Dianne, and Mack Avenue Records recording artist Sachal Vasandani, singing his signature “Jumping at the Woodside.” Vasandani, who’s latest disc “Hi-Fly,” features Jon as a special guest.
Overall, Jon’s legacy as a vocalist and lyricist stems from the black church and evolved as the music and the black culture changed with the times. One can never understand the origins jazz vocal until they master and understand the life and work of Jon Hendricks. Happy Birthday Jon and thanks for your gift to music and your loving presence to the world.
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