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Jazz Corner: Jon Hendricks, Superstar

This was a man completely steeped in and dedicated to the celebration of jazz music

Sunil Sampat Dec 13, 2017

Hendricks has written very clever, relevant lyrics for literally hundreds of jazz instrumentals. Photo: Brianmcmillen/Wikimedia Commons/ CC-BY-SA-4.0

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Ninety six years of life is a wonderful life span. Jon Hendricks turned 96 in September but news that he has passed away on November 22nd, 2017 has saddened the jazz community. It certainly is news that is both sad and painful to me at a personal level. I had got to know Hendricks fairly well in the Sixties. I was living in Toronto at that time and Hendricks would often perform there for a week or two at a jazz club. I would go and listen to him almost every day, utterly fascinated by his translation and simplification of well known recorded jazz instrumental solos. He had painstakingly written and set lyrics to inspired improvised passages in jazz. Thus, he would speak of some famous performance of Horace Silver by saying, “This one is so smooth in transition that you can’t tell where Junior Cook’s saxophone solo ends and Blue Mitchell’s trumpet solo begins. That is the beauty of Horace’s music. Jazz played like a well-oiled machine.” He must have sent listeners scampering for the original recording from Silver which, having heard Hendrick’s deconstruction would be easily understood and appreciated.

This was a man completely steeped in and dedicated to the celebration of jazz music, to explain it, to promote it and to revel in the sound. He held several ‘nursery’ workshops for explaining jazz to young audiences.

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When he turned 90 in 2011, I had called him in his New York home. I was not sure he would recall our acquaintance but we spoke for over 45 minutes while he regaled me with stories about other musicians, notably Fats Waller. He said he was sitting in a warm bath with a tall gin in hand! He was amazed that I was calling from India and wondered if he would ever be invited to perform here—he did night club appearances until about his 95th year! He was keen to sing for an Indian audience but emphasized that he would want to have workshops for school and college kids. Alas, that never transpired.

In the Forties, Hendricks was a law student who was also a jazz singer in his native Ohio. He once sat in with the legendary alto sax player Charlie Parker. When Parker heard that Hendricks was studying to become a lawyer he said, “You’re a natural-born jazz singer; don’t bother with studying law.” So Hendricks went to New York to explore a jazz career. There he caught up with Dave Lambert, another jazz vocalist. They got together and embarked on a very ambitious project of setting words to the complex big band arrangements of the Count Basie band. They created lyrics for each of the trumpet, saxophone and trombone sections for all the chosen Basie tunes.

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Hendricks has written very clever, relevant lyrics for literally hundreds of jazz instrumentals. To understand the genius of Hendricks, listen to his version of “Freddie Freeloader” where he has written the lyrics. This is from the great album Kind of Blue.

Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and maybe a couple more are the superstars of jazz. I believe Hendricks also belongs in that rarefied company if only for spreading the message and the joy of jazz music like perhaps no one else has.

Sunil Sampat is a jazz critic and Contributing Editor of Rolling Stone India. Write to Sunil at [email protected]

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