June 28, 2017

Jon Hendricks, An Appreciation

Jon Hendricks, in 2000

Too often we wait until a person has passed before we reflect on their accomplishments. If I had to pick ten of my favorite interviews from the 340 we have gathered for the Fillius Jazz Archive, both of our sessions with Jon Hendricks would make the cut.
Jon Hendricks is now 91, retired from performing and unfortunately is beset with health issues. He is a man who enjoyed a remarkably creative career and could speak intelligently about seemingly any subject. Jon was a fascinating storyteller. During our initial interview in 1995, he related this tale about Count Basie:
MR: You had quite a wonderful association with Count Basie.
JH: Oh, yeah. It was gorgeous. He was a great man. I mean he was great in such a quiet way. There wasn’t any flamboyance about him. What it was about him, I think was his magnetism. He just set still and was quiet. But nothing happened until he moved. I mean the band would be on the bandstand, and everybody would be sitting there and he’d come and make that introduction, and the whole band would come to life. You know he was such an honest man that it was funny, I mean it was joke the way he would just let the truth come out of his mouth. Like one time we went to London with him. And he asked me to come by his hotel you know, because he was going to do an interview with the London Times. And he was kind of worried about it, and wanted to make sure that everything went well. So he wanted me there in case I had to translate for him for the reporter. So this man sits down and he says, [with a British accent] “Tell me, Mr. Bahsie” he says, “you have a style of playing the piano” he says, “you don’t seem to play too many notes. You’re sort of economical in your style of playing.” He says, “How did you arrive at such a style?” And Basie said, “I just can’t play no more piano.” And I was sitting there and I went into the bathroom and cracked up. Because it was so true but totally unexpected. And then when we saw the article the next day, the guy remarked on how Mr. Basie was so — what did he call it — so modest. He said he was so modest. He wasn’t modest, he was telling the truth.
Jon is often cited as an influence on current vocal groups due to his participation in the iconic jazz vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. His fortuitous meeting with cab driver Tim Hauser helped jump start Manhattan Transfer, a jazz vocal ensemble that is still performing after forty years. From Part 2 in 2000:
JH: I tell the story of the formation of the Manhattan Transfer. Their idea was to be a group like Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. That’s why I helped them. That was their aim. I met Tim Hauser in a taxi. He was a taxi driver. And I got in his cab with my brother. And he says, “I know you, you’re Jon Hendricks.” I said, “How do you know me?” He says, “I know you. My name is Tim Hauser and my girlfriend Janis Siegel and I live in Brooklyn and we’re going to start a Lambert, Hendricks & Ross type group called Manhattan Transfer.” I gave him my card, and I said, “Any time I can help you, let me know.” And that was how they started. I said so that’s what vocalese is. It’s the setting of lyrics to established American jazz instrumentals in a form so that it tells a story with a beginning, a middle, an end, a plot, a cast of characters, the horns become the characters, and they make a commentary on the subject matter which is determined by the title.
Janis Siegel, an original member of the Manhattan Transfer, speaks of Jon Hendricks with reverence and respect:
MR: How did you get connected?
JS: Well we’ve been doing his stuff from the very beginning honestly. And certainly we were aware of vocalese. For the first album Tim and I wrote a vocalese to “You Can Depend on Me” in the style — I mean influenced certainly by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross and Jon in particular.  I think “Vocalese” is something that we’re very proud of, continuing the tradition of. And we did a whole record of vocalese with Jon and tackled some very meaty things. And Jon was able to tackle some meaty subjects in his lyrics, particularly “Joy Spring,” “Airegin” really amazing lyrics. And he was in the video of “Rock House” and he was in the video of “Night in Tunisia.” And whenever we could perform with Jon it’s always a blessing.
Individual singers have also been influenced by Jon’s singing and his remarkable skill with the practice of vocalese. In our interview in 2015 Giacomo Gates commented on Jon’s skill:
GG: Jon Hendricks is amazing. And every time I would get something of his I’d say, “Wow, this is the better than the last one.” And then “Freddie Freeloader,” did you ever hear that? It’s amazing what he wrote, and that he sings a John Coltrane solo. I mean who could sing a John Coltrane solo? Jon Hendricks.
The thing I will remember best about our sessions with Jon is his eloquence and passion when speaking about humans, humanity and human nature.
JH: The philosophy that we had as my father’s children, you know. Like he was a very spiritual man and he taught us that we were children of the living God. And every man, woman and child on this planet were our brothers and sisters. And never mind that they didn’t feel that way, that was their problem. It was our job to remember that we are brothers and sisters to every human being. So I find it solved all the racial problems I might have had. Because I’ve never really had any. You know, anybody comes to me, I give them the love I would give a brother. So if they have animosity toward me, first it’s got to get through that. And that’s pretty hard. That’s pretty hard to get through. So I find I have no problems you know. I don’t accept anything but God’s children. And I read Paul, God is no respecter of person. So who is man to cause problems, and to have all this racial — all these politicians talking about the problems between black and white, already are expressing gross ungodliness. And lack of belief in any real God you know. And thus I’ve had no part of that.
MR: We can all learn from some of those comments. That’s wonderful.
JH: I just will not have anything to do with that. Mankind? That’s me. I’m there. If you want something for mankind? Okay. But I will not compartmentalize it you know.