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Published: Friday, 6/20/2003

Sizzling jazz

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

It's time to jazz it up. Or jazz it down, as downtown Toledo gets set for the swinging sounds of the 2003 Art Tatum Jazz Heritage Festival.

Headlining the event, which starts tonight and continues tomorrow in International Park, will be such national jazz stars as keyboardist Ben Sidran, guitarist Mike Stern, and singer Kurt Elling, along with a host of the finest local and regional artists.

Toledo's own vocal legend Jon Hendricks, who in the 1950s created the musical format known as vocalese, will join his protege, Elling, for a performance tomorrow night.

“There's no question I wouldn't have thought of writing vocalese without the long and incredible writing career that Jon has had,” Elling said in a recent interview. “He's an inspiration as a writer and as a performer and as a singer and a jazz person. It's a real thrill, any time I get to spend with Jon.”

The 81-year-old mentor and his 35-year-old student have both made their marks by writing literary lyrics set to the instrumental solos of jazz icons such as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane.

Both Hendricks and Elling said in recent interviews that matching words to the free-flowing saxophone sprints of Coltrane is incredibly daunting.

“Let me tell you, Coltrane will knock you out. He'll knock you flat,” said Hendricks, a five-time Grammy Award winner and distinguished professor of jazz at the University of Toledo. “Trane is incredibly fast and precise. And every note is exactly where it should be.”

Elling, a Chicago native, will soon release his sixth disc on Blue Note Records, “Man in the Air.” He said that while Coltrane is always a challenge, he selected some of the saxophonist's slower solos.

“When Jon is working on Coltrane stuff, he chooses a level of difficulty that I wouldn't even try,” Elling said. “Just in terms of what Trane played, he can play so fast that, yeah, I wouldn't even go there. Some of his lines are three, four times as quick as the ones I'm writing for.”

When Hendricks isn't teaching at UT, he continues to write, record, and perform around the globe.

He is booked at the Blue Note jazz club in New York City from July 22 to 27 and plans to celebrate his 82nd birthday Sept. 16 in Toledo in concert with his longtime pal, Tony Bennett.

This summer, Hendricks and Elling will join singers Kevin Mahogany and Mark Murphy on a “Four Brothers” tour, putting their voices to music of the famous 1940s saxophone lineup of the Woody Herman Orchestra, but for the Tatum festival he and Elling will perform with the Laurence Hobgood Trio, Elling's regular group.

The Toledo jazz festival is named for Art Tatum, a Toledoan considered by many to be one of the greatest jazz pianists ever. Hendricks grew up a few houses away from Tatum, who died in 1956 at age 46, and studied jazz after school with the legendary pianist.

Sidran, a Chicago native who grew up in Racine, Wis., was a member of the Steve Miller Band, co-wrote the hit song “Space Cowboy,” and played keyboards with such rock stars as Jerry Garcia, Eric Clapton, and Van Morrison before shift-ing his focus from rock to jazz.

He has released 25 solo albums, produced Hendricks' 1975 record “Tell Me the Truth,” and has performed with such jazz greats as Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, and Phil Woods.

Stern, a graduate of the Berklee College of Music, is a guitar virtuoso who in 1981 was tapped to join Miles Davis' band, with which he played for two years. He has also worked with such renowned jazz artists as David Sanborn, Jaco Pastorious, and Joe Henderson.



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