Monday, May 21, 2018
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Toledo's Jazz Man


Toledo jazz musician John Hendricks is celebrating his 90th birthday with a special concert.


The great Toledo jazz man Jon Hendricks is 90 years old going on 7.

And he's proud of it, which is evident in a discussion with the ebullient, classy originator of the music form called vocalese. His conversation leaps from his childhood singing with Art Tatum and dealing with racism in Toledo to Dutch theologian Erasmus to America's disregard for its own culture to his latest musical project.

Your job as listener: keep up.

"You don't get old," he said in a phone interview from the New York apartment where he lives part-time. "You get numbered, like I now number 90, but I'll never be 90, that's just the time that my little 7-year-old self is still here. I'll never get older than 7 because it's too much fun."

Hendricks has marked his birthday with a number of local events, and Monday at 7:30 p.m. the University of Toledo Faculty Jazz Ensemble will perform along with guest vocalists and other musicians from his Vocalstra will sing. Hendricks, who teaches at UT and also has a home in Toledo, will perform.

Most recently he was on stage with Trombone Shorty at the Toledo Museum of Art Peristyle, singing a long blues standard with a musician 65 years younger than he while holding his own.

Hendricks' career stretches across generations of jazz. When he was just a boy in Toledo he made money for his large family by singing in local joints along with the legendary Art Tatum. He remembers the casual racism that greeted black entertainers at the time and how when he was 12, white men would rub his head outside the clubs.

"There was an old saying -- 'rub a [black man's] head for luck' -- and I'd... [Hendricks makes a grumbling sound], and they'd put something in my hand and go on and I'd open my hand and there was a $20 bill."

His father was a minister with 15 children at the height of the Depression, so Hendricks swallowed his pride because the money was essential to his family's economic well-being.

Those days are long gone, of course and Hendricks is one of the most well-respected jazz performers of his time.

He has carved out a career as a jazz innovator in the art of vocalese, which involves singing the instrumental parts of songs. In the early '60s he formed the jazz vocal group, Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, which formed the template for vocalese. He has performed with countless people, won five Grammys, produced award-winning albums by the Manhattan Transfer, and was an integral part of Wynton Marsalis' Pulitzer Prize winning work, "Blood On the Fields" (1997).

He teaches jazz history at UT and said it's his mission to persuade Americans how important jazz is to this country as a truly original art form. He noted how England is known for literature, Italy for opera and Russia for ballet and all those countries honor those traditions and celebrate them.

"I teach my class that America is the most powerful nation on the earth, but also the least cultural because it ignores its own culture," he said, noting that very few venues exist for jazz music in this country.

In New York, he lives in lower Manhattan near the former World Trade Center site and just a few blocks from where the Occupy Wall Street protestors are set up. "We go over there every day and take them food. They're nice people and we have the deepest respect for them and we help them along," he said.

He's currently working on setting words to the classic Miles Davis album "Miles Ahead" (1957), which Hendricks described as "the most beautiful thing I've ever heard, it's just too gorgeous and it's got so much beautiful music in it."

This leads into a discussion of Davis' other works, including "Porgy and Bess," a meeting he had with Ira Gershwin and the Gershwin family, all grist for the mill for someone who refuses to grow old.

UT will celebrate Hendricks' 90th birthday Monday at 7:30 p.m. at Crystal's Lounge, which is at 3536 Secor Rd. at the Ramada Hotel and Conference Center. The University of Toledo Faculty Jazz Ensemble will perform along with guest vocalists, and other musicians from his Vocalstra will sing. Hendricks, who teaches at UT, will perform. Tickets are $5.

Contact Rod Lockwood at or 419-724-6159.

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