There are many remarkable things about Jon Hendricks.
He is the embodiment of 20th century jazz and a man for whom the term “legend” is a ridiculous understatement akin to saying Martin Luther King, Jr., had a passing interest in civil rights.
First-hand stories of musical giants such as Art Tatum and Thelonious Monk and Louis Armstrong trip off Hendricks’ lips like the vocalese style he made famous. He cracks up over Monk’s use of a particularly colorful 12-letter word to greet everyone from foreign dignitaries to fellow musicians, and during a photo session he launches into a spot-on impersonation of Armstrong’s distinctive, gruff singing voice.
Hendricks is back in Toledo with Judith, his charming wife of 54 years, and teaching at the University of Toledo after a trip to Japan. He is gearing up for a Jazz on the Maumee performance Wednesday in a downtown club. At 91 he’s a handsome man who is intelligent, funny, and engaging, still writing new music and talking enthusiastically about a trip later this spring to Europe.
But for all this experience and activity, what truly stands out about Hendricks as a man and an artist is this:
For as much as his roots are buried deep in jazz’s past, his sense of purpose is very much in the 21st century present.
For example, Hendricks still gets fired up over what he considers the cultural short shrift jazz has received in America, and his criticism is pointed and passionate. He talked about a long-ago U.S. State Department effort to send Benny Goodman to the Soviet Union to represent the music and noted that journalists at the time asked why then Secretary of State John Dulles didn’t send Duke Ellington.
“They are a bunch of damn fools,” he said of the government. “They let their racism corrupt their outlook of our country. Sure jazz came from African-Americans, where else?”
He was asked what it will take for jazz to get its due as a popular art form in the United States, a country that he said is “deculturized.”
“Intelligent American people, of which there are few,” he said before breaking into peals of laughter and slyly adding: “I am the poet laureate of jazz.”
Hendricks shares his passion with his UT class, which is in a lecture format and includes more than 200 students. He relates stories from his career and reads from chapters in a book that he is writing about his career and life. He also discusses the more technical aspects of music.
“It’s jazz treated in an academic fashion rather than as a musical fashion," he said. "It’s jazz treated like classical music might be.”
Hendricks is credited with being a pioneer in the music form known as vocalese and his artistic legacy spans generations. When he was 11 growing up in Toledo he sang with the virtuoso pianist Art Tatum. In the late 1950s he teamed with Dave Lambert and Annie Ross to form the groundbreaking vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.
The singing group was a precursor to more mainstream acts such as the Manhattan Transfer and Hendricks went on to write and record new music, setting a high standard for writing words to sing over classic jazz songs.
His long and varied career has included singing on Wynton Marsalis’ Pulitzer Prize winning “Blood On The Fields” album and tour, performing with various contemporary musicians, including Trombone Shorty at the Toledo Museum of Art Peristyle two years ago, and he is working on writing lyrics to Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.”
On Wednesday he will perform with Clifford Murphy, Josh Silver, and Lori Lefevre and he said he plans to run through a number of “well-known jazz artists’ compositions.”
After that, it’s more teaching, more writing, and more traveling. Europe beckons.
“I love being in Paris. Paris is a civilized city and so is Rome,” he said. “And you can eat well in both of them.”
Jazz On The Maumee is held at the Grand Plaza Aqua Lounge, 444 N. Summit St. Show time is Wednesday at 5:30 with doors opening at 5 and music starting at 5:30. Tickets are $10 per person for Art Tatum Jazz Society Members; $15 per person for non-members, and $5 for students with valid ID. Reservation information will be available Friday by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Anyone who emails should include their phone number and email address.