First, there was legendary pianist Art Tatum, who died in 1956.
Now comes the passing of famed singer-lyricist Jon Hendricks, the widely recognized “Father of Vocalese,” who, like Mr. Tatum, was born in Ohio, raised in Toledo, and had every bit as much influence on the development of jazz — that freewheeling, improvisational-rich genre of music with African and Caribbean influences that is often described as America’s only true art form.
No other musicians who have called Toledo their hometown have had a bigger impact on music all across the world, experts agree.
Mr. Hendricks, who was born Sept. 16, 1921 in Newark, Ohio under the given name of John Carl Hendricks, died Wednesday in New York at age 96.
He and his 14 brothers and sisters moved to Toledo when he was a young child after his father — the Rev. Alexander Hendricks, an African Methodist Episcopal minister — settled his family here as pastor of Warren AME Church. Jon Hendricks sang spirituals with his mother in his father’s church beginning at age 7.
Mr. Hendricks coincidentally got one of his biggest boosts as a teenager when Mr. Tatum accompanied him on piano. Although he had been singing in clubs since age 10 and claimed to have received an offer from Fats Waller to sing with him at age 12, Mr. Hendricks firmly established himself in 1935 as a 14-year-old singer with Mr. Tatum on piano at what was then a hoppin’ Toledo saloon called the Waiters and Bellmen’s Club.
“I learned everything from him,” Mr. Hendricks said of Mr. Tatum in a 1986 interview.
Toledo at the time was a “very hip, entertainment-conscious town,” Mr. Hendricks said.
“It was a centrally located area, and the gangsters who ran the roadhouses — and who earlier on used to run illegal whisky — would all come to Toledo to relax. The town was wide open,” he said.
Known almost as much for his whimsical charm and his outspoken views of life, Mr. Hendricks endeared himself to people worldwide because he never came off as a celebrity wrapped up in ego or guided by corporate image-crafting.
BLADE ILLUSTRATION: Jon Hendricks — 1921-2017
“You didn’t feel like you had to be in awe of him. You could just sit down and talk with him,” Toledo jazz singer Ramona Collins said. “I think it's great that so many people in Toledo got to experience him.”
Kay Elliott, Art Tatum Jazz Society executive director, said Mr. Hendricks’ affable demeanor was one of his most important virtues.
“He would talk for an eternity,” Ms. Elliott said. “He never, never turned anyone away and never failed to give them valuable information. He exposed the world to broader music. He invited everyone in. Music was his lifeline and he wanted everyone else to be part of his lifeline.”
Vocalese is defined as the art of setting lyrics to recorded jazz instrumental standards, such as big band arrangements of Duke Ellington and Count Basie, then having people sing the parts of instruments note-for-note. It requires extreme gyrations and mastery of vocal chords, an ability to harmonize beyond traditional singing, and a heaping dose of improvisation.
Mr. Hendricks exploded on the jazz scene in the late 1950s with fellow singers Dave Lambert and Annie Ross as a member of the groundbreaking vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, a group that inspired many others, such as Manhattan Transfer. Solo artists inspired by him include Bobby McFerrin and Al Jarreau.
Mr. Hendricks wrote the lyrics for Manhattan Transfer’s 1985 album, “Vocalese,” which won multiple Grammy awards, including one for “Another Night in Tunisia” sung by Mr. Hendricks and Mr. McFerrin.
He earned multiple lifetime achievement awards, including one in 1992 in which he was named an American Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Mr. Hendricks taught at the University of Toledo, the University of California Berkeley, and California State University Sonoma.
He at one time was the San Francisco Chronicle’s jazz critic and was a “prolific writer” who, unbeknownst to many people, was also a playwright. He wrote the stage show “Evolution of the Blues,” which he traced the history of African-American music in song and verse. It had a five-year run at San Francisco’s Broadway Theater starting in 1974 said Bob Lubell, the owner of a Sylvania-based photography business and jazz aficionado.
Mr. Hendricks was a “hidden gem for hundreds of songs he lyricized,” Mr. Lubbell said, who followed Mr. Hendricks’ career and saw him give his final performance at his 95th birthday celebration in New York.
Mr. Hendricks originally planned to study law when he enrolled at UT after World War II.
But a one-night concert at Toledo’s Civic Auditorium in 1950 by a bebop co-inventor, saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker, changed that.
“I had been scatting around Toledo for years,” Mr. Hendricks said in a 1986 interview, adding that his wife at the time, the former Connie Moore, “asked Bird if I could scat with him” because he was too shy to do that himself.
Mr. Parker agreed. After his performance, Mr. Parker grabbed Mr. Hendricks by the coattail, told Mr. Hendricks to sit down, and encouraged him to focus on jazz.
“You’re not lawyer. You’re a jazz singer,” the legendary saxophonist told him. He told him to meet him out in New York to continue developing his singing career.
Mr. Hendricks’ first marriage eventually ended in divorce. His second wife, the former Judith Dickstein, a one-time waitress-turned-singer who briefly sang with him, stayed with him until her death in 2015.
Mr. Hendricks is the only person many jazz greats allowed to set lyrics to their music.
One such jazz great was pianist Thelonious Monk. Their friendship was so valued by Mr. Hendricks that in 2014 he sang a tribute concert to Mr. Monk featuring songs the two of them collaborated on. It would turn out to be Mr. Hendricks’ final show in Toledo, yet one of his most memorable.
Even well into his 90s, Mr. Hendricks encouraged local vocalists by taking the stage with them in Toledo and other parts of the world. He performed with major acts coming through the area, such as a 2011 concert in the Toledo Museum of Art’s Peristyle by Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, and a 2014 concert at the museum’s Glass Pavilion with Israeli-born virtuoso pianist-composer-arranger Guy Mintus.
Grammy-winning vocalist Dianne Reeves, described by New York Times critic Stephen Holden in 2015 was the “most admired jazz diva since the heyday of Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday,” paid tribute to Mr. Hendricks and the great Ella Fitzgerald during her show at the Valentine Theatre last February. She told The Blade she did so “because I love Jon Hendricks.”
“He’s so free and so open, and he’s someone who paid tribute, through wonderful lyric writing, to the great jazz instrumental solos, as well as setting the bar very high for vocal jazz,” Ms. Reeves said.
One of several established jazz singers in the Toledo area who were close to Mr. Hendricks, Lori Lefevre Johnson, who sang with him in Paris and many times in New York, wants Toledo to erect a statue or other type of memorial in his honor.
She called him a “warm and generous soul and such an amazing talent, truly a genius in the world of jazz.”
“He’s made a huge impact with the music we still sing,” Ms. Lefevre Johnson said, adding he taught her and others to use their vocal chords like instruments. “He was so easy to talk to it was easy to forget he was part of this world of true greats.”
One of her most memorable visits with Mr. Hendricks was in New York in 2015, when she and her daughter took Jon and Judith Hendricks to a Broadway production of the award-winning play, Lady Day, as a token of appreciation for letting them stay at their residence several days.
Actor Audra McDonald, who won multiple Tony Awards in her lead role as jazz singer Billie Holiday, heard that Mr. Hendricks was in the audience. She invited the four of them into her dressing room so she could meet her jazz idol face-to-face.
“She was as starstuck with him as he was with her,” Ms. Lefevre Johnson said.
Mr. Hendricks lived his final years almost exclusively in New York. After Judith passed, he was taken care of by the only child the couple had together, jazz singer Aria Hendricks, who was not available for comment Thursday.
He had four children from his first marriage.
One of them, Jon Hendricks, Jr., 67, a musician-composer from the West Coast who emigrated to Latin America three years ago, told The Blade in a telephone interview he “always dreaded this day” but that it was “almost a relief” to know his father was at peace.
“I'd like to see him remembered as a composer and lyricist,” he said and referred to nicknames that critics have used to describe his father for years, such as historian Leonard Feather’s “Poet Laureate of Jazz” and Time magazine’s “James Joyce of Jive.”
“He was a funny guy. He was a philosopher. He had a lot to say about everything,” Mr. Hendricks said.
Jeff Jaffe, Toledo Jazz Society/Art Tatum Jazz Heritage Society president, said Mr. Hendricks “traveled everywhere, but he always had Toledo in his heart.”
“We will miss, but always remember him for his spirit and the countless stories he shared with us,” Mr. Jaffe said. “We bless his memory and the time we had with him.”
Guidelines: Please keep your comments smart and civil. Don't attack other readers personally, and keep your language decent. Comments that violate these standards, or our privacy statement or visitor's agreement, are subject to being removed and commenters are subject to being banned. To post comments, you must be a registered user on toledoblade.com. To find out more, please visit the FAQ.