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Published: Thursday, 5/29/2003

This local `big name' came home

The man on the oversized ivory sofa was wiry and slight - a toothpick in the middle of a marshmallow - yet by personality alone he dominated the large living room of his Ottawa Hills house.

“So, the next night,'' he said, mid-anecdote, “I went up to Birdland, and when I got there, Miles and Dizzy ...''

Birdland, as in the legendary New York jazz club. Miles, as in Davis. Dizzy, as in Gillespie.

Toledo is a mere 587 feet above sea level, but that was some high-altitude chat I had last week with jazz great Jon Hendricks. I showed up promptly for my 2 p.m. appointment; when I next looked up, a clock said more than four hours passed.

Reluctantly, I shooed myself away, but only to be polite.

Funny, isn't it? Natives who move away and find artistic fame endure fawning hometown adulation should they return here for a weekend. Yet after decades on both coasts and overseas, singer-lyricist Jon Hendricks - whose fans have ranged from Frank Sinatra to Mick Jagger - moves to Toledo as a distinguished professor, and few outside the University of Toledo seem aware of it.

Here, where a “big name'' act usually means retreads like Foreigner or Journey, we have a legend living among us largely undetected.

Let us pause for the obligatory backgrounder. Jon Hendricks: renowned singer-lyricist. Began as a drummer. Born 1921, Norwalk, Ohio; preacher father soon moved family to Toledo. Earned money in the Depression singing at a mob roadhouse. Grew up on City Park, five houses down from mentor Art Tatum. Scott High School grad. Studied literature at UT. Was readying for law school, until Charlie Parker heard him sing. “Man,'' said the sax player, “you ain't no lawyer! You gotta come to New York! ''

Here's what you must know: Jon Hendricks is the father of vocalese, layering words over jazz instrumentals, or, as he once said, “more like putting libretti to opera ... the Metropolitan Bopera Company.''

Jon Hendricks is 81 years old. If you never knew the vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross from the 1950s and '60s, then think early Al Jarreau. Or Bobby McFerrin. Or Manhattan Transfer. None can repay the musical debt they owe this UT prof.

(Manhattan Transfer's 1985 album, Vocalese, for which Mr. Hendricks wrote the lyrics, won five Grammy awards, while he and Mr. McFerrin's duet on that album earned both men a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Performance.)

In our conversation, Mr. Hendricks spoke of a Toledo long-gone, a place where artists like Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Anita O'Day, and Gene Krupa not only came to perform, but showed up later at after-hours joints to play some more.

Mr. Hendricks also told me how it is that he and his wife, Judith, left New York City for Toledo. He spoke of how he combines performing (this summer, he's everywhere from Denmark to headlining California's Monterey Jazz Festival) with teaching.

And I'll share the conversation with you on Saturday.



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