Jazz legend Jon Hendricks rarely stops moving. Even when sitting, his toes tap, his heels bounce, his knees swing side to side. He sings as easily as he talks, often breaking off mid-sentence to sing a couple of stanzas or a full song before continuing with his thought.
Hendricks grew up in Toledo on City Park Avenue, five houses down from fellow jazz legend Art Tatum. The two were close friends, performing regularly with Hendricks singing and Tatum accompanying on the piano.
Jon Hendricks. Toledo Free Press photo by Joseph Herr
“He was so incredibly facile,” Hendricks said of Tatum. “It was as though the piano was something he took out of his pocket and unfolded and stood up. It was like he invented it. There was nothing he didn’t know about it.”
Hendricks, who is considered the originator of the improvisional singing style vocalese, started singing as a young boy at the Erie Street church where his father was pastor. As a teenager during the Great Depression, he honed his skills at Stanley’s, a neighborhood hamburger joint, where he taught himself songs on the jukebox and sang them for customers.
“I had a good ear. I would stand in front of that jukebox all day long. After school I came and I stood there until supper and I learned every tune on the jukebox,” Hendricks said. “After a while, I got my nerve up and the next evening when a gentleman came to the jukebox, I said, ‘What are you gonna play?’ He said, ‘What business is it of you?’ I’d say, ‘Give me the nickel and I’ll sing it.’ And they’d say, ‘What?’ and I’d say, ‘Yeah!’ It was always seeing is believing.”
Hendricks credits much of his early music education to Tatum and the jukebox at Stanley’s.
“While I was learning those tunes, I was learning music, I was learning our culture, I was learning jazz,” Hendricks said. “My life for some years was between Art Tatum, Scott High School and that jukebox.”
Hendricks later toured the world with vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross and then as a solo artist. He returned to Toledo later in life. He now serves as a part-time professor of jazz studies at the University of Toledo.
Jazz on the Maumee
Hendricks, who turned 91 on Sept. 16, will celebrate with a performance Sept. 19 at Jazz on the Maumee. The series, launched in July by the Art Tatum Jazz Heritage Society, is held 5-7 p.m. every Wednesday in the Aqua Lounge at The Grand Plaza Hotel, 444 N. Summit St.
“Ninety-one. Ha!” Hendricks told Toledo Free Press during a recent interview in Toledo. “That’s how I feel. I think that’s the greatest joke. On me. That’s a joke on me. Boy, let me tell you, that is a joke. Ha! I never thought I’d get anywhere near here.”
Jazz on the Maumee offers a platform to highlight local musicians, said Kay Elliott, executive director of the Art Tatum Jazz Heritage Society.
“We love and appreciate all the local musicians and we wanted to give them another place to be showcased,” Elliott said. “There wasn’t anything like this Downtown and we thought it would be a great idea. It’s just a beautiful space. The sound is so good. You have to see it.”
Admission, which includes free valet parking and an appetizer buffet, is “a special birthday rate” of $10, Elliott said. A cash bar is available.
Also performing Sept. 19 will be Swingmania, a 15-piece jazz, swing and Big Band group. The Sept. 26 Jazz on the Maumee event will feature Hepcat Revival and admission will return to $15 or $10 for Art Tatum Jazz Heritage Society members.
Elliott said she hopes people come out Sept. 19 to see a living legend in person and help Hendricks celebrate his birthday.
“Jon is an incredible performer,” Elliott said. “He’s really extraordinary and has such wonderful energy. We’re thrilled because we’re the biggest supporters of Jon. All of Toledo supports Jon so much. Who wouldn’t be excited to have the legendary Jon Hendricks?”
From his humble beginnings in Toledo, Hendricks went on to rub shoulders with some of the great names in jazz, including Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Randy Weston, Charlie Parker and Joe Morello.
His friend Tatum remains one of his biggest influences.
“I think every jazz artist — and classical artist — oughta listen to Art Tatum,” Hendricks said. “He had no lines between one musical form and another. … For him, there was just music and all of it was the same.”
One of Hendricks’ favorite stories about Tatum is the time Tatum’s mother gave him a piano roll that played a piano duet.
“Being blind, he didn’t know it was two guys so he said, ‘I’ll learn it and play it for you when you get home,’” Hendricks said. “She got home and he sat down and played it. That was incredible. He was altogether incredible. There was nothing that wasn’t just incredible about him.”
Hendricks also thrived alongside the talents of Dave Lambert and Annie Ross, his Lambert, Hendricks & Ross bandmates.
“Dave, I’ve seen him go out to eat with his arrangement pad and and during dessert
and coffee he’d finish the arrangement. No instrument. Just finish it off. Incredible musician,” Hendricks said. “They were both incredibly talented.”
Hendricks laughed recounting a comment Armstrong made after listening to the trio perform their fast-talking vocalese style.
“Louis said, ‘Y’all sound like you have a mouthful of hot rice,’” Hendricks said.
Hendricks said people are often shocked to learn he can’t read music.
“I just hear the tune. I hear it and if I can hear it, I can write it. It just doesn’t affect me,” Hendricks said. “I never knew what I was doing. I never had any idea. Just play me a chord and I’m gone. I don’t know what’s coming out, but I know I have to follow these chords.”
Despite his talent, Hendricks almost didn’t become a professional singer. After being drafted and serving in Europe during World War II, he enrolled at UT, majoring in prelaw, but his GI Bill ran out before he finished the degree, so he moved to New York City to pursue a singing career.
“That was the best thing that could have happened to me,” Hendricks said.
He met his wife, Judith, at New York’s famous jazz club Birdland, where he was performing and she was working. Their mixed-race relationship — he is black and she is white — was shocking to many at the time, Hendricks said. They’ve been together 54 years and split their time between Toledo, New York City and France, where they have children and grandchildren.
Hendricks still loves singing and performing.
“A good reception from the audience, that’s what you work for,” Hendricks said. “You can sing anytime. If you play [an instrument], there are limitations to when you might play, but when you sing, you can sing anytime.”
He also loves working with students at UT, where he helps bring jazz alive for introductory classes like History of Jazz, said his teaching assistant Atla DeChamplain, a graduate student in jazz studies.
“Most of them aren’t music majors and we show a lot of black-and-white footage,” DeChamplain said. “They wonder why it’s relevent. They’ll be like, ‘Why do we care?’ Then he comes in and totally hooks them. He charms them. He gets them engaged and makes it real.”
At 91, Hendricks has slowed down some, but dismisses the suggestion of old age.
“Are you kidding? Shoot. I’m ready for 200. I tell everybody man’s ultimate stupidity is dying. I’m not gonna do it. I refuse. Especially just because someone says I’m 90. What the heck is that? That ain’t nothing. I’m not through yet. I’m not through at all.”
For more information, visit the website www.arttatumsociety.com.
Jon Hendricks teaching at UT. Toledo Free Press photo by Sarah Ottney.
Tags: Aqua Lounge, Art Tatum, Art Tatum Jazz Heritage Society, Grand Plaza Hotel, Jazz on the Maumee, Jon Hendricks, Kay Elliott, Swingmania