Things are coming full circle for Jon Hendricks, the jazz vocalist, composer and arranger who proved in the late 1950s and early 1960s that singers could lead bands and improvise with the power and facility of the great jazz horn players.
Hendricks, who opens five nights at Elario’s this Wednesday, was nominated for his third Grammy last week for “Freddie Freeloader,” a song from his new album of the same name, his first recording in eight years.
Perhaps a new generation of fans is ready to embrace his music. Interest in jazz is cyclical, according to Hendricks, and seems to be on the rise.
“If you have the patience to survive, you will find your place on the cyclical wheel,” he said. “Jazz goes through 20- to 25-year spirals in the United States. When people start to tighten their belts, they want reality and truth. When people get money, they seek sensuality and titillation. But when they face, ‘Where’s my next bowl of soup coming from?’, they start to want something real.”
Needless to say, Hendricks thinks times are right--with the recession and the Mideast conflict--for a new wave of interest in jazz.
The Grammy nomination puts Hendricks in respectable company. Other nominees for best male jazz vocalist are Tony Bennett, George Benson, Bobby McFerrin and Harry Connick Jr.
Hendricks won his first Grammy in 1961 for the song “High Flying” with Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, the vocal trio he led from 1958-1963. He shared a second Grammy with Bobby McFerrin in 1985 for the pair’s work on “Another Night in Tunisia,” a song from the Manhattan Transfer’s album “Vocalese.”
This year’s nomination is a fitting tribute to the man who radically expanded the jazz singer’s repertoire with his tight arrangements, witty lyrics and nimble, bebop-inspired vocal lines.
Hendricks grew up in Toledo, Ohio, singing hymns and spirituals in church. As a boy, he was already performing on the radio to the accompaniment of such family friends as pianist Art Tatum. He sang in a variety of bands through the 1930s and 1940s, but by the 1950s, he was still working as a shipping clerk at a record company to support himself.
He gained popular success and critical acclaim with two albums of Basie band music he made with Dave Lambert and Annie Ross during the late 1950s. Hendricks also won critical praise for “Evolution of the Blues,” a musical history of jazz he wrote and performed, first at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1960, and later during the 1970s, at clubs in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Hendricks’ new album includes appearances by Benson, McFerrin, Manhattan Transfer and Al Jarreau--all vocalists who capitalized on groundwork laid by Hendricks. Their contributions pay homage to his seminal work.
The Count Basie Orchestra, Wynton Marsalis, Stanley Turrentine, Tommy Flanagan, Rufus Reid, George Mraz and Jimmy Cobb also pay musical respects by playing on the album.
Besides the cast of all-stars, Hendricks is joined by his longtime vocal ensemble bandmates: wife Judith, daughter Aria Hendricks, and Kevin Fitzgerald Burke, all of whom will also perform with him at Elario’s.
The material consists of 13 songs, including a few by Hendricks and several by such jazz legends as Louis Armstrong (“Stardust”), Miles Davis (“Freddie Freeloader”), Billy Strayhorn (“Take the A Train”) and Gil Evans (“High as a Mountain”).
What Hendricks has done with the songs is nothing short of genius. He wrote lyrics to the original melodies and improvisations recorded by various jazz heroes, then assigned their instrumental parts to himself and the other vocalists.
On “Freddie Freeloader,” for example, the laid-back song Davis originally recorded with his group in the late-1950s, McFerrin sings Wynton Kelly’s piano part, while Jarreau stands in for Davis’ trumpet, Benson covers saxman Cannonball Adderley and Hendricks takes on the toughest part of all--saxophonist John Coltrane’s sliding, sensuous tenor solo.
The words tell the story of a hip bartender named Freddie who hands out free--and stiff--drinks to his buddies. Freddie is a real-life character, a bartender Hendricks and Davis knew during the late 1950s.
“Freddie gave all the jazz musicians free drinks so often he got fired,” Hendricks said. “That was in Philadelphia. Then he went on the road as Miles’ roadie. Freddie is now a street person in New York. I haven’t seen him, but I’m hoping the album will do something for him, maybe put him in a position to get a job.”
Some of the lyrics on the album are new, others were written by Hendricks years ago. Basie’s “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” was originally recorded by Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, with Hendricks’ lyrics, during the late 1950s.
Hendricks shopped this album around for several years but didn’t find much interest at U.S. recording companies. He gets indignant when he thinks of the way jazz is treated by U.S. recording companies.
“There was just no company spending any appreciable amount of money to record a jazz album because the market was so dominated by rock,” he said. “They’d offer you $25,000 to do an album. Well, that’s what they set aside for rock groups just to have coffee.”
Hendricks finally took the project to Denon in Japan, a subsidiary of Nippon Columbia, where he landed a three-album deal. He hopes to record a second album this year.
“I went to Japan to do a gig. I contacted the people at Denon, and we had lunch and talked, and they said, ‘Wonderful, great,’ and gave me the money I would need, more than any offer I got in this country. And there was much more dignity attached. They never called to check on their money, to ask, ‘How’s it doing? What’s going on?’
“They had tremendous respect for me. Lambert, Hendricks and Ross was No. 1 in Japan for five years. Our ‘Sing a Song of Basie’ album is in its ninth re-release in Japan.”
Hendricks’ shows at Elario’s are 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday; 9, 10:30 and midnight Friday and Saturday.