Jon Hendricks, 96, master of vocalese and ‘poet laureate of jazz’

Mr. Hendricks was a member of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, a jazz vocal trio.
New YOrk Times/File 1996
Mr. Hendricks was a member of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, a jazz vocal trio.

WASHINGTON — Jon Hendricks, a singer and composer who developed an intricate style of vocal gymnastics to match his tongue-twisting lyrics and whose Grammy-winning vocal trio, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, is widely regarded as the most influential singing group in jazz history, died Nov. 22 at a hospital in New York City. He was 96.

Once dubbed the ‘‘poet laureate of jazz,’’ Mr. Hendricks expanded the vocabulary of jazz singing as the leading exponent of a style known as vocalese. He wrote witty lyrics for dozens of jazz tunes that otherwise had no words. Moreover, as a vocalist, he performed at breakneck speed, winning the admiration of such jazz giants as pianist Art Tatum and saxophonist Charlie Parker.

Well into his 90s, he was a vibrant presence in jazz — ‘‘the epitome of hip,’’ music critic Scott Yanow observed.


In his life as well as his music, Mr. Hendricks embodied the spirit of improvisation: He grew up in a household of 15 children, began performing at 11 and, after enduring racial taunts as a soldier during World War II, was jailed for desertion and for running a smuggling ring. He was considering law as a career when Parker, the innovative bebop saxophonist, told him, ‘‘You ain’t no lawyer. You’re a jazz singer.’’

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Mr. Hendricks did not possess the classically smooth vocal style of balladeers such as Billy Eckstine and Frank Sinatra, but instead made the most of his dry, raspy tenor voice and an intense feeling for rhythm.

Largely through his innovative work with Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, he exerted a formative influence on generations of jazz singers, from Mark Murphy and Al Jarreau to Dianne Reeves, Bobby McFerrin, Kurt Elling and Tim Hauser of the vocal group Manhattan Transfer. Lambert, Hendricks & Ross created what critic Will Friedwald called ‘‘some of the most sensational jazz ever sung.’’

Vocalese had been around for years, but it gained currency in jazz in the early 1950s largely because of ‘‘Moody’s Mood for Love.’’ The singer and lyricist Eddie Jefferson had composed a completely new song based on James Moody’s saxophone solo on ‘‘I’m in the Mood for Love.’’

At the time, Mr. Hendricks was patching together a meager living as a songwriter and occasional singer. He composed the music and lyrics of ‘‘I Want You to Be My Baby,’’ which became a rhythm-and-blues hit for Louis Jordan and Lillian Briggs, and a few other tunes.


But it wasn’t until he began to work with Dave Lambert, a bebop-oriented singer and arranger, that Mr. Hendricks found his niche. In 1956, they received a recording contract for a vocal album built around the music of Count Basie.

In the studio, they discovered that, with one exception, the singers in the choir could not manage the elastic rhythmic concept known as swing — the essential element of jazz. The exception was the British-born Annie Ross, who had a large vocal range and a jazz musician’s sense of timing — and had written the vocalese classic ‘‘Twisted’’ in 1952.

Lambert and Hendricks asked Ross to join them and form a trio. Together, they overdubbed all the parts for the Basie project, recreating the sound of a big band with their voices. It was one of the first times multi-tracking had been used for a vocal recording.

Lambert, Hendricks & Ross’s bravura performances on ‘‘Sing a Song of Basie’’ went beyond anything that had been attempted before. The album became a phenomenon when it was released in 1958.

During their five years together, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross recorded six albums and became international stars.


Their final album in their original lineup, ‘‘High Flying’’ (1962), won a Grammy Award. In 1998, ‘‘Sing a Song of Basie’’ received a special commemorative Grammy.

As the group’s primary lyricist and songwriter, Mr. Hendricks helped push jazz singing to new heights of virtuosity.

‘‘When I was first singing, I would forget the words and then make up ones I thought would fit,’’ he told jazz writer Ralph Gleason in 1959. ‘‘When I put in my own words, I found out that as long as they rhymed, people didn’t know the difference.’’

Lambert, Hendricks & Ross had five years as the top vocal group in jazz before Ross left in 1962. Lambert and Mr. Hendricks forged ahead with other singers for two years. Lambert died in 1966, after being struck by a car while helping a motorist change a tire.

Mr. Hendricks, who recorded well-received albums featuring his compositions, wrote the lyrics for Manhattan Transfer’s 1985 album ‘‘Vocalese,’’ which won several Grammy Awards — including one for Mr. Hendricks and McFerrin for their performance of ‘‘Another Night in Tunisia.’’

In the 1990s, Mr. Hendricks was featured in a recording and in live productions of Wynton Marsalis’s Pulitzer Prize-winning jazz oratorio, ‘‘Blood on the Fields.’’ He was named a Jazz Master of the National Endowment for the Arts, the country’s highest honor for jazz musicians.