New York — Jazz singer Jon Hendricks has a way with words.
In fact, words have been his main business throughout his career as vocalist/lyricist with the highly acclaimed Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross vocal group of the '50s and '60s, and right up to ''Jon Hendricks and Company,'' his current group that includes wife Judith and daughter Michelle.
Scholar and teacher of jazz history, Jon's name is a household word among jazz musicians and fans, who love him for the remarkable breakthrough he made in the 1950s, writing lyrics to famous jazz tunes and their improvised solos.
Not only did he accomplish the difficult task of fitting words into complex jazz improvisations, but what he came up with were not just any old words -- they invariably tell a real-life story, or deliver a truthful message: ''The mind is like a parachute -- it only functions when it's open,'' or ''Everybody knows, the more you hesitate the more you lose -- if you sit still and fail to move you're gonna dig yourself a well-intentioned rut, and think you've found a groove.''
Hendricks, the ninth child and seventh son of a preacher and his wife, grew up with church music. While still a boy he became a professional singer, earning money singing secular music to help support the family during the depression. As early as age seven or eight he was interested in the words of the songs he sang.
''I began to understand the importance of lyrics and why the lyricists are always listed first on sheet music. People communicate in language, and until they learn the words to a tune, they can't be said to know the song. I began to write my own lyrics at about age 10.''
So Jon has always been a lyricist, and this talent led him, in 1957, to make an album that introduced a new idea to jazz and to the recording industry.
''I wanted to record an album of vocal versions of the arrangements of Count Basie's band. I had written some lyrics and Dave Lambert had written the vocal parts. Dave hired 13 studio singers from around New York. One of the singers was this girl Annie Ross who had come over from England to be in a revue on Broadway.''
Dave and Jon had the rhythm section from the Basie band, but discovered that the singers didn't have a feel for jazz:
''They didn't understand how you lay back without slowing down. They didn't know the culture -- they lacked an awareness of the subtleties of the art form, so they didn't swing.''
Not knowing what to do next, Dave Lambert came up with an idea which was revolutionary in those days -- to use just three singers: himself, Jon, and Annie Ross -- who was the only singer in the group who could swing -- and ''multitrack'' the album.
''Nobody had ever heard of such a thing at that time,'' says Jon.
So ''Sing a Song of Basie'' (ABC Paramount 223), the first Lambert, Hendricks , and Ross album, was born.
''Funny thing was, we had never thought of forming a vocal group, and we still had no idea of forming a group. But we had become so aware of the excitement from the album, that we used to get together every day, just to be with each other. We felt a kind of bond.''
Then one day Jon picked up Down Beat magazine and discovered that ''Sing a Song of Basie'' was the No. 13 album in the country. He said to Dave and Annie, ''What are we sitting here starving for, when we've got the No. 13 album in the country?''
So the three auditioned for Willard Alexander, booker for the Basie Band, and began to perform as a group. The going, according to Jon, was anything but rough.
''There was no struggle to reach stardom, we just went from nothing to something. And that year we were voted No. 1 vocal group in Down Beat and Metronome magazines, and then we began to win the international polls.''
They played Vegas and then toured Europe.
''We built up a backlog of goodwill -- well, it was love, really. And people who loved Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross -- that love is still there.''
When Annie Ross became indisposed, she was replaced by a woman named Yolande Bavan. Although Bavan was an accomplished singer the group just wasn't the same.
''We worked for two years as Lambert, Hendricks, and Bavan and made two albums, but I was getting unhappy at the way the standard of performance was deteriorating -- it wasn't Yolande and it wasn't Annie.''
Jon felt responsible to the musicians whose work they were presenting:
''I treat jazz like opera-lovers treat opera. This is a culture, and you're dealing with artists that are still alive, who are able to hear what you did with their solos.''
So Jon dropped out of the group. He had bought a home in California, and he and his family settled in for awhile. Jon began to work successfully as a single on the West Coast. But it was 1963, the beginning of the drug culture and moral upheaval among youth, and Jon had the idea his children would be better off in England. So off they went, and ended up staying for five years.
Recently he's formed a whole new group -- this time a real family affair, with his daughter Michelle and his wife, Judith, who sings the parts that Annie Ross used to do. His son Eric has also been in the group, and his 17-year-old daughter, Aria, is preparing to join soon.
Although they don't expect to put out their first album until spring, they've been touring successfully for several years, presenting a program of Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross material, as well as some new arrangements, and excerpts from ''Evolution of the Blues.'' Audiences respond with enthusiam, whether it's a group number they're hearing, or a solo by Jon or Michelle, or a duet by Judith and Jon. Jon draws the listeners in with his warm sense of humor, and his obvious love for what he's doing.
''We exist on the love that was originally generated by Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross,'' he affirms. ''The audiences transfer that feeling to this group. It's a miracle, and because of that, I don't ever intend to change what we do. When you've got something that good, what are you going to change to? That's what I feel happened to people like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. They got to a point where they were completely excellent, and then they looked for something better, and there was nothing better than what they had done. So they found something different, but worse.''