Matt Carmichael
Jon Hendricks
Few performers can smile while they sing. Yet as Jon Hendricks performed his vocal acrobatics on stage at Pick-Staiger last Saturday, there was a grin on his face. He has reason to smile: he is singing jazz poetry, and is accompanied by his wife and daughter, members of Jon Hendricks and Co.

Family has always been important to Hendricks. He grew up in a family of 17 and his father, a minister, instilled a firm set of values in his children. "We [the Hendricks family] don't feel that we are this kind of person or that kind of person. We're just people. There's no division in our lives. When you look at your place in the world from the standpoint of one group, it's a very big and difficult world, but if you view your place as part of the family of man then your place is very small and your duty in the world is also very small," Hendricks said.

Hendricks also doesn't like to categorize music. "There's only two kinds of music, good music and bad music. I try to be a fan of any good artist. I don't care what it is and what anybody thinks about it;l if it's good, I like it."

All of Hendricks' five children sing jazz. His wife Judith, and his 29-year-old daughter Aria are both excellent vocalists as well as Kevin Burke who has sung with Company for six years. Judith's voice gets so high that one audience member was prompted to exclaim "She cheats!"

Jon Hendricks and Co. performed at Pick as the last stop on a three week tour. The tour hit Universities and selected high school that offer jazz vocal programs. Hendricks believes that there is a "sad lack of support for America's culture art form on the part of the media dispensers...and we're here to put a stop to it." He wishes to bring jazz back to the young because without them there is no future. For that reason he is excited about such artists as Branford Marsalis and Harry Conick jr. who are bringing jazz and big band music back to the forefront. "They're keeping the music alive not just because they play it but because they're aware of what has gone before them and they pay such respects to the founding fathers of the music," he said.

Hendricks hopes that among President Clinton's changes, he will restore art funding to the school system. He says "You can't educate a child without art. Art softens the sensitivities and widens the perceptions. Venus is the only planet that can calm Mars down."

He has met a lot of people in his travels, may at Ronny Scott's club in England, and he has never met a good artist, from Robin Williams to Dali, to actor Paul Schofield, who doesn't like jazz.

A large portion of Saturday's show focused on the history of jazz. After running through a couple of Count Basie numbers, Hendricks sent the rest of the singers offstage while he performed a little jazz poem, punctuated with song, chronicling the history of jazz and its musicians. During this section of the concert he showcased his two greatest talents: poetry and jazz.

Besides the lovely poem which held the audience in rapture, he mimicked a penny whistle and upright bass in his songs to such perfection that he left the crowd stunned.

Even though he is a great scat vocalist, he is a poet "first and foremost." He "combined [his] gift of poetry with [his] love of jazz music," and emerged as the premiere vocalese artist. With his legendary `50s trio, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, he helped define the art. Vocalese takes established jazz instrumentals such as the John Coltrane tenor solo on Miles Davis' Freddie Freeloader, and adds lyrics. "You have to be adept at English literature because you need to know how to construct a story...words to each solo become an exposition like one of the characters in a play stepping forward for a speaking part. You have to have a sense of dramatic construction."

Mostly, Hendricks believes that an artist needs to be true to jazz. "Jazz is a spiritual, immaterial creation of the sustenance of life so I think if you respect it, it will protect and keep you and if you disparage it, it will do you in. I have a great respect for music and I expect to live a long long time and be ageless for a long time," he says breaking into one of his fabulous laughs. He sees Miles Davis as having betrayed the music. "He kept going deeper and deeper into money, talking about personal advances as he deteriorated farther and farther."

His love for jazz came through in his concert: the 71-year-old man dancing, singing, and clapping enthusiastically driven by pure love for music and family who danced along side him. One of the highlights of the show was when the singers gathered and danced around Andy Watson, the drummer who was "transformed by the music" to the role of Gene Croupa in a bang up rendition the fabulous Benny Goodman's classic, Sing Sing Sing.

And all the while, Hendricks smiled.

c1994 art&performance