Lessons in vocalese

At least on the surface, vocalese seems to be among the most vexing of literary forms. Sure, it’s hard to capture a reflection of eternity in the 17 syllables of a haiku. But consider the vocalese lyricist who must shrink-wrap a good yarn so each syllable fits to the wild, rapid-fire notes of a good instrumental solo.

It’s hard to imagine anyone being so well-suited to these intricacies as Jon Hendricks, who as a lad received daily on-the-job ear training from piano giant Art Tatum (and later followed it up by taking career advice from saxophone wizard Charlie Parker).

Which may be why Hendricks can downplay the difficulties of his art.

"The Shakespeare plays are probably more difficult," he says over the phone from Toledo. He’s currently teaching at the University of Toledo, jazz and American culture this term and moving into vocalese studies next term.

But having brought Shakespeare into the conversation, he continues to explore the similarities between writing vocalese and writing plays, including ways in which vocalese is more difficult.

"It’s the same thing as a good dramatic piece," he says. "You have to create a plot — and you’re bound by the title of the song. You don’t even have the freedom to create a plot out of thin air. You have to make the plot conform to the song title, whatever the song title is. Like ‘Fiesta in Blue.’ Well, fiesta, that’s a Spanish name for a celebration. Or in English, the vulgate expression for that would be a party. So a party in blue. That would be people with the blues get together, and because they all feel so bad, they have a party.

"Then you create a cast of characters just as you would when you construct a drama, theatrically. The first soloist has got to be one of the main characters, and what he has to say has to be his comment on the idea of a Fiesta in Blue.

"And then the other solos follow with their own ideas. Some of them are philosophical. Some of them are subjective. Some of them are objective. Some of them are just nonsense. But it’s like people in a play."

The story behind the story in his lyrics to Miles Davis’ famous "Four" follows similarly.

"Well, there again, I was bound by that title, and first I had to figure: four what? You know, I knew Miles had gotten the title from the number of guys on the date. Himself and Art Blakey and Horace Silver and Percy Heath. And I knew the song had been written by Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson, that it really wasn’t Miles’ tune, and that wasn’t the name of it. But there I was stuck with that title and four — what four?

"I’m always very philosophical. What are the four important values in life? Well, truth, honor, happiness and love. That gave me the structure, the plot, so I went from there."

Surprisingly, perhaps, the process of fitting syllables to the notes happens primarily in Hendricks’ head — not on the page. Not only does he not transcribe the solos, he doesn’t write or read music at all. Thank the blind pianist Tatum for making that possible. Tatum still lived in his hometown when Hendricks was growing up there.

"I sang with Art Tatum from the age of 14 to the age of 16, two shows a night at the Waiters’ and Bellmen’s Club in Toledo. That was my musical education. I had to come to his house while all the other kids went chasing girls — which I wanted to also. But I had been in show business since I was 7, so I was a veteran and responsible.

"So, I’d go to Art’s and he couldn’t see. So, you know, he would play something and say ‘sing this.’ And I would sing it and sharpen my ears to the point where I never had to learn to read, ’cause to play it … if you play it, I can hear it, and if I can hear it, I can sing it."

Even with that splendid training, it was an unlucky turn of events — and Charlie Parker — that put him on the path to vocalese.

After serving during World War II, Hendricks returned to Toledo with intentions of becoming a lawyer. But he didn’t get rid of the singing bug entirely. One night he did a quick bit with Charlie Parker’s visiting band.

"I had just scatted and started off the bandstand, and Bird reached out and pulled my coat tail and motioned for me to come sit in Kenny Dorham’s seat (the trumpeter was standing up front soloing), which I did. And he said, ‘What are you doing?’ and I said, ‘I’m studying law.’ He says, ‘You ain’t no lawyer.’ I said, ‘What am I?’ He said, ‘You’re a jazz singer.’ I said, ‘What do I do about that?’ He said, ‘You’ve got to come to New York.’ I said, ‘I’m in school. I don’t know anybody in New York.’ He said, ‘You know me.’ I said, ‘Where will I find you?’ He said, ‘Ask anybody.’ I thought: This guy is crazy. And I split and forgot about it."

Then Hendricks’ GI Bill ran out and his future in jurisprudence with it. Two years and four months after the seven-minute-or-so bandstand conversation, Hendricks arrived in New York, the jazz capitol of the world, where along with vocalists and vocalese-ists Annie Ross and Dave Lambert he would eventually take jazz vocals and vocalese to a high-water mark.

And now as a teacher of vocalese, Hendricks has the task of teaching others what comes so naturally to him.

"I write those lyrics in almost no time," he says. "They come out whole, just like a chicken lays an egg and everything inside that egg."

He tells the story of writing the lyrics of "In Walked Bud" for Thelonious Monk (though it bears mentioning that this one was a set of lyrics for the basic tune, not a vocalese to a solo). Hendricks happened by the studio and the pianist suggested offhand that he sing something. Hendricks asked Monk what he had in mind when he wrote the tune.

"And I grabbed a tablet and in seven minutes I had written that lyric. Ten minutes later I had sung it," he says.

"I write like I’m writing a letter. Everything comes all at once. … There are times when I’m looking at the pencil to see what’s coming out."

Hendricks will be at it again just as soon as he gets a green light for his planned reunion album with Annie Ross; they’ll do for Dizzy Gillespie what Lambert, Hendricks and Ross did for Basie and Ellington and Horace Silver and so many other composer-improvisers.

He says once he sits down to it, it won’t take long.

Maybe he’ll let his students watch over his shoulder.

W. Kim Heron is the managing editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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