So the Story Goes: Jon Hendricks on how hamburgers birthed vocalese

Jon Hendricks at Jazz at Lincoln Center

News | Sep, 21st 2016

If you get a group of jazz musicians in a room together, it’s only a matter of time until they start sharing stories from the road. In this original series, “So the Story Goes,” we will highlight some of those great stories. Seeother entries in this series.

Born in Toledo, Ohio, just over 95 years ago, Jon Hendricks has long been a legend among jazz vocalists. He is widely referred to as the father of vocalese, a style of jazz singing in which lyrics are added to the melody of a preexisting instrumental composition. Needless to say, he's both a talented lyricist and skilled wordsmith. Jazz journalist Leonard Feather called Hendricks the “Poet Laureate of Jazz” and Timereferred to him as the “James Joyce of Jive.”

In a recent interview with Jazz at Lincoln Center, Hendricks discusses what it was like to grow up during the Great Depression and how the time he spent at the local burger joint kick-started his career as a vocalist and would play a key role in the development of vocalese:

My father, with 12 children—that’s a lot of mouths to feed, this being in the Depression. So Stanley Cowell, Sr. had a hamburger joint right on the corner of Collingwood and Indiana, good hamburgers. They cost a lot of money; they cost a quarter—a quarter is a quarter of a dollar! It was a good piece of change.

So I wanted to hang out in there but he [Cowell, Sr.] would say, “Jon, you’re going to have to buy a Coke or something.” So I stood in front of the jukebox and I learned two or three tunes every day until I had learned the whole program of the jukebox. Then, in the evening, when people were off work and they would come in to get a hamburger, I’d be standing in front of the jukebox and they'd come and I'd say, “What tune are you going to play?” 

“What’s it to you?” 

“Well, give me a dime and I’ll sing it.”


“Yeah, give me the money and I’ll sing the tune.”

And they thought I was crazy! So this guy said to his girlfriend, “This is just nuts enough to be interesting. I got to find out about this.”

So he gave me the dime and I put the record on and I stood in front. It was a Jimmie Lunceford record with a Willie Smith alto solo, and then a trumpet solo—I forget who—but I would sing it, all of it, note for note. That’s how I was able to write vocalese—to become “Jon Hendricks: Father of Vocalese.”

Click here to read more entries of So the Story Goes.


Image credits: Jon Hendricks, photo by Frank Stewart for Jazz at Lincoln Center; Jon Hendricks, photo by R. Andrew Lepley.

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