Café Mouffe: The Vocal Pyrotechnics of Jon Hendricks

Scat singing started as an improvisation by Louis Armstrong in the 1920s . Ella Fitzgerald made it a charming diversion in the 1940s whenever she forgot the lyrics to a song.  Jon Hendricks took it to the level of pyrotechnic virtuosity in the 1950s by crafting words to fit soaring instrumental solos. Hendricks turns 90 today, and NPR paid him tribute:

The singer and lyricist is best known for his work with Lambert, Hendricks and Ross in the 1950s, putting words to jazz — including insanely complex vocal arrangements of instrumental solos.

One of Hendricks’ favorite anecdotes involves a party where the wives of composer Jerome Kern and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II had a little dispute over who wrote “Old Man River.”

“Beg your pardon. Your husband wrote, ‘Da da da da.’ My husband wrote ‘Old Man River,’ ” Hendricks recalls, laughing. “And that’s a good illustration of how the lyric brings the song out like a flower blossoms. It’s the lyric that makes the song.”

Jon Hendricks writes his own songs — words and music — and is also a critically acclaimed jazz singer. But he’s best known for fashioning lyrics to the big-band arrangements of Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Woody Herman — not just the melodies, but all of the parts, down to the most technically demanding solos.

“You find a word that exactly describes that sound. And then you’ve got it,” Hendricks says. “Words are very flexible things.”

One of Hendricks’s great achievements was writing – and singing – lyrics to fit the solos in Miles Davis’s 1958 classic, Freddie the Freeloader.

Encore: Start with vintage Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross tracks Moanin’ and A Night in Tunisia. Then there’s Twisted – Annie Ross deserves a Mouffe date all her own.

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