The Playful Skill of Sound and Word

Pretending to be something you’re not was the core of my childhood.

I use to take long hours, outside pretending I was a famous dancer, private eye, and (yes) a tree doctor. I would find twigs on the ground, and run around my yard sticking them in the to the bark to take their temperatures.

Paging Dr, Arb O. Rist. At the age of 8, I guess I didn’t quite understand.

What I did understand was that my hairbrush made a remarkable faux microphone, and let me spend long hours hopping around my bedroom singing with the likes of The Dave Clark Five and The Beach Boys, and not just singing backup, but I was right on stage singing lead vocals, even when I didn’t know the words. I’m sure Dave and Mike loved my duets.

I also listened to all my parents grownup albums, by artists that ultimately changed the way I thought of music. Fitzgerald and Armstrong voices were always in the house, and the fact that they were able to change the song to sounds was always amazing to me.

Later in college, I discovered the artists that took the song,  and made the words the instruments. I was enthralled.

The Manhattan Transfer and vocalese became an obsession with me. It was my introduction to a musical style that I still marvel at today.


Jon Hendricks was said to be the creator of the sound, but he actually was beat to the punch by by Eddie Jefferson who , in the mid 1050’s, did many phenomenal renditions of standards including this version of I’m In the Mood Love.

Hendricks ended up taking what Jefferson did and dialing it up to ten.

Vocalese IS NOT SCAT. It is doing what we did in childhood. It was playing with the sound and the words. It takes us to a make-believe land, by taking a piece of music and putting words to the instrumentation. Around 1957, Hendricks, along with his musical partners at the time, Dave Lampert and Annie Ross, released an album called Sing A Song of Basie, where they overdubbed to many of Basie’s classic head arrangements. The only musicians on the album were Nat Pierce on piano, Ed Jones on bass, and Sonny Payne on drums. It’s a new twist on the Count, and was the beginning of a new era for singers. It challenged them to work outside the box, or perhaps inside the sound.

Jon Hendricks just passed away, and along with him went a spirit of wild and crazy childlike creativity. He left a legacy of solid work, and his generosity with artists, like The Manhattan Transfer, Al Jareau, and The Grateful Dead, is a lasting tribute to his talent.

Working right up to the end, he had put together full lyrics to Miles Davis’s Miles Ahead.

When I listen to Jon Hendircks I always get that curious feeling I had as a child. Music can take you anywhere. His imagination and fearlessness runs deep within the sounds his words expressed. Even if you didn’t understand the story, you knew the tale.

Hendricks was a tree surgeon of music, blending and grafting sound and word to create another level of experience, and our world is a little less graceful today without him.



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