It’s a breeze to Vocalese


    Jazz history is in the remaking. Singers and lyricists Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross have reunited after 36 years apart and are appearing through Saturday at The Jazz Bakery.

    Dave Lambert, a pioneering scat singer, was the third member of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. From 1957 to 1964, the trio was revolutionizing jazz group singing with their “Vocalese,” the term coined by Leonard Feather, the late jazz critic, to describe LHR’s work. “It was the first time anyone had lyricised a full orchestral arrangement,” Hendricks explains.

    Hendricks sang saxophone passages, Ross sang trumpet and piano parts and Lambert sang trombone and middle-tone sections, vocalizing Big Band and combo music.

    They performed in New York, at Birdland downtown and the Apollo uptown, singing the music of, among others, Count Basie, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman and Charlie Parker.

    The three met up in the mid-1950s, when Hendricks and Lambert were divorced men living together and working on a recording. They had lyricised saxophone solos by Stan Getz and Zoot Sims. “We needed something for speed,” Hendricks recalls. Lambert suggested lyricising Basie. “We needed another hip voice,” says Hendricks. They hired 16 “highly trained” singers, but none of them understood swing and something was lacking in the sound.

    Hendricks and Lambert knew Ross by reputation and invited her to coach the singers to get a Basie feel. “It didn’t work,” she says. So they hired her to sing.

    Chatting at Duke’s Malibu on Monday, Ross recalls, “Dave said, ‘Let’s multitrack. I didn’t know what he meant.” Hendricks jokes, “And you weren’t the only one.” Ross continues, “We heard it and we knew that was the way to go.” Their resulting album, “Sing a Song of Basie,” was one of the earliest examples of overdubbing.

    They do not remember much overt racism directed at their bi-racial troupe. She recalls a few incidents, but he says, “It didn’t stop us.” She recalls being in a huge, empty restaurant in Las Vegas with three black members of the band and being told the restaurant was booked. “We just sat,” she says, “and finally they served us.” At the time, blacks were not allowed to stay in the hotels, so Ross stayed in a motel with her troupe. They played the nation and the world.

    Dave Lambert died in an automobile accident in 1966, and Hendricks and Ross parted for separate concert and recording careers.

    But in 1998, Hendricks’ manager had plans. “He was very strong on the idea that we should get back together,” Hendricks says. “He was Messianic. It was a crusade.” Soon Hendricks was in the audience at Birdland, watching Ross perform. He joined her on stage for “Jumpin’ at the Woodside.” Says Hendricks, “The reaction from the audience was so startling, I was thunderstruck.” She recalls, “They were running out in the streets trying to buy those instant cameras. It was jazz history.”

    Soon after, Hendricks was appearing at The Blue Note, and Ross was in the audience. She joined him for “Little Pony,” again to an overwhelming reception.

    They decided to rejoin talents, and, believing no one could replace Lambert, will be appearing as a duo, with musicians Peter Mihelich on piano, Paul Gill on bass, Walter Bolden on drums and Paul Meyers on guitar (filling in Lambert’s lines). They began their tour at The Blue Note and are scheduled to appear at the Kennedy Center in January 2000.

    The duo recently performed at Chicago’s Symphony Hall. “When we walked on, the whole audience stood up,” Ross reports. He adds, “That was amazing. It scared me.” “It didn’t scare me,” she says. It was a ‘welcome home.'” He says, “Like any other artist, I’m used to working for a standing ovation.”

    He will acknowledge that the nightly ovations validate their history. But he adds, “When you’re one of the participants, you don’t think you’re doing something world shaking. You’re always wondering if you did well.” He believes their solo careers for the past 36 years have made them stronger performers.

    Ross was born in London to vaudevillians, but she proudly maintains that she is Scottish. She was carried on stage before she could walk and introduced to the audience. Not all was high theater, however. Her parents played bandstands in parks, and her father would pass the hat.

    She came to America by steerage at age 4, passing through Ellis Island. She attended Hawthorne Grammar School in Beverly Hills and University High School in West Los Angeles.

    She says, “Singing as a kid was a way to get affection — hugs and pats on the head.” She learned rhythm from her father, who taught her to tap dance by giving her rhythms to tap out.

    Her first memory of a recording is Ella Fitzgerald’s “A Tisket, A Tasket.” “That was how I wanted to sing,” she says.

    She wrote the lyrics to “Let’s Fly” (at age 14), “Twisted” (recorded by Bette Midler and Joni Mitchell; Woody Allen used Ross’ recording in “Deconstructing Harry”) and Art Farmer’s “Farmer’s Market.”

    She had a son with drummer Kenny Clarke (Charlie Parker became Kenny Jr.’s godfather) and at age 20, after traveling, returned to the United States, sponsored for immigration by Dizzy Gillespie and David Usher so she could record for their DG records. “Bird came by and took me in this big old car and showed me New York, which of course I had seen but not through his eyes,” she recalls.

    She spent some time waitressing in New York, at Starks. “They put me on the till and I couldn’t add or subtract,” she says. “I would invite my musician friends. They would give me one dollar, and I would give them five dollars in change.”

    After the LHR years, she starred in theater (“Three Penny Opera,” “The Pirates of Penzance”) and films (“Short Cuts,” “Throw Mama from the Train”). She currently lives in New York. She has published a cookbook, likes to fish in Scotland and most enjoys chatting with young children.

    Hendricks was born in Ohio to a family of 17 children. His father was an African-Methodist-Episcopal minister, and he sang with the church choir from age 4. At age 14, he was singing at a club where pianist Art Tatum was appearing, and soon they were performing together.

    After army service during World War II, he studied literature and law at the University of Toledo but sang clubs at night. “I like the law still. I don’t like what’s done with it,” he says. “I was going to devote my services to the NAACP, but my GI Bill ran out.”

    Before the war, he had met Charlie Parker in Ohio, when he sat in on “The Song is You.” Parker immediately invited Hendricks to New York. “I remember Bird telling me to look him up,” says Hendricks. So more than two years later, when Hendricks arrived at the bus station in New York, he tried finding Parker. One telephone call informed him that Parker was at the Apollo Bar. At the bar, Parker spotted him and promptly called him by name. Hendricks credits Parker for introducing him to the jazz world.

    He lives in Battery Park City in New York with his wife Judith, who accompanies him on tours. The two have recorded with their daughter, Michelle, and son, Eric. He is writing his autobiography. To date, he has also written or lyricized some 400 songs.

    In September 1996, he celebrated his 75th birthday with a tribute to him at New York’s Lincoln Center. Those paying tribute included Wynton Marsalis, Bobby McFerrin, Tony Bennett, Dave Brubeck, Al Jarreau and members of Manhattan Transfer.

    In May 1997, he was invited to perform at The Hague, in commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Marshall Plan. He was also asked to write a short poem about the occasion. He had no idea of the scope of the performance, later learning that as the only American on the program, he would be headlining the evening to an audience including President and Mrs. Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Queen Beatrix of Holland and 53 other European heads of state. Hendricks performed Miles Davis’ “Four,” for which Hendricks had written lyrics (he could hear the president whisper to the first lady that “Four” is his favorite Davis song), and read his poem, “Let George Do It,” commemorating George C. Marshall.

    Hendricks admires the president’s musicianship. “He does very well for a working president,” he says. “He’s a very hip cat.”

    It was always voice for Ross and Hendricks. He says, “I think man is a musical instrument. His voice is able to move mountains if rightly applied. Man sings and touches people’s hearts. The voice is the most direct means of communication, lyrically or vocally. If you have a great lyric or a great melody, as Sibelius said, ‘It’s a heavenly thing.'”

    She adds, “A great vocalist to me should be able to make you laugh and make you cry. I’ve heard a lot of singers who are not considered jazz singers, but they could move me.” She lists opera singers Joan Sutherland and Renata Tobaldi, as well as Judy Garland. “The main thing is to find your own voice, as in writing.”

    She adds, “There’s a certain amount of acting that goes into the presentation — first of all, knowing the words and what they mean. Really good musicians know the words to the songs.”

    Before walking on stage, he chats with everyone backstage, then says a prayer. She has a one-word routine — “Breathe.”

    Hendricks and Ross appear through Saturday night, 8 and 9:30 p.m., at The Jazz Bakery, 3233 Helms Ave., Culver City. Tel. 310.271-9039.