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12,393 (and counting) posts since we started blogging 12 years ago. 112 of them this year alone and, so far, 112 this month (Jan. 23).

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Book review: Peter Jones - This is Bop. Take 2

Having a fellow jazz singer and the author of This Is Hip, The Life of Mark Murphy examine the roots of bop vocalese and its innovator,  crooner/lyricist/raconteur, Jon Hendricks, is quite a challenge indeed. Author, Peter Jones carries this off with aplomb. A jazz journalist and singer/composer himself, Jones also won an ARSC award for one of the best books in 2018 by Jazz History Online.

"Jon Hendricks thought big and he knew no boundaries", writes Jones. He also quotes Hendricks regarding his inability to read music - "The secret of my art is ignorance, because I didn't know that you can't do this or can't do that". 

These themes resound throughout this 263 page tome which displays evidence of a copious amount of research. Interviews with band and family members as well as carefully documented performances and recordings from 1953 to 2016. The reader gets a complete picture of the  singer's musical and personal life in equal measure resulting in one really knowing the man. A no-holds barred account of Hendricks' successes as well as his difficulties, especially his questionable reputation in regard to his dealings with musicians, publishers  and collaborators.

In a long, frenetic and unpredictable, career, Hendricks sang  with an impressive array of jazz legends. These included Dizzy Gillespie, George Russell, Wynton Marsalis as well as singers, Dave Lambert, Annie Ross The Manhattan Transfer, Bobby McFerrin and Kurt Elling.  He was also awarded France's highest highest order of merit, the Légion d'honneur for both his service in World War II as well as his artistic achievements.

I  had the privilege of playing a number of gigs with The Jon Hendrick Explosion, a nine piece band he had going in the mid 1990s. I was mostly  though, involved with him as an arranger. This included several pieces from the Miles/Gil collaborations - Miles Ahead and Porgy and Bess from  the late 1950s. This job required painstakingly transcribing Gil's orchestrations for a 20 piece orchestra along with Miles' solos. The next step was to reduce them to work for the  9 piece Explosion ensemble  made up of 5 horns, guitar and rhythm section with Jon singing his lyrics to Miles' parts. The task was completed by myself in tandem with longtime Hendricks' arranger, Mark Lopeman.

This project planted the seed for an epic and heroic work Miles Ahead that was a collaboration of Jon and  Pete Churchill, that started around  2012 and had its world premiere in February 2017 at St Peter's Church in NYC. It was performed by a 26 strong  choir, The London Vocal Project, arranged and conducted by Churchill. Hendricks who was 95 and in hospital at the time was granted a short leave from his bed and appeared with his small entourage a few minutes before the downbeat to an awaiting front row seat. A truly triumphant arrival and who else but the doyenne of vocal bop could pull this off?

Peter Jones provides  many examples throughout the book of Hendricks' rather parsimonious honorariums for sidemen - and arrangers were of no exception here either!. An example of this was my transcription/arrangement of Gershwin's Bess, You is My Woman Now from Porgy and Bess. At the first run through of it at rehearsal we discovered that  the high Db that Jon had to sing at the close of the piece was just out of his  reach , making it necessary for me to transpose and recopy the entire chart down a semitone to C. Mind you,  this was before the days of computer music software (Sibelius, Finale,etc) enabling a chart to be instantly transposed at the press of a button. It had to be done by hand  with a quill calligraphic  pen. Needless to say, an additional fee was not on the cards but,.."the show must go on",..as they say. However, Jon was  such  a positive force and enigmatic figure that members of his supporting cast, (like me) were only too happy to pitch in when in need. The musical results and band camaraderie greatly outweighed the  bumps along the way to achieving them.

This is Bop presents a solid look into Hendricks' life- an extremely well rounded account- neither hagiography nor full on hatchetry. It will undoubtedy answer many questions about this innovative and gifted musician's  career and life.
Frank Griffith

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