For the Love of Jazz: Don Lucoff interviews Kurt Elling about Jon Hendricks

DON LUCOFF, PDX JAZZ: When did you first discover Jon Hendricks' music and what was your first reaction to it?
KURT ELLING: I discovered – or perhaps uncovered – what Jon was up to when I was living in a $100/month room in Hyde Park, Chicago. Maybe I had already jumped out of graduate school, or maybe it was still on – I can't remember exactly, but what I do remember is that I had been listening to a lot of Horace Silver when I heard Jon and LHR doing their treatment of it.

For some time, I had been saying to myself, “Man, wouldn't it be great if I could just sing Dexter Gordon's solo on such-and-such? Or Cannon, or Prez? What a life-altering pleasure that would be!” And then here comes Jon and LHR just doing it! And doing it with killing-clever lyrics that justify the whole venture as much more than singers copping from – or stealing – the brainwork of the greatest instrumentalists. Thanks to Jon's innovations and groundbreaking use of language, the solos and notes came alive in whole new ways. It was a moment of absolute discovery. Eureka! I sat down that night and wrote “Those Clouds Are Heavy, You Dig?” over a Paul Desmond solo I had memorized. Jon changed my life.

DL: How would you describe Jon's place within the jazz vocal canon?

ELLING: Jon's work is indispensable. His recorded solos are on a par with any master of the bop era and are otherwise unequaled among vocalists. His work as a lyricist means the acreage a given non-writing jazz singer has to roam around in is a hundred-fold larger than before. Performance of the so-called “standards” will never again be enough.

Moreover, since Jon wrote about topics as diverse as numerology, history, substance abuse, the blues, politics, Picasso, and cuisine, his work as a lyricist means that any singer who also wants to write new vocalese lyrics has almost unlimited vistas of possibility when it comes to content. Imagination alone is the limit!

I should also mention the example Jon set throughout his career as a showman. He was never a blase, typically lackluster, uncharismatic stage presence (the likes of which we have all grown accustomed to over the years). Jon knew how to run a show, to announce tunes, to excite and please an audience with his banter and presence on the stage. Jazz suffers because not enough performers – whose musical gifts are manifold – [they] pay no attention to stage presence. They lose audiences before they even play a note.

DL: Jon truly was a mentor, but the relationship over the years deepened and became quite personal. Can you encapsulate the evolution of the relationship from mentor to collaborator?

ELLING: Jon was kind, generous, and welcoming to me from our first meeting. I had been asked by friends at the Ravinia Festival to come up and sing for Jon when he was asked to lead a masterclass. It was like a godfather or grandfather joyfully coming across some unknown progeny for the first time. It was definitively sweet and indicative of all the rest of our time together. Back in his dressing room that very afternoon, he showed me how to hang and fold my performance clothes inside-out so that they could dry and be good for the next day. He said, “This is the way Duke (Ellington) taught me when we were on the road. 'Cause you'll have to be clean again tomorrow, when you sing again!”

I was dumbfounded when both he and Mark Murphy agreed to come on the road with me and jointly perform “Four Brothers” (when it was Kevin Mahogany, Andy Bey, Giacomo Gates, or Peter Eldridge) or else “Four Brothers and a Mother”' (when it was the divine Sheila Jordan). That they trusted me to put the sets together, lead the rehearsals, and MC the show was overwhelming. That they came to my house for rehearsals, fell in love with my family, ate and praised my wife's soup and asked for seconds, made the scene with me across Europe and back to Chicago was never less than thrilling.

Jon and his brilliant and eccentric wife Judith – while sometimes absent-minded and goofy from the perspective of a more no-nonsense traveler – had so many memories and stories to share. I don't mean to make this a moment of disrespect – I think most folks are boring. Jon and Judith were never boring. They had so much generosity to give. The example of their marriage and partnership is just one example. They shared such sweetness between them and took care of each other so wonderfully. I vowed to follow that example as much as possible in my own life, and to praise and care for my own bride in the same way as Jon did his. I think that's something Jon and I shared in abundance. Gratitude for our wives and families.

I think the reason we were able to move from star-struck youngster to collaborator is because Jon was open to and encouraged such a transition. He knew I would respect, love, cherish, and build on what gifts he might offer me as a jazz singer and as a younger friend. And he was right. He let me love him, and so I did. I still do and always will.

DL: What was it like sharing the stage with Jon? Special preparation on your part?

ELLING: Everything about being onstage with Jon was a miracle beyond my wildest dreams. For a pianist, it would be the same as having Monk or Ellington play duets. For a saxophonist, Bird or Trane. I have been lucky enough to share the stage with a living generator from the greatest and most creative era in jazz history. I am very deeply grateful.

DL: There is a very lively YouTube video of you and Jon at the last IAJE (International Association for Jazz Education) conference in Toronto in 2009 with Jon emulating the walking bassline, which captured how fun and spontaneous you guys can be together, a bond that is so deep and personal.

ELLING: This is because I wanted more than anything to echo the mastery Jon and his contemporaries displayed. Therefore, I did enough homework to be able to communicate with Jon in the parlance he was accustomed to. It was a cornerstone of our relationship. I love what and who he loved.

DL: You have great fans here in Portland and they have experienced you in many different situations. Can you frame the audience experience and what you may do differently to prepare for this particular show?

ELLING: What I intend is a celebration of Jon's gifts to the jazz world. His daughters – Michele and Aria – his admirers – Nancy [King] and Kevin [Burke] and the students [PSU Jazz Vocal Ensemble] – and me. We will be there to help those who heard him live to remember, and those who have encountered him in any way to never forget.