Jon Hendricks & Annie Ross: Down for Double


1993 NEA Jazz Master Jon Hendricks at the 2014 NEA Jazz Masters event.

(Photo: Michael G. Stewart, courtesy of National Endowment for the Arts)

“We took a long vacation,” Jon says.

“Yeah, 36 years,” Annie adds.

Except for a brief reunion in the mid-’80s, Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross hadn’t sung the Lambert, Hendricks and Ross classics together since 1962. Hendricks worked as a singer and songwriter. Ross also sang, but she worked more in the movies as an actress. And tragically, Dave Lambert was killed in a 1966 auto accident.

But in their prime, Hendricks, Ross and Lambert perfected and popularized vocalese, the art of singing lyrics to jazz instrumentals. On their 1957 album Sing A Song Of Basie, they not only sang lyrics to the heads and solos, they vocally recreated entire arrangements. Hendricks sang saxophone, Lambert filled in as trombone counterpoint and Ross provided the trumpet voice of Buck Clayton.

In total, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross recorded six albums between 1957 and 1962. Ever since they’ve continued inspiring generations of jazz singers, such as Manhattan Transfer, Al Jarreau, Bobby McFerrin and New York Voices.

And now Hendricks and Ross have come back as a twosome. Their Jan. 26 opening night at the Blue Note in New York was extraordinary: “Down For Double,” “Come On Home,” “Centerpiece,” “Cloudburst.” Hearing those songs again by those voices was thrilling, and one could almost hear the audience, in the heads and their hearts, singing along.

I’ve rarely felt emotion in the audience and from the stage like your opening night.

Annie Ross: That’s a big statement, because you’ve seen everybody.

Dave Lambert is gone, but he’s up there with you.

Jon Hendricks: We’ve always missed Dave before now, but never so much as he’s missed now. We have Paul Meyers, the guitarist, playing his lines, to give us a sound like he’s there.

Dave will always be a presence in your lives. When you first came together to rehearse, the emotions must have been extreme, to be singing again with the other voice that you haven’t sung with in so long, only Dave’s voice isn’t there.

JH: We did all those things with three voices, and we could’ve used at least another one, but how were we going to do these things with two? But when we started singing …

AR: Yeah!

JH: It was like everything was there. It was amazing. I don’t know how it happened.

AR: It was weird, wasn’t it?

JH: The music has a strength of its own.

Do you have memories, flashbacks to moments when you sang these songs all those years ago?

JH: Oh, yes.

AR: And not only that. I’ll remember, “Oh, I used to take a breath right there. It helps me on the next note.”

JH: And you hear lines that you actually forgot. We’re trying to do Dave’s solos whenever possible.

AR: And you don’t get any rest. You’re off of one solo and into another solo, and don’t forget that little things that goes there.

I only heard Dave Lambert on the records, but I’ve always felt that he was the flat-out best scat singer ever. He could improvise vocally like the greatest instrumentalists.

JH: Dave was the single voice who took scat singing from the realm of Louis Armstrong into bop.

AR: I didn’t know until Ira Gilter told me that Dave recorded an album where he would scat and then leave the room for whoever was listening to the record to scat the next eight bars, a sort of “Scatting Minus One.”

What’s the definitive legend of how Lambert and Hendricks came together with Ross?

AR: I was over at Bob Bach’s house. Bob and I were just schmoozing, and he asked me if I knew Dave Lambert. I said that I’d met him very briefly, and he said, “Well, why don’t you stick around, because he’s coming over with a guy called Jon Hendricks, and they have an idea to make a record with words to Count Basie instrumentals, and since you’ve done ‘Twisted,’ it might be interesting to hear.” Dave came over with Jon, they put on the Basie record and I sang along with it. I thought it was all right, and that was that.

JH: Dave and I, and whoever else had ears at the time, knew that Annie had done “Twisted” and “Farmer’s Market.” Annie was hip to vocalese before anybody that we knew. We were going to have these Dave Lambert Singers, about 13 singers, and we figured, Why don’t we put Annie among them? Annie was hip to what was going on, and when these other singers don’t show the right idea, she could be there to say, “Hey, it’s like this!” We figured she’d be a great help to us, because these singers just didn’t dig Basie.

AR: Dave asked me to come down and coach the female singers for the Basie feel, and I said to myself, “Is he out of his mind?”

JH: As we were afraid of, in the studio these people were a disaster. They didn’t understand.

AR: They hit all the notes.

JH: But they didn’t have any of the subtleties or the nuances to be able to approximate the Basie sound. This was Creed Taylor’s debut in the music business, and his job was on the line. In desperation, he asked, “What should we do?” Dave, speaking up like the genius he was, said, “Let’s multitrack. We’ll use Annie; and Annie, Jon and I will multitrack.”

AR: And we said …

JH: “What’s multitrack?”

AR: I had no idea what he was talking about, but I was saying yes to everything then.

JH: Dave explained, “Well, we put three voices on the tape, and we take that tape off, and you put the other voices on until we’ve got all 12 of Basie’s instruments, and then we combine all those tapes on one tape.” We started doing that. It took about three months. We did the lead voices first, then the second three, but the result was you heard only the last six voices. It was a hodgepodge, so we had to start over. We took another three months, but we did the last voices first and the first voices last, so that the first voices would be out front.

Certainly you sang harmonies, but the group wasn’t really about three-part harmony so much as about counterpoint, or sections riffing like in a big band.

AR: Exactly. I’ll be singing a line and Jon will be singing another line, but with different lyrics. It makes for intense concentration.

It’s not only that you’re singing lines with horns, but, Jon, when you scat, you finger the air like you’re playing a saxophone.

JH: I do it involuntarily. My hands just go up automatically. I’d love to be a saxophone player. That’s my secret ambition.

You were both friends of Charlie Parker. Bird appeared in your life, Jon, when you were going to be a lawyer.

JH: I was getting a 3.5 average at the University of Toledo. I was working with a group downtown at night, but I had no ideas of pursuing music further. I’d been in music already all my life. I was going to be a lawyer and donate my services to the legal arm of the NAACP, to try to help with the racial situation at that time, which was very acute. But one night, when he came to town, I sat in with Charlie Parker. I was so nervous. I took about 10 choruses. And when I started to leave the bandstand, I felt this tug. Charlie had pulled my coat. Kenny Dorham was soling, and Charlie and I had this conversation. He asked me, “What are you doing?”

“I’m studying law.”

“You’re not a lawyer.”

“What am I?”

“You’re a jazz singer.”

“What do I do about that?”

“You’ve got to come to New York.”

“I don’t know anyone in New York.”

“Well, you know me.”

“Where will I find you?”

“Just ask anybody.”

And I thought, “This cat is crazy.” But two years and four months later, I went to New York, got off the Greyhound bus, called Joe Carroll, and said, “Where is Bird?” And he said, “The Apollo Bar, 125th Street and 7th Avenue.” I went that night, and he was playing “The Song Is You.” I walked past the bandstand, and he stopped right in the middle of a solo and said, “Hey, Jon, how you doing? Want to sing something?” And then he picked right up on the chord. Amazing, the mind this cat had.

Will the two of you be recording?

JH: Absolutely. Annie’s written a great lyric to a song of Russ Freeman’s called “Music Is Forever.” We’ve got to get that done with strings and woodwinds. Real lush.

AR: That’s my dream.

JH: That song deserves the best possible treatment, the most high-class string section, some good woodwinds.

AR: And a harp.

JH: Yeah!

Going back can be iffy. What finally brought you two back together?

JH: We had a catalyst, a young man named Jonathan Cohen, who was managing me. He said, “All my friends, their parents turned them on to Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. They’re all hip to you guys, and I think you guys ought to get back together and get this new young audience.” I said it was OK by me. Annie was working at Birdland, and I went, and Annie called me up on the last tune, “Jumpin’ At The Woodside.” We did this number and I never saw anything like it in my life.

AR: They went crazy.

JH: Everybody on their feet.

AR: They were running outside, trying to find those instant cameras, and saying this was jazz history.

JH: I said something is in the wind, and it’s stronger than either of us. I called Annie the next day and said, “Hey, something is going on beside the rent.”

There must’ve been so many moments when you thought about singing.

AR: When you want something so much, you can’t live for it all the time. You have to put it somewhere for a while. Otherwise, you drive yourself crazy. You can’t talk about it, because you have to deal with things at hand. But it’s always there.

JH: Every time I would perform, people would always say, “Do you think Lambert, Hendricks and Ross will ever get back together?” I think we created something that is eternal, because the fact that we could reunite after 35 years and get the reception we got means only one thing: that what we did is good, and good is forever.

So now the road awaits. How much will you do this?

JH: Everywhere!

AR: Absolutely!

JH: For everybody. Forever. You know, we were the No. 1 group in the world for five years, and yet there are lands and nations where we were No. 1 but we’ve never been to.

AR: We’ve never been to Japan.

JH: South Africa.

AR: South America.

JH: We’ve never been to Russia. Australia.

AR: There all these places to go. DB

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