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Toledo jazz icon dies at 96

December 6, 2017

A Toledo legend has left his mark on the University of Toledo.

 

Jon Hendricks, world-renowned jazz lyricist and vocalist and previous professor at UT, died Nov. 22. He was 96.

 

Hendricks was born Sept. 16, 1921 in Newark, Ohio and had 14 brothers and sisters. His father was Alexander Brookes Hendricks, and his mother was Willie Carrington Hendricks.

 

When Hendricks was four years old, his father became the pastor at the Warren African Methodist Episcopal Church in Toledo. Hendricks’ family followed his father and moved to Toledo shortly after.

 

Hendricks lived on City Park Avenue, just five houses down from the home of another famous Toledo jazz pianist, Art Tatum. Hendricks would often visit Tatum to hear him play and received personal music lessons from him.

 

At a very early age, music became very important to Hendricks. When he was seven years old, his mother encouraged him to sing in the church choir with her at the Warren AME Episcopal Church.

 

When Hendricks began singing, Tatum accompanied him on the radio; by the time Hendricks was nine years old, Tatum was calling him for gigs.

 

By age 14, Hendricks performed twice a week with Tatum at the popular Waiter’s and Bellman’s Club in Toledo on Indiana Avenue.

 

Hendricks encountered the world’s most famous jazz musicians while working and singing at the then-famous club.

 

Music was put on the backburner when Hendricks was drafted into World War II in 1942; when he returned to the states in 1946, he settled in Rochester, New York.

 

It wasn’t until 1949 that he decided to return to Toledo to study pre-law at the University of Toledo. During his time at UT, he continued to perform at different jazz clubs in the area.

 

It was at the Civic Auditorium in Toledo that Hendricks sang in front of Charlie Parker, who told him that “He ain’t no lawyer; he a be-bop singer.” Parker invited him out to New York to perform right then and there.

 

And the rest is history. Hendricks spent the rest of his life traveling the world, performing at numerous concerts, recording albums and becoming more famous every day.

 

His specialty was “vocalese,” which sets lyrics to established instrumental recordings.

 

Hendricks and vocalists Dave Lambert and Annie Ross came together to form a vocalese jazz trio and performed internationally from 1957 to 1966.

 

The University of Toledo offered Hendricks a position as first distinguished professor of jazz studies at the university on May 12, 2000. He returned to his alma mater to “make the University of Toledo a center of jazz activity in America and the world,” he said in his acceptance letter of the job offering.

 

Ellie Martin was a master student in vocal jazz performance in 2007 when she met Hendricks, but she soon became his teaching assistant in his History of Jazz class. She wrote her master’s thesis on him and his years in Toledo. She finished her Ph.D. in 2016 and wrote her dissertation on his vocal group: Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross.

 

“He was tremendously influential, a natural story-teller,” said Martin. “I loved interviewing him because I could ask him one question, and he would begin to tell the most brilliant stories.”

 

Hendricks told personal stories of his days with other famous jazz musicians of his time, including Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk.

 

“Because he personally knew the artists we studied in History of Jazz, it helped me to better understand the music,” Martin said.

 

While he taught at the university, Hendricks also headlined concerts and hosted events like the UT Jazz Party to benefit the Art Tatum Scholarship Fund in 2001.

 

“His life experiences with Tatum combined with his artistic excellence made him unforgettable,” said David Jex, professor of music.

 

“He was a man of humility,” Martin said.

 

Lori LeFevre Johnson was a student in Hendricks’ vocalese class at UT. She was also an elementary school teacher. One day, Hendricks decided to visit her class and sing for the students.

 

“I sang for those kids, and let me tell you, they were snapping their fingers on two and four; they were swinging. I’m telling you, it was the most amazing thing,” Hendricks said in an interview.

 

Hendricks taught at the University of Toledo from 2000 to 2015 and toured internationally with his own ensemble of Toledo students and local singers.

 

He was predeceased by his wife, Judith, son Eric, and a daughter, Colleen, both from his first marriage to Connie Moore, which ended in divorce. He is survived by his daughter, Aria, of his second marriage, a son, Jon, and daughter, Michelle, of his first marriage, and three grandchildren.

 

“He was just an incredible person,” said Martin. “We’re sad to see him go.”

 

 

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