by Kayla Williams
A seemingly ordinary Monday night in Toledo, Ohio, became extraordinary when jazz legend Jon Hendricks took the stage at Crystal’s Lounge at the Ramada Inn. Dynamic and stylish in an iridescent pink jacket, the 93-year-old Hendricks possessed an exuberance men of any age would envy. Hendricks treated the audience to his original style of jazz vocalese, a form which adds lyrics to instrumental songs and replaces instruments with vocals. Hendricks is also considered to be the creator and one of the best practitioners of scat singing, which involves vocal jazz soloing.
“I hold my hand like I am holding a tenor saxophone. I move my fingers like I am playing the saxophone. It’s a childhood pretense that I used to bring me closer to the tenor saxophone, so that is the sound that comes out of my throat,” Hendricks explained.
The birth of bebop
When people think of jazz in Toledo, they often think of the world-renowned jazz pianist, Art Tatum. By the time he was a teenager, Jon Hendricks was singing regularly on the radio with Tatum.
“It was like singing with the Chicago Symphony behind you. It was incredible,” Hendricks said, recalling his collaboration with Tatum.
Jazz legend Charlie Parker encouraged Hendricks to travel to New York and look him up.
“Once you heard this guy [Charlie Parker], you heard the best America had to offer . . . and Art Tatum, and Count Basie, and Duke Ellington. We’re a rich nation, artistically, here in the United States. And [Parker] is one of the reasons why,” Hendricks said.
People remember Charlie Parker as a main practitioner of bebop, but Jon Hendricks’ wife Judith, herself a New Yorker, argues that all roads to that particular jazz style lead back to Art Tatum, and consequently Toledo.
“[Jon Hendricks and Art Tatum]were in competition a lot. Sometimes Art won, sometimes Jon won. Some of the most outstanding musicians would come to see Art Tatum. He is responsible for what bebop really was. Because Charlie Parker was in New York when Art was playing there, and he saw Art and practiced that style on his saxophone, Parker became one of the proponents of be-bop, but it was through Art Tatum,” she explained.
Judith added, “And Jon changed what jazz vocalizing would be. He expanded it to an orchestral concept. Bebop came through Art Tatum into the world. And this new type of singing came through Jon into the world. This all comes from Toledo. This quiet place. This sleepy kind of town.”
Jon Hendricks elaborated, “It’s influenced the whole country. Art Tatum brought a high class of musicianship through the music that he created. It came into the area of symphonic music. Jazz out of Toledo is like symphonic music because then everyone tried to play with the preciseness and correctness and the beauty of Art Tatum. Art raised the standard of music so much higher. It’s made the standard of Midwestern musicians a lot higher.”
During the Monday night show at Crystal’s Lounge, Jon Hendricks also told some riveting anecdotes in-between songs about the revolutionary jazz pianist Thelonious Monk. He later said about his work with Monk, “I got to associate with Monk’s vision. Monk’s music was like it was written by a six-year-old child, yet it is some of the most complex, impossible music. Monk was a 6’4” child. His songs, when you listen to them, at first, they are so simple. In fact, they are startling in their simplicity. But then, as you play them over, you hear more and more to them. They are very complex. He made up his own chord structure. You can’t even find it written down. Monk is a most unique person. A most unusual person . . . He was a very serious man. When I got to know him as a musician, I realized how serious he was.”
The next chapter
After Hendricks performed that Monday night, The University of Toledo (Ohio) Vocalstra (an “orchestra of voices” composed of students and professionals in the Toledo area who study under Dr. Hendricks) took the stage. It was moving to see Hendricks watch his students. At his age, many would have retired, but Hendricks continues to pass on his knowledge of jazz and original performance style to musicians-in-training.
A former student of Hendricks’, Atla DeChamplain, is a professional jazz vocalist who completed her masters in Music Performance at UT in 2012. “I still can’t believe that I got to study with Jon Hendricks. In my opinion, he is the best jazz vocal improviser that has ever lived. Jon is a treasure among jazz musicians, and a true American innovator. He is not only respected among jazz vocalists, but he is loved by instrumentalists as well.
“As a musician, it’s easy to get frustrated, put yourself down, and hinder your own progress. But Jon’s tremendous success is a constant reminder that men and women are capable of profound, incredible and beautiful things,” she said.
Saxophonist, composer and UT Professor Gunnar Mossblad teaches with Hendricks and performs with him, as well as other jazz greats.
“When I first came to Toledo twelve years ago, it was for the opportunity to work with the great Jon Hendricks, and develop a comprehensive jazz program at the University of Toledo. What I found was a town that still supported jazz and offered many places to play jazz. The jazz scene throughout the U.S. has changed, and Toledo has reflected that change. Today, jazz is less appreciated in the U.S. than in Europe and the far east. Fortunately, there is still a small but supportive scene here. There are less large jazz venues, but there are still places to play for the young jazz musician to hone their art. UT asked me to work with Jon to develop a great jazz program. I think we have done that,” Mossblad stated.
Beyond the University, Kay Elliott, executive director of the Art Tatum Jazz Heritage Society, is a tireless advocate for jazz in the city.
“Toledo has this history of jazz that is as good as any place in the country, maybe better, because of Art Tatum . . . his mother worked at hotels to support them. She would bring him piano rolls for the piano. He was doing it all by ear,” Elliott said.
She is hopeful about the future of jazz in the city, and acknowledged not only the history our city has, but the potential. “Toledo has a wonderful, rich group of jazz musicians. We have so many younger musicians who are just sensational,” she said.
Elliott also pointed out that the contemporary jazz scene in Toledo is a vibrant one. Often, jazz performance in Toledo is years ahead of other cities, especially in identifying and supporting innovative talent. “We had Trombone Shorty here ten or twelve years before anyone knew who he was . . . he then opened for Lenny Kravitz and filled the show. Later, in Paris, Lenny opened for him,” she explained.
Renowned jazz vocalist Ramona Collins is a part of the scene. Born in Toledo, she is a force in both the local and greater jazz community, and has founded a series of concerts called Songs for Our Sister. The concerts support The Mary Ann Russo Jazz Memorial Scholarship, providing funding for private vocal jazz lessons at the Toledo School for the Arts, several student grants to attend the BGSU New York Voices Summer Jazz Camp, and an annual senior scholarship.
When it comes to the future of jazz in Toledo, with educational programs and performances, Collins knows the value of innovation in the current jazz community. “Those of us who are still here and still performing, I do believe, that we are the jazz keepers. Young people will learn from their elders. They will keep it moving. They will refresh it in some way and put their own spin on it . . . but it will still be jazz if they have respect for the music. We work with younger musicians because we love their energy and can share our knowledge,” she explained.
Collins’ son Brett is a Librarian Specialist at The Art Tatum African American Resource Center at the Kent Branch Library. Her mother, the late Alice (Collins) Carter, was a jazz pianist/singer. The Collins family has a deep love of jazz.
“There’s a lot of music that I have performed over the years. But there’s just something special about jazz that’s calmer—that makes people really sit and listen,” Collins said.
With the loss of city jazz hot spots like Rusty’s and Murphy’s Place, jazz events in Toledo are now hosted at various places around town, such as The Grand Plaza, where the Art Tatum Jazz Society hosts jazz jams on Tuesdays; The Toledo Club (for special events and fundraisers), and as a part of a larger varied music roster at places such as downtown’s Ye Olde Durty Bird. The one venue that is completely centered around jazz, not in Toledo but in Maumee, is regarded highly by all in the community—Dégagé Jazz Cafe.
The jazz musicians that play aren’t just a phenomenon of the past. They’re relevant, and what they have to give is a set of music knowledge that’s invaluable. “We’re still alive and well. We’re still working. We’re older, but we’ve still got something that people want to see,” Collins said.
And Jon Hendricks shows no signs of slowing down. “He really gets into the adrenaline of the stage. It’s always there,” his wife Judith stated.
As a non-native Toledoan, Judith Hendricks speculated on what makes her husband’s hometown so fertile for creativity, specifically in terms of jazz.
“A lot of things seem to develop in this town. There’s a quality of life here that can be conducive to the odd soul who will take it somewhere and do something. A certain quietude, a certain stillness helps to create that.
“How does that happen? How does that work? People in the Midwest can be very conservative-minded and there’s an element of repression, so that if you’re a rebel, you’re going to really rebel. I think that is part of the story here, artistically,” Hendricks said.
And part of understanding that story is honoring the past. As Collins put it, “I’ve always thought that we should have a sign outside Toledo that says ‘Toledo, Ohio: Home of Jazz Legend, Jazz great . . . Art Tatum’.”
If we’re able to recognize Toledo’s proud jazz legacy, we can better support this community’s creative future.
See CrossCurrents, the University of Toledo’s Jazz ensemble, 7:30pm every Monday night at Crystal’s Lounge, 3536 Secor Rd.