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Voices: Al Jarreau On Jon Hendricks

Al Jarreau says that Jon Hendricks' lyrics can appear simple, but contain "depths of meaning." (Courtesy of the artist)

It's not so strange to think that many of us ordinary people have soundtracks for particular times in our lives — songs that seem to capture a moment and stick in our memories. But if you're Al Jarreau, paragon of vocal cool, what then?

I recently interviewed the 70 year-old singer, songwriter and lyricist for a story on Jon Hendricks, the poet laureate of jazz who celebrates his 90th birthday today. Jarreau was enthusiastic about our subject from the start, but he was holding something back. Half an hour in, and it was clear he couldn't contain himself any longer. He positively gushed.

"Susan and I" — that's his wife of nearly 35 years — "when we first met, we were singing Jon's songs in the car, my old '64 Chevy that I was driving out here from the Midwest, an old station wagon. Susan and I in the car singing 'Shiny Stockings.' Susan singing 'Cottontail.' We were singing Jon Hendricks' songs and falling in love. That music was the soundtrack of my daily life."

(Susan, by the way, had to have had a lot of guts, singing in front of the man who single-handedly conquered "Spain." Maybe that sealed the deal.)

Jarreau's affair lasted, and — not surprisingly — so has his admiration for Hendricks. Jarreau considers the elder statesman a major influence on his music. Here's an edited version of our conversation, explaining some of the reasons why, minus the happy-sappy bits you now know.


Lara Pellegrinelli: Do you remember the first time that you heard Jon?

Al Jarreau: I think it was on The Steve Allen Show. Do you know that name — Steve Allen? A brilliant late night host and precursor to Johnny Carson. Letterman and Leno. I have this image in my head of me in the house I grew up in, probably in my late teens, hearing this incredible music on the television show, going over to it, and there's Jon Hendricks, Dave Lambert and Annie Ross. I don't remember what they sang, but it knocked me out of my socks and I'm still in flight. [An existing clip of LH&R from The Steve Allen Show shows them performing Count Basie's "Every Day I Have the Blues."]

LP: Was it the first time you'd heard anything like that?

AJ: There was a lyric by that time for songs like [King Pleasure's] "Red Top," what Nat Cole had done for "Route 66" and "Straighten Up and Fly Right." I heard a little Eddie Jefferson before that. These were suggestions of what was to come that predated Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. But what Jon did was unheard of at the time he got to that genre. It was the first time hearing that expanded a notion of what vocalese would become: very seriously constructed, very seriously composed music, where he ventured doing a lyric that suggested a certain kind of meaning. Anyone today doing that kind of thing is following in his footsteps.

LP: I imagine not all instrumentalists like having a literal meaning imposed upon their compositions — or their solos.

AJ: It is a very serious consideration for a lyricist to step in there and suggest the meaning to a song. The music is speaking for itself. By the very fact that it attracted you to it to do a lyric describes how strong a statement the music made on its own. So it's quite presumptuous — that's the word I'm looking for — quite presumptuous of me to think that I have something to add to Joe Zawinul's "A Remark You Made." But I did. I took it and maybe I'm wrong in that nobody's wanted to do it since. I sat there talking to Joe one afternoon and I asked, "Have you taken a listen to what I did?" His comment was [imitating Zawinul], "Well, Al, you know, the music is complete as it is. I'm not sure what to tell you other than that."

LP: Oh ...

AJ: It's a very fine line to walk. To say I want to sing this, but not go, "bee dee dee." You want to do something more, and you hope and you pray that you've done something respectful that still gives you an opportunity to say something that makes sense and, in so doing, bring people to "Spain." I know I did. People who had never heard of Chick Corea now know Chick Corea. Their children know Chick Corea.

LP: What do you imagine was the impact of Jon Hendricks lyricizing Count Basie for Lambert, Hendricks & Ross in the 1950s?

AJ: Reintroducing some music that had been forgotten by a lot of people and not heard by enough people. When you do a lyric for "April in Paris," those who have heard it before can hear it in a different way now. It can add perspective to a great piece of music that does not have a lyric and may be inaccessible to lot of ears because people don't deal with complex music very well. Sometimes the lyric helps to nail it down in such a way that it's a little easier and a little simpler to understand.

LP: What is special about Jon's lyrics in particular? They can appear simple on the surface.

AJ: There's a light little song you can just listen to as it goes by: "Gimme That Wine." But at the same time, as you explore what's going on, Jon is talking about someone who abuses drink. He's talking about an alcoholic:

From one dark and dreary morning / While I was staggering home to bed / A bandit jumped from the shadows / And laid a blackjack 'side my head. / That cat took my watch, my ring, my money / And I didn't make a sound. / But when he reached for my bottle / You could hear me for blocks around. / Gimme that Wine. Unhand that bottle! / Beat my head out of shape, but leave my grape.

That's Alcoholics Anonymous all there in a paragraph or two — humorously said, but with understanding and depths of meaning. There are very few people who can do that.

LP: I've talked with Jon many times about why he decided to write lyrics, some of which had to do with the songwriting industry and opportunities that were closed to African Americans. For a time, Jon worked for a small company ghostwriting lyrics for others. As an African American performer, I imagine there was special significance in being able to define yourself by your own words as opposed to someone else's.

AJ: You've just described something I wasn't aware of, that Jon and I never shared. It's a serious statement that he was able to write for that genre and say things that worked for that music — that he accepted it, did it and broadened himself in the meantime. It's quite something that when the Gershwins — Jews from Russia escaping the heavy hammer — came to America and were so insightful that they could write this opera called Porgy and Bess. That's an amazing crossover. And that's what we're describing Jon did. That an African American artist could go to Tin Pan Alley and write music for basically meant for white people — an amazing statement about Jon.

LP: By the time you were a young artist, was there still resistance to writing your own songs or lyricizing the works of others?

AJ: My first response would be: of course not. There was no resistance. On the other hand [laughs], if I had chosen to do the songbook of anyone other than Al Jarreau, I might have had a bigger success. [pauses] I still say, no. Because I came along with that crowd of singer-songwriters who were able to make their own statements in such a personal way that it changed the industry: Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Sly and the Family Stone. So there I was influenced by them — and Jon Hendricks prior — thinking there are several things I wanted to do. I'm touched by rock 'n' roll. I'm touched by the Beatles. I want some of the music I do to reflect that. Here I am. I love Sly Stone and James Brown and Stevie Wonder and I want my music to reflect some of that. Here I am. I'm touched by Jon Hendricks. I want some of my music to reflect that. And when I write, you're going to hear it.

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