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MELISSA BLOCK, host: Finally this hour, a musician whose voice is one of the most memorable instruments in jazz. Jon Hendricks turns 90 today, and he's still performing. Lara Pellegrinelli has this profile of the man who put words to jazz solos.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: One of Jon Hendricks' favorite anecdotes involves a party where the wives of composer Jerome Kern and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II had a little dispute over who wrote "Old Man River."

JON HENDRICKS: Your husband wrote:

(Singing) Da, da, da, da.

My husband wrote "Old Man River."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HENDRICKS: And that's a good illustration of how the lyric brings the song out like a flower blossoms. You know, it's the lyric that makes the song.

PELLEGRINELLI: Jon Hendricks writes his own songs - words and music - and is also a critically acclaimed jazz singer. But he's best known for fashioning lyrics to the big-band arrangements of Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Woody Herman.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOUR BROTHERS")

PELLEGRINELLI: Not just the melodies but all of the parts, down to the most technically demanding solos.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOUR BROTHERS")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Singing) We might as well admit it. We're the best that ever did it. But in case you ain't too sure a knowing. We're going to let you listen to us one by one. Four brothers who are blowing our horns.

HENDRICKS: (Singing) How do you do? I'm talking about you. It's very nice to know that you have really taken time to listen to me blow, because as sure as you're born, I'm blowing my horn. It's me, baby. I'm blowing, zooting it up. And I hope you like the sounds I'm making more than any other. Now, I must go because it's time for you to listen to my other brother.

You'd find a word that exactly describes that sound. And then, you've got it. Words are very flexible things.

PELLEGRINELLI: His lyrical dexterity found the perfect outlet in Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, the pioneering vocal trio he co-founded with singers Dave Lambert and Annie Ross in the late 1950s. A new generation was getting hip to swing music, and the group inspired legions of young fans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Singing) Get up and go now. Let up and go now.

AL JARREAU: I have this image in my head of me in the house that I grew up in, hearing this incredible music on the television, going over to it, and there's Jon Hendricks and Dave Lambert and Annie Ross.

PELLEGRINELLI: Al Jarreau was a teenager when he first heard the trio on "The Steve Allen Show."

JARREAU: It knocked me out of my socks, and I'm still in flight.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #3: (Singing) I'm going to sing. I'm going to sing. I'm going to shout. I'm going to shout. I'm going to tell the whole wide world what's going on.

PELLEGRINELLI: The son of a minister and one of 14 children, Jon Hendricks was born in Newark, Ohio, in 1921. He performed as a child with piano virtuoso Art Tatum. Hendricks served in World War II and afterwards studied law on the GI Bill. But it was a chance to sit in with legend Charlie Parker - nicknamed Bird - that pointed to his real future.

HENDRICKS: It seemed like I must have scatted about 34 choruses.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HENDRICKS: I kept thinking I should quit but just one more. I can do better than that. So we had this bandstand confab. Bird says, what you doing, man? I said, I'm studying law.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HENDRICKS: He says, you ain't no lawyer.

PELLEGRINELLI: Hendricks moved to New York, ghostwrote lyrics for a Tin Pan Alley publisher and met Dave Lambert. The two convinced a producer to make a record of Count Basie's charts arranged for a full vocal ensemble. But they had a problem: The singers couldn't swing. So Lambert, Hendricks and Ross went into the studio after hours.

HENDRICKS: And so Dave says, OK, we'll come in at 8:00. Annie, Jon and I, and we'll do a process called multitracking.

PELLEGRINELLI: The 12 voices heard on Lambert, Hendricks & Ross' debut, "Sing a Song of Basie," belong to the trio's three singers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SING A SONG OF BASIE")

LAMBERT, HENDRICKS & ROSS: (Singing) I tell you all. (Get up) I want to have a ball. (Ready or not) I'm ready to groove. (Let's go, ready or no) Oh, boy, I'm feeling like (unintelligible). (Let's keep moving around) We'll be jumping through the night till the broad daylight.

PELLEGRINELLI: Despite the success, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross lasted only a few years. Dave Lambert was killed in a roadside accident. Hendricks kept performing. Al Jarreau finally got the chance to record with his idol when Hendricks came up with an arrangement of the Miles Davis-John Coltrane classic "Freddie Freeloader."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREDDIE FREELOADER")

JARREAU: In that solo of Trane's, which is something like...

(SOUNDBITE OF SCATTING)

JARREAU: It's that complex and precise in the notes that have to be sung and then to have the idea that you can write a lyric for that and say, speaking of Freddie, who is Freddie to me, and all these stories about the kind of drink that he sells and kind of bar he tends, that's insane.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREDDIE FREELOADER")

HENDRICKS: (Singing) Speaking of Freddie. Who the hell is he? What is Freddie to me? And what is this I hear about the kind of bar he tends? So he tends a groovy bar. (Unintelligible) to me (unintelligible).

PELLEGRINELLI: These days, Jon Hendricks is a little more low-key in his performances.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

ANNIE ROSS: Jon, Jon.

PELLEGRINELLI: It takes him a few minutes to make his way to the stage during a summer show with Annie Ross at New York's Blue Note, the first to celebrate his 90th birthday.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGTHER)

ROSS: Jon can't see.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGTHER)

ROSS: They're all the same. What is that?

PELLEGRINELLI: Nevertheless, Hendricks is never at a loss for words.

HENDRICKS: I'm older than my mother.

PELLEGRINELLI: For NPR News, I'm Lara Pellegrinelli in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOUR")

HENDRICKS: (Singing) Of the wonderful things that you get out of life, there are four.

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