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The Greatest Generation in Jazz

Jon Hendricks

Nearly 1 million World War II soldiers were African-Americans. Some went on to become top-flight jazz musicians. This week on JazzSet, we feature two.

African-American soldiers were rarely trained to fly, but young Percy Heath, from Wilmington, N.C., and Philadelphia, became a pilot during the war. From a squadron of 700 recruits, only a few dozen got their wings; one of them was Percy. After the World War II, he circled the world many times as the bassist in the elegant Modern Jazz Quartet. Today, he lives on the eastern tip of Long Island, and performs with his siblings.

On June 18, 1944, soldier Jon Hendricks from Toledo, Ohio, landed in Normandy, part of the invasion to free France. He fell in love with the country. After the war, he came home and made his career in vocalese -- putting poetic, hip lyrics to instrumental solos from his favorite records. Today he's teaching at the University of Toledo. In June 2004, Hendricks received the highest civilian medal in France, the Legion of Honor.

In World War II, separate, unequal treatment of blacks and whites in the military was the law. It was said that black soldiers had to fight on two fronts -- against the enemy abroad and against homegrown racism. Their experiences were motivating. In time, the greatest generation became the civil-rights generation.

"Hothouse" (Tadd Dameron)
"Yardbird Suite" (Charles Christopher Parker), with a solo by Percy Heath on baby bass (a cello tuned as a bass violin)
"Daydream" (Ellington Latouche & Strayhorn)
"So What" (Miles Davis, Jazz Horn Music Inc., BMI)
"Blue in Green" (Miles Davis, Jazz Horn Music Inc., BMI)
"Seven Steps to Heaven" (not on the album Kind of Blue) (Davis & Victor Feldman, Jazz Horn & New Fangled Music, BMI)
"All Blues" (Miles Davis, Jazz Horn Music Inc., BMI)
"Freddie Freeloader" (Miles Davis, Jazz Horn Music Inc., BMI)

"Blues March" (Benny Golson, lyrics by Hendricks)
"Roll Em Pete" (Pete Johnson)
"Old Folks" (Dedette Lee Hill & Willard Robison)


  • More on the Heath Brothers

  • Jon Hendricks and Vocalese

  • Percy Heath's 'A Love Song' at NPR


  • J&R Music

    The Heath Brothers perform at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center -- Jimmy on tenor and soprano sax, Jeb Patton on piano, Percy on bass, and Albert "Tootie" on drums.

    With Jon Hendricks are Olivier Témime on sax, Arnaud Mattei on piano, Bruno Rousselet on bass, Philippe Soirat on drums, at le Théâtre d'Herouville Saint-Clair, as recorded in June 2004 by France Musiques (Radio France).

    We thank the Wachovia Jazz Series at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, especially Vice President of Programming Leon Denmark, and our WBGO crew: Josh Jackson, Brian McCabe, Spencer Graves and Yujin Cha.

    Music mix by Duke Markos ( with Aurasonic, Ltd. Recording engineer Ginger Bruner, KUNV, Las Vegas. Our producer is Becca Pulliam; the executive producer is Thurston Briscoe of WBGO Jazz 88 in Newark.

    Copyright 2007 NPR