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Monterey Jazz Festival Spotlights Vocal Versatility

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By Taylor Jordan

Vocalese virtuoso Jon Hendricks will top the list of vocally diverse artists performing at the 46th annual Monterey Jazz Festival at the Monterey County Fairgrounds Sept. 19, 20 and 21. Jazz vocalists representing styles from straight-ahead to modern, blues to bebop and Afro-Cuban to zydeco will mix and mingle musical expressions to provide pleasing palates to suit everyone’s tastes at the world’s oldest continuous jazz festival.

Besides Hendricks, the man who best takes instrumental notes and translates them into vocal rhythm patterns equally challenging as the intricacies of saxophone, piano, drums or bass lines, the singers at Monterey this year include Nnenna Freelon, one of the jazz world’s queens today. She began singing in the church and her lyrics and persona still spiritually move and inspire audiences.

Other stylistic vocalists performing on the Jimmy Lyons Stage in the main arena are Isaac Delgado, Afro-Cuban, Brasilian and Latin jazz; Buckwheat Zydeco, Cajun, Creole and New Orleans; the Neville Brothers, blues, rhythm and blues, soul, ballads; Randy Crawford, playing with The Crusaders, mainstream, bebop, Brazilian, contemporary; and Kurt Elling, Mark Murphy and Kevin Mahogany who will participate in a Saturday night vocalese summit with Hendricks.

Hendricks’ musical career began in his hometown of Toledo, Ohio where he sang on the radio while growing up there. He briefly considered the profession of law, but decided jazz would be more to his personal and professional tastes. He played drums before finding his niche as a vocalist and lyricist, first coming to national attention with “I Want You To Be My Baby,” a duet recorded with Louis Jordan in 1952.

In 1957, Hendricks teamed with fellow composer/arranger/vocalist Dave Lambert to convince Creed Taylor to record an album of vocalese renditions of Count Basie songs. After the 16-voice, singing-good-but-can’t-swing choir was fired, the duo hired young singer Annie Ross to finish the production.

The results were instantly positive: the album, “Sing A Song of Basie,” became a hit and evolved into a jazz classic, and the most famous vocalese combo -- Lambert, Hendricks and Ross -- was born.

The vocal dynamics of what is considered by critics and jazz aficionados alike the best jazz vocal trio of all time influenced several generations of jazz singers in the same tradition, particularly The Manhattan Transfer, Al Jarreau, Bobby McFerrin and Dianne Reeves. Lambert, Hendricks and Ross’ vocalese version of Basie’s “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” is still considered one of the best ever.

In 1960, Monterey Jazz Festival board commissioned Hendricks to compose a historical overview of jazz. His “Evolution of the Blues,” a musical epic tracing the roots of jazz from Africa into Black America and musically stepping across gospel, Dixieland, big band, bebop, modern, cool and fused jazz, debuted at Monterey that year to overwhelming acclaim. It returned for a later engagement in the 1970s and finally sold out audiences throughout the United States for its theatrical runs.

Freelon earned a degree in health care administration from Simmons College, worked in the field for several years and devoted her time and attention to marriage and family before reverting to her first love: singing. She had given her first solo performance at age 7, singing “Amazing Grace” at church. The sounds she heard as a child -- gospel singers in her church and jazz vocalists Nina Simone and Billy Eckstine played on records by her parents -- would distinctively influence her.

Following her grandmother’s wise counsel -- “Bloom where you’re planted, sing where you are” -- Freelon finally submitted to the fire inside her and pursued a musical career.

She has sung, toured and collaborated with leading jazz artists, including Ray Charles, Al Jarreau, T.S. Monk, Billy Taylor, Yusef Lateef, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Ellis Marsalis and Dianne Reeves. By 2002, she had received five Grammy nominations for seven albums.

She also won the Billie Holiday Award from France’s Academi du Jazz Billie Holiday and the Eubie Blake Award.

Freelon additionally serves as the national spokeswoman for Partners in Education and composed the group’s anthem “One Child At A Time.”

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