"I was in law school at the University of Toledo," says Jon Hendricks, the poet laureate of jazz, "but I still did a little singing on the side. So the night Charlie Parker [the great modern jazz trailblazer] came through the town, I went by and sat in -- did a little scat-singing.

"Bird [Parker] said, "You're not a lawyer -- you're a jazz singer. You should come to New York.'"

"But I don't know anyone there."

"You know me."

"How can I reach you?"

"Just ask anybody."

"So two years and four months later I caught a bus to New York and found Bird playing in Harlem. He and Gerry Mulligan were on the bandstand. And as soon as he saw me, after all that time, he said, 'Jon Hendricks, come on up and sing a little.'"

The rest is history. Hendricks teamed up with Dave Lambert and Annie Ross in 1958 to form Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, the vocal trio that set the jazz world on its ear by daringly singing lyrics adapted to instrumental jazz ensembles and ad-lib solos.

The effect was novel -- and stunning. Fitting lyrics to jazz solos had been done before, but not in the virtuoso way LHR did it. Audiences clamored to hear the group. They toured with Count Basie, performing many of his pieces with the orchestra. Hendricks, the group's chief lyricist, won the down beat critics poll in 1959 as new vocal star. Time magazine called him "the James Joyce of jive."

Even musicians stood in awe.

Hendricks recalls bumping into former Basie trumpeter Buck Clayton, who bubbled over with praise for Hendricks' vocal introduction on "Goin' to Chicago," taken from an old Basie record.

"I just sang what you played," said Hendricks.

"Did I play that?" asked Clayton in amazement.

There was also the flip side of the coin, though, like the time Miles Davis lit into Ross for not singing his "Now's the Time" solo with enough force.

"I was sitting in the Town Taverns in Toronto one night having dinner," the vocalist says. "I had just taken one or two bites from a big New York steak when in walks Miles. He came over, sat next to me and pushed me aside.Took my knife and fork and started eating my steak, potatoes and vegetable. I just sat there looking at him. I couldn't believe it. I wondered how far he'd go. Well, he finished my meal. So I asked him what all that was for.

"He said, 'You f--- with my solo. I f--- with your steak!'"

Hendricks, 58, compact and trim, is sitting in a fashionable French restaurant thinking of the glory days. He's wearing an impeccably cut seersucker blue pinstriped suit.

"Let's have some champagne," he says. "I don't drink except with meals, but occasionally I like to have champagne."

After four years of heady success, LHR began to crack under the steady pressure of one-nighters and three-show performances. Ross left the group in 1962 because of illness. Lambert left in 1964. Later that year Hendricks started working as a single performer.

For the last three years, however, Hendricks has been working as a family man -- with Judith, his wife of 23 years, his 26-year-old daughter, Michelle, and Robert McFerrin. The group is called Hendricks, Hendricks, Hendricks and McFerrin, and when they're not on the road, they're at home in Mill Valley, Calif., outside San Francisco. They moved there from Brooklyn in the early '70s. When they were still on the East Coast, they'd make an annual trip out to California to perform at the Monterey Jazz Festival. "We'd go back to our apartment in Brooklyn Heights," Hendricks recalls, "and sit there for 11 months thinking of how beautiful it was in California."

Soon after the move, Hendricks started writing jazz criticism for The San Francisco Chronicle. One longtime columnist, Charles McCabe, "the fearless spectator," told him, "Hendricks, you're the best writer on this paper." Hendricks walked away, turned back momentarily, and said, "Under 60!"

Washington saw a bit of Hendricks before the Cellar Door engagement. His musical stage play, "Evolution of the Blues," was performed at the Kennedy Center in May and June. He charges that the musical had been changed without his permission, and he's suing over it.

Originally staged at the Monterey Festival in 1961, the work, a musical chronology of the blues, has been started primarily on the West Coast. Hendricks contends that while he was in London on a six-week vacation to renew his British residency status (he and his wife lived there in the late '60s), two lawyers and a producer took charge of the Los Angeles production of "Evolution" and turned it into a "T & A show."

"I came back and found they had writtren my part out of the show," he exclaims. "They destroyed my whole work." The case comes up in August before the American Arbitration Association.

Hendricks, a sermonizer in his music, is a preacher's son -- and you can tell it from the biblical phrases and cadences he sprinkles in his conversation.

"I was the ninth child, the seventh son, of 17 children," he says with pride. His father was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and a boyhood friend of Fats Waller's father, also a minister.

"I remember Fats coming by the house when I was kid," says Hendricks. "Of course you know he could drink a lot of gin -- two quarts a day. He used to say to my father, 'Listen, Reverend, can we sit by the window?' And he'd have a bottle and a glass on a stool outside the window. He'd sneak a drink when my father wasn't looking. I used to shake my head at that."

Though Hendricks' father was a minister, he still allowed his son to sing in a nightclub, starting at age 11. "I worked at the Waiters' and Bellmen's Club," he recalls. "Art Tatum played there and he used to accompany me. One night Fats came by and heard me. He wanted to take me on the road. But my mother wouldn't let me go. I cried all night long. She said he drank too much."

Hendricks says he had another offer from Ted Lewis, but his mother intervened again, saying that Lewis lacked dignity.

But once Hendricks got his chance to sing with the greats he went all the way. He's performed with Basie, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck and Dizzy Gillespie. And he's accomplished everything in music without being able to read a note, though he plays piano by ear.

His inability to read music was a source of embarrassment when he was asked to perform in one of Ellington's Sacred Concerts. "I said to myself, 'How can I face Duke not being able to read?' So I decided to tell him at rehearsal.

"Duke, I can't read."

"That's all right. What's your high note?"

"I don't know."

"What's your low note?"

"I don't know, Duke. I'm no singer."

"That's okay," said the maestro. "That's the way I play piano. I just plunk."