"Strangely enough, it comes to me complete. I don't have to figure out the first eight [bars], the second eight, the middle -- I mean the whole thing comes to me at once," says Jon Hendricks of his lyric writing, so artfully tailored that he has been dubbed the Poet Laureate of Jazz.

Better known from his days with Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, one of jazz's best known vocal groups ever, Hendricks works as a soloist when not writing lyrics, but sometimes the lyrics take over.

"I have some strange kind of gift," he muses. "I just can't get the words down fast enough sometimes." Hendricks will open at Cates in Alexandria Tuesday for three weeks.

The Toledo native started singing in church in the late 1920s and was soon writing songs. He began earning a living with his voice when he was 9.

"I never had any formal musical training," he explains. "My father was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal church and my mother led the singing. When I was 7 I joined her and that's where I really learned, in church, where jazz is learned anyway."

Well, that's one of the places where Hendricks learned the basics. Toledo was often on the itinerary of the big bands as they wound their way across the land, by bus, automobile convoy or rail, and many musicians sought invitations to the Hendricks household because the minister's wife served up good meals and had two daughters of dating age. In addition, family friends like Fats Waller often dropped by when in Toledo. "So I got to know all these people," recalls Hendricks.

Much musical knowledge inevitably came Hendricks' way in such an environment, but it was from a neighbor that the youngster "learned the rudiments of the music so that when later I met Diz [Dizzy Gillespie] and Bird [Charlie Parker] I was already scatting bebop." The neighbor was pianist Art Tatum, who was the teen-age Hendricks' accompanist in the Waiters and Bellmen Club. "When I originally started working there," Hendricks remembers, "they used to hide me downstairs when the police came in."

Hendricks came to prominence in 1958 with Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, which remained intact until 1963.

Annie Ross has recently again joined Hendricks for some festival appearances. Dave Lambert was killed in an auto accident in 1966. Hendricks spent five years in England, and since returning to this country and settling in San Francisco in 1973 he has performed with his group, Jon Hendricks & Family, and as a solo vocalist.

He is currently preparing an off-Broadway show that he says will be based on his "experiences in the world of jazz and my meetings with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Miles Davis, Diz, Bird, Thelonious Monk and so forth, plus samples of their music."

With his 64th birthday coming up and more than a half century on the bandstand, Hendricks believes "the acceptance of jazz in this country is increasing" but still has a considerable way to go.

"The one decent thing that happened from a high governmental level, as far as America's real cultural art form is concerned, is when Jimmy Carter had a jazz festival on the White House grounds and sang 'Salt Peanuts' with Dizzy Gillespie.

"When the president of the U.S. gives a party and has no jazz, that, to me, is giving aid and comfort to cultural genocide."