He was as much a rhythm ‘n’ blues and pop singer as he was a jazzist. He shared the stage with some of the very best in jazz music. His was a sonorous voice that was warm, fresh and full of love.
He was known for his scat singing and his ability to imitate various music instruments with his voice, a tradition that was derived from the bebop style. He gave the listeners of his music such pleasurable moments.
Al Jarreau, the multi-Grammy Award winning vocalist, passed on February 12, at the age of 76 (a month short of what would have been his 77 anniversary), at a hospital in Los Angeles, California, while undergoing treatment for respiratory failure.
He is survived by his wife Susan Elaine Player, and son, Ryan, two brothers, Marshall and Appie, and a sister, Rose Marie.
Alwin Lopez “Al” Jarreau was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, United States, on March 12, 1940, to a Seventh Day Adventist Church minister and a mother who was a piano teacher and an accompanist to the church choir. After high school, where he played basketball and athletics, he joined Ripon College, where he graduated in 1963 with Bachelor of Science degree in psychology.
He later attended the University of Iowa, where, in 1964, he earned a Master’s degree in vocational rehabilitation. During the day he worked as a rehabilitation counselor while at night he performed music in night clubs.
In his career, Jarreau recorded 22 albums, four of which were live recordings, and made numerous guest appearances.
In his jazz ballads, Al Jarreau had a unique, marvelous and inherent sense of bluesiness. But he’d started out singing gospel, blues, r&b before embracing jazz. One jazz musician Al Jarreau appreciated the most was the late jazz pianist-composer-arranger George Duke.
He met with Duke at an early age, long before becoming household names, in 1965, at San Francisco’s Half Note, a popular nightclub then. Jarreau was still in college.
Fittingly, Jarreau’s last album was his 2014 tribute to his soul mate appropriately titled: My Old Friend: Celebrating George Duke.
Duke was performing on Sundays and local musicians used to come to play with the then young and brilliant jazz pianist. Jarreau visited the club and got an opportunity to sing with him. They were so in synch that the club owner asked him if he would like to sing with him regularly. He did this music while working as a rehabilitation counsellor.
Earlier on, Al Jarreau’s debut album, We Got By, was critically-acclaimed by both fans and critics upon its release in 1975 when he was 35 years old. This was a fusion album that blended jazz, pop and r&b idioms.
This album was followed by Glow a year later, in 1976. Likewise, he is fondly remembered for his 1981 masterpiece Breakin’ Away, which featured George Duke on keyboards and arranging.
But his real critical success arrived in consecutive years, in 1977 and 1978, as Al Jarreau was recognized with Grammy Awards in the Best Jazz Vocal Performance category for Look to the Rainbow, a live album that showcased his scat singing prowess, a style that brought him instant recognition in Europe, and the rest of the world, and All Fly Home, which reached No. 5 position on Billboard Jazz Top 100.
Al Jarreau also gave to charity. He took part in the historic, multiple-platinum winning We Are The World, which was co-written by the late Michael Jackson, and Lionel Richie, and co- produced by Quincy Jones and Michael Omartian. That album sold over 20 million copies.
In total, he collected seven Grammys, and one of them was his collaboration with guitarist-vocalist George Benson, Givin’ It Up, that was released in 2006.
Those initial jam sessions evolved into a three-year stint with the George Duke Trio, thus raising Jarreau’s profile and thereby leading him to team up with acoustic guitarist Julio Martinez.
During his live gigs, Al Jarreau would make transitions from, let’s say, an r&b tune into a jazz piece with a smoothness that is rare among most vocalists. He had a disarming charisma that thrilled audiences wherever he performed.
During his live music performances, the thing that would draw the most instant crowd response was when Jarreau improvised while singing. He was more of a risk-taker who flaunted his remarkable scats with an adventurous sense of abandon.
So, how best should Al Jarreau’s story be told? Personally, I think it is through his many recordings where he was accompanied by many excellent instrumentalists.
And what will history acknowledge as Al Jarreau’s contribution to jazz? Definitely it was his soul-filled scat singing, imitation of various music instruments and great jazz phrasing.
Al Jarreau was a distinguished performer who had an amazing fifty-career.