March 12, 1940-February 12, 2017
With the passing of vocal legend Al Jarreau we are sharing an interview that we did with him for our 2016 March/April Issue of Chicago Jazz Magazine. He inspired many with his excitement for life and music and will be greatly missed!
in his own words... Al Jarreau
Al Jarreau doesn’t just sing a song, he inhabits it. Hearing Al sing over the years––from the ‘70s to the present––has been one of my great pleasures, a very special perk of being a music journalist.
But it isn’t just the ability to inhabit a song and make it his own that brings Al, like Crosby, Robeson, Sinatra, Cole and others, to the exalted heights of great musical artistry. Add, as well, the almost indefinable element of charisma––the quality that mesmerizes an audience, embracing them within the intimate communicative orbit of a performer. It’s a quality that produces an almost visible glow of sheer energy when Al finds his groove and takes his listeners on an irresistible rhythmic journey.
At times, I’ve heard him sing with the dark baritone timbre of Sinatra, the snappy rhythmic articulation of Cole, the cool balladry of Crosby and the dramatic bravura of Robeson. Depending on his musical mood of the moment, Al can pop out percussion sounds that can rival the layered textures and the upbeat swing of a full drum kit. He can simulate the sounds of horns and scat sing through complex chord changes and tricky rhythmic meters with an unstoppable flow of ideas.
Like Robeson, Jarreau’s roots are in gospel. Raised by parents who were deeply involved in spiritual music––his father a minister and a singer, his mother a church pianist––he sang as naturally as he played sports. The inherent aspects of the music, with the rich, melismatic qualities invested in it by African American culture, provided one of the important elements of what would become the Al Jarreau style.
Drawn to jazz early on, he discovered another foundation stone of his style in the improvisational art, with its inspiring combination of creative freedom, blues/gospel structures and the propulsive rhythmic drive we call "swing." Over the course of Al's remarkable, five decade-plus career, all these attributes coalesced into one of the music world's most uniquely eclectic voices, as well as one of the globe's most universally popular artists. He is only the second artist––Michael Jackson was the first––to win Grammy Awards in the jazz, pop and R&B categories. And he has done so because of his unerring ability to bring authenticity to each of those styles. Even beyond that admirable quality, Al has been honored for his rare capacity to perform in the recording studio with the same sort of dynamic electricity he brings to his live appearances. Listening to an Al Jarreau recording can be almost as exciting as experiencing him up close and personal. That’s a fact that can be attested to by the Recording Academy voters, who have selected Al for twelve Grammy nominations, and granted him seven Grammy Awards. Even more impressively, the Awards and the nominations have taken place over four decades, from the ‘70s to the 2000s, a rare and impressive display of career continuity. Al Jarreau feels genuine joy in what he does, and communicates that joy to his listeners. ––Don Heckman
Chicago Jazz Magazine: It’s good to meet Al Jarreau, the man himself.
Al Jarreau: What man?! Don’t be calling me no man myself. It makes me start looking around! [laughs]
Chicago Jazz Magazine: It sounds like you’re in a feisty mood today.
Jarreau: I’m percolating, syncopating, celebrating, elevating, getting up in the morning, and getting busy for the donuts. You wanna go? It’s nice out. I woke up. I don’t care if its raining or snowing, you guys in Chicago been getting some heavy winter, huh?
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Being a Milwaukee boy, you know what winter is like in this neck of the woods. In fact, before you became a professional singer, didn’t you go to school in Wisconsin?
Jarreau: I went to this little school in Wisconsin, Ripon College. My major was Psychology—my bachelor’s. A bunch of kids from the Chicago area went there, especially from little communities on the North Shore. Even Harrison Ford. He was a year after me, but we were there at the same time. He was studying Drama; I was studying Psychology and playing basketball.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You weren’t taking any music courses in college?
Jarreau: I was singing a lot of music; I wasn’t studying it. I never sang in the choir. That was a real oversight of mine at Ripon. I should have sung in the choir, but I was to busy studying and working on my grades. I needed to be at the library as late as they stayed open, and then went to my dorm and studied my butt off some more all night long. I used to wear my roommate out ‘cause I would be setting my clock so I could get up and study, or stay up late. My clock was ringing at all odd hours because I needed to be up, or sleep a little while and get up and study. You know the term “quick study?” That was never me, a quick study. Not even today.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: That’s hard to believe, the way you can improvise and scat.
Jarreau: No, not even today. I have a musical thing in me that I kind of was born with, and was fostered by being in a home where there was a lot of music going on, and being in a church with a lot of music, and kept that little musical “savantness” about me. But when it comes to the aspect of learning new music, I’m slow because I am very detail oriented. I like to take my time, take it slow and work on the music through repetition. So that’s what I do—I study it and work on it, and when I got it, I got it.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You may be the only Grammy winner with a Psychology degree.
Jarreau: I might be. I also did a master’s program in Counseling, and that’s the work that I did for a while: I was a rehabilitation counselor, did social work, worked with the disabled, all sorts of categories. In our agency, we saw the blind and deaf, and amputees, cerebral palsy... I had a mixed caseload—I was assigned to the welfare recipients who came to the office. I did that for four years in San Francisco. During that time, I was singing on weekends with the George Duke Trio. I was always doing music since I was four years old, sitting on the piano bench next to my mother. And as soon as they would let me sing in front of the church, I was singing because I had a feeling for it, could carry a tune and enjoyed those perfumed kisses that I would get from the old ladies in the church: Come here sugar—you sang so pretty this morning. That changes your life.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Life’s too short not to have fun.
Jarreau: That’s the message that the musician needs to carry in his heart and soul, and that’s part of the ministry. Take that with you and have a good time; show people how to laugh: Here is a good one for you guys––three guys walk into a bar, one of them is black, one is Polish and the other one is Chinese... Hey, find a story that is funny, entertain the people and make a difference and bring some joy. That has always been a great little ministry to have. Any musician who has played a song understands that stuff. Laughter and a smile are healing stuff—that’s cardiology. I’m a better counselor now than I have ever been.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: How much of that did you learn from your father, who was a minister, and how much from the school of hard knocks?
Jarreau: All of it—my dad, my mother, the church, and the community I grew up in. It was a very important part of my life. We understood that friendships, relationships and kindness to one another was the deal; that was what was important. We didn’t have a lot of money, so it wasn’t about a car; it wasn’t about ten acres with five horses running around. And a lot of people get it who are from those circumstances—not to say that you can’t get it elsewhere, but a lot of people get it from those circumstances, and it’s important because inside of it is the healing, and the joy. And everybody can have some joy, man! We have to help each other to get there so that people aren’t starving, so people aren’t homeless. That’s our job—to take care of each other.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: That’s a great outlook.
Jarreau: I don’t know where the notion came from that you were supposed to hoard yours—not share it, not be involved and just look for opportunities to consume more and gather more. That notion is afoot, and somewhere in some economics classrooms in great universities—that’s what we are teaching the students.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Some people see the ministry as “fire and brimstone,” but you find joy in it.
Jarreau: Well, you have to be there, and get to where the joy is. There are places where fire and brimstone is what they talk about all the time—Hell and suffering, you know, a lot of suffering on this level. But you have to get through that and use your old gray matter—that stuff between your ears—and figure out that there is also great stuff to get from there. I’m thankful for those early teachings and learnings. But, I am also thankful for the opportunity to have expanded on that thinking with some other “thinkings” and notions that have come after that, and understand more of what that is about. There have always been great minds that have written books and talked about what it is that we should be doing here as human beings in this community that we collectively call “society” and “civilization.” How do we behave with each other? Plato and those guys have been writing about that for more than 2,000 years. Okay, we have collected the fish and built the home for “Brother John” down the street. What relationship can we have together? Should I steal from you? Do I help you? What do I do? That stuff gets written down in books, and we call it religion. It’s all about behavior and how we relate to each other. And sometimes too much fire and brimstone gets in there and turns us off so we miss what Jesus was really talking about. Or someone else: Buddha, Muhammad, whoever. We have missed what they were really talking about, which is about how we relate to each other, and the marvelous source for all of it, and we need to say thank you.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: When you were out in San Francisco, how did you run into George Duke?
Jarreau: I walked into a club and caught the matinee. I walked in there because I had made friends with Mike Montano. Now, when I was in the service and doing my advanced individual training—that’s what you do after you finish basic training—you pick a field you are going to work in or study. Some guys want to be in the infantry; some guys want to be paratroopers. I joined the medical corps for advanced individual training. It’s six months longer. So, I came to San Francisco, the Presidio. That was my assignment. I was studying my advanced training as a reservist in the San Francisco neighborhood, which is what I had hoped and prayed for as a singer getting his feet wet in Milwaukee, while singing at the finest little jazz clubs and entertainment supper clubs. Off I go into the service after graduate school, and there I am in the reserves, stationed in the San Francisco area—no better assignment. I started hanging out in the city on weekends. I met this kid, Mike Montano, a brilliant piano player. I walked into this place called the Plantation Inn that had music. There’s Mike, and I walked in there, in my uniform. I said, “Hey, my name is Al—I sing. Do you know ‘Foggy Day in London?’ ‘Green Dolphin Street? Can I sing with your band?” [laughs] And that’s how it began for me—I walked in off the street and began to hang out with Mike. I followed him around and sang in bars and hotels where he was performing. And one of the places that he took me to on a Sunday afternoon was called the Half Note Club. George was there with a trio; it was a jam session—guys came from all over the country to go play. Pretty soon they were in love with this great little trio called the George Duke Trio, because George was a monster. But he was only eighteen years old—he was too young to play in the club. But the club owner didn’t care because he was a young guy too, just full of fire about music—great spirit. I’m still in touch with a couple of guys from that trio, Al Cecchi and John Heard. We played there for four years, right at the bottom of Haight-Ashbury, feeling the stirrings of that cultural revolution. The hippies and Flower Power and “no more war”—we were there, we heard the music of the day and the time: Janis Joplin, Big Brother & The Holding Company, the Grateful Dead. The list goes on and on of all those people that were in the Bay Area.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: George Duke passed away far too young. Your most recent album was a tribute to him. Are the tunes on the album the ones that you did together?
Jarreau: Actually, the first songs we performed together are on a record called Al Jarreau and the George Duke Trio, Live at the Half Note 1965. George saved some tapes and we cleaned up the hiss and boom and made it available as a CD. But the tribute record, called My Old Friend, was George Duke material that he had done while he was alive. I don’t know if we should call it George’s Greatest Hits—a lot of it was not his material. There are things there that were hits, but we also did some more esoteric things of George’s. We didn’t do any fusion, but George covered so many genres and so many bases: stuff with Billy Cobham, Jean-Luc Ponty, John McLaughlin, all guys who were doing fusion. Crossing, melding rock and roll, R&B and jazz. They were just playing their hearts out. Hitting bebop, or whatever, but crossing it—fusing it with R&B and pop. So George did that, but sang “Sweet Baby,” and a bunch of stuff I heard on Soul Train. Then, in the next breath, he was funking it with Parliament-Funkadelic. Nobody covered it like that. So we tried to do a little bit of all of those things. The most important thing was for me to find the intersections where George and I met musically. I wasn’t trying to do Bootsy Collins the way George would.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: It certainly broadened your horizons on music. You straddle several genres, and sound comfortable within the jazz, R&B and pop categories.
Jarreau: George and I shared together what you might do with your music once you had the audience and a record label and a career. I have to sing some R&B and some pop, and some jazz as well. I didn’t go as deep into the jazz thing as George did—at the same time he was going so deep into the funk thing. Very few can cover those bases like George. You can’t, and neither can I. Nobody goes that deep; the most serious jazz cats on the jazz scene can’t do that.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Maybe Gil Scott-Heron, another guy who passed too soon.
Jarreau: Yeah, but he wasn’t the musician George was; he was a poet. But George was on his own in the breadth of stuff that he covered, that no one else has done like him. That was really a wonderful few months that I spent delving into some George Duke material. There were some great people that came on and helped me. If you look at the record, there’s a wonderful array of people: Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller—I’m gonna name a few of them here—Boney James, Dr. John, Lalah Hathaway, Geoffrey Osborne. And some big, very important names: Kelly Price and Gerald Albright. It was a wonderful little project that we did. I hope that we have sales numbers that we used to get. But some people have heard it and commented that it was a nice little outing for me, and that they liked that I crossed intersections with George and the areas we worked. It was lovely to get to that project. I had a great time; I probably had too much fun doing that thing.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You’re coming into Skokie, Ill. in March. What will we be hearing?
Jarreau: I’m gonna do some things from the new record. But the main thing is to do what I always do, which is some music from early Al, middle-period Al and newer things, and do the cross-section––R&B, pop, jazz.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Who’s going to be backing you up?
Jarreau: My regular group. My newest guy has been here about ten years now. Larry Williams on keyboards; Joe Turano, music director—he plays all the saxes, plays keyboards and sings background; next to him is Chris Walker on bass, who also does vocals; our drummer is Mark Simmons; and John Calderon is on guitar. There you are.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Are you going to do “Spain?” That seems to be an Al Jarreau signature tune.
Jarreau: I don’t know. I’ll put together a program—we do “Spain” a lot. Between now and then I’ll see what we did last when we were in the neighborhood, and not do the same program exactly. “Spain” might be part of it. There are some things that I have to do, and “Spain” is near making that list. I’m sure we are going to do “We’re in this Love Together” and “Boogie Down.”
Chicago Jazz Magazine: What do you consider your best recordings? If there was an Al Jarreau time capsule, what would be in it?
Jarreau: Oh, I probably would pick something like “Boogie Down,”—it’s real close. It’s kind of jazzy; it’s R&B. The only thing it doesn’t have is a ballad. I’d pick that. And either “After All” or “Midnight Sun,” as ballad-like pieces. So we will do that kind of cross-section in Skokie. And, look I forward to meeting some old friends and some people I’ll be meeting for the first time, especially those right from Skokie who might have gone to see me in other venues around town.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: What’s on the horizon right now?
Jarreau: Wake up tomorrow morning and keep writing. I stay as healthy as I can. I’ve had my little issues, but I’m doing it.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You had scare about five years ago.
Jarreau: Yeah, I did. I just had an echocardiogram this morning, listening to my heart. So yeah, I’m okay. I’ve got a stack of pills I take everyday, but that’s all right too. I’m still doing music and people are still coming to see me play.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: It seems like you are doing a lot more work with young people these days. Talk about what types of things you try to teach young musicians.
Jarreau: I’m not at any special school where I’m on staff or anything, but I’m asked to—kind of as a senior fellow in the genre of the music—just come and hang out with young students and talk about the music and the art. I was just talking with Doc Gibbs about having gone to the Clef Club in Philadelphia where I spent three days listening to kids in the choir singing Jarreau music—young kids learning “jazzy” things. As much as my calendar will allow, I go and spend a moment with young kids. I was just at the Thelonious Monk Institute and heard some great young jazz singers, and gave them a boost, telling them not to stop.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: In addition to your energetic personality giving them a boost, what do you say to them?
Jarreau: Well, chase your dream. Find something that you love to do and do it. Do music, keep it in your life; it will make you joyous and happy. Even if you aren’t making money at it, keep doing it for free. Be in a garage band, sing in the church choir—you’ll go to sleep Saturday night thinking: I can’t wait to get up and sing at church tomorrow. That makes you a different husband or wife because you have this thing in your life that you love doing, look forward to, makes you laugh and smile when you do it; you are a different neighbor, a different guy in line at the bank.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: That’s what you did—you kept music in your life even when it wasn’t your occupation.
Jarreau: Ninety-nine percent of the musicians in the union right now will never be in the studio or have a recording career—like the people in the symphony orchestra. They do it for the love—they don’t get paid much, they do it for themselves because it’s fun.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: When you sing, you use a lot of onomatopoeia. How did that come about?
Jarreau: Well, trying to be free in your thinking, rhythmically and melodically, hearing lots of different things in the music. I hear guitar [mimics guitar], I hear flute [mimics flute], and make it part of my repertoire: [starts rapping] percolating, syncopating, celebrating, elevating, getting up in the morning and getting busy for the donuts.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: When did you first do that on stage?
Jarreau: Well, it happened during a period when I really began to explore a different thing other than standing up in front of a trio. I experimented working with one instrument—a guitar. Suddenly, there was all of this room that was ordinarily taken up by a drummer, the bass player, and keyboards with eighty-eight keys. I had listened to people creating music with percussion and drums for years. So all of that kind of settled inside of me—what those guys did—and I let it come out.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Was that early on?
Jarreau: It really didn’t start happening until my mid-twenties—just about the time that George and I were saying goodbye, and there was no more trio for me to work with.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: It’s what makes your music and singing so unique.
Jarreau: Well, I carved out a little niche. That’s the Jarreau approach—it’s not the be-all, end-all, but it’s me. - CJM