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TSJR’s Featured Smooth Jazz Artist

A profile of our selected smooth jazz artist of the month

For the next few months, TSJR would like to take some time to pay homage to some of the late great jazz artists who helped to break ground and pave the road for what we now know and love as smooth jazz. Stroll with us for awhile as we recall the wondrous years when we had these greats in our midst, contributing their very souls to this living music. This month, we honor: 

Al Jarreau — Forever the Prince of Song

Al Jarreau (vocalist) – 1940 – 2017: February saw the passing of one of the greatest jazz singers the world has ever known, Alwin Lopez “Al” Jarreau. Jarreau possessed a unique and distinctive voice that he used to create a unique blend of traditional scat vocalising with modern day soul phrasing.

Jarreau was born in Milwaukee, WI on March 12, 1940, the fifth of six children. Jarreau’s father was a Seventh-day Adventist Church minister and singer, and his mother was a church pianist. Jarreau and his family sang together in church concerts and in benefits, and he and his mother performed at PTA meetings.

Jarreau was student council president and Badger Boys State delegate for Lincoln High School. At Boys State, he was elected governor. He then went on to attend Ripon College, where he also sang with a group called the Indigos. He graduated in 1962 with a Bachelor of Science in psychology. Two years later, in 1964, he earned a master’s degree in vocational rehabilitation from the University of Iowa. Jarreau also worked as a rehabilitation counsellor in San Francisco.

It was in San Francisco that Jarreau’s musical talents began to be recognised. He moonlighted with a jazz trio headed by George Duke, and, by the late 60s, knew that he would make singing his life.

In 1967, he joined forces with acoustic guitarist Julio Martinez. The duo became the star attraction at a small Sausalito night club called Gatsby’s. Jarreau and Martinez moved to Los Angeles where they paid their dues working in the famous clubs of that city — clubs like Dino’s, the Troubadour, and the Bitter West End. Television exposure on the Johnny Carson and David Frost shows among others helped spread word of this talented new singer. Jarreau expanded his nightclub appearances and performed at the famous comedy club, The Improv, between the acts of rising comedy stars like Bette Midler and John Belushi.

In 1975, Jarreau was working with pianist Tom Canning when he was spotted by Warner Bros. Records and soon thereafter released his critically acclaimed debut album, We Got By, which catapulted him to international fame and garnered him a German Grammy Award. A second German Grammy would follow with the release of his second album, Glow.

The year 1977 saw the release of the Look to the Rainbow album, a live double album, which was recorded during his world tour of that year. The album earned Jarreau his first Grammy award for Best Jazz Vocal Performance.

In 1978, Jarreau won another Grammy award, this time for Best Jazz Vocalist with the album All Fly Home.

One of Jarreau’s most commercially successful albums was Breakin’ Away (1981), which includes the hit song “We’re in This Love Together.” He won the 1982 Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for “Breakin’ Away.”

He also wrote and performed the Grammy-nominated theme to the 1980s American television show Moonlighting.

Among other things, he was well known for his scat singing and the ability to imitate conventional guitar, bass, and percussive instrumentation. He was also a featured vocalist on USA for Africa’s “We Are the World” in which he sang the line, “…and so we all must lend a helping hand.” Another charitable media event, HBO’s Comic Relief, featured Al in a duet with Natalie Cole singing the song “Mr. President,” written by Joe Sterling, Mike Loveless and Ray Reach.

Jarreau released a string of successful albums through the 80s including the Grammy-nominated Heart’s Horizon. After a long spell of touring, Jarreau returned to the studio in the early nineties, this time in the company of Narada Michael Walden. The result was the Grammy Award-winning “Heaven and Earth” for which he received his fifth Grammy this time for Best R&B Vocal Performance. This made Jarreau one of the rare artists to have won Grammys in the three categories of jazz, pop, and R&B.

At the start of the millennium, Jarreau and conductor Larry Baird collaborated on symphony shows around the United States with Baird arranging additional orchestral material for Jarreau’s shows.

Jarreau toured and performed with numerous musicians, including Joe Sample, Chick Corea, Kathleen Battle, Miles Davis, David Sanborn, Rick Braun, and George Benson. He also performed the role of the Teen Angel in a 1996 Broadway production of Grease. On March 6, 2001, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7083 Hollywood Boulevard on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea Avenue.

On the Al Jarreau website is the most amazing quote about the man. I’m sorry that I can’t credit the author, but it encapsulates the mega-talented Jarreau so beautifully that I felt it necessary to share it with you:

“A few days ago, I was asked to describe Al to someone who knew of his success, but did not know him as a person. I responded with this: His 2nd priority in life was music. There was no 3rd. His 1st priority, far ahead of the other, was healing or comforting anyone in need. Whether it was emotional pain, or physical discomfort, or any other cause of suffering, he needed to put our minds at ease and our hearts at rest. He needed to see a warm, affirming smile where there had not been one before. Song was just his tool for making that happen.”

I think ending on that note says it all. Rest in peace, prince of song. – Steve Giarchardi