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Al Jarreau: Christmas Time At Last

By Published: December 15, 2008
Adds the singer, "The guys that really made the difference on my life, and it happened at an age when my appreciation for music was taking another turn, maybe a deeper turn, was when I heard Miles for the first time and Bill Evans for the first time. I sat down and really listened to their music . When I heard Johnny Mathis for the first time. He, for me, was and always will be the extension of the Nat Cole tradition. I was listening to Nat Cole as a kid."

A radio program from out of Chicago, Daddy-O Daly, coved the jazz of the '50s, so "so my influences are many, and they include a very special love for Joni Mitchell and The Beatles. I feel so fortunate to have gone through that, to have that in my life," he says.

Jarreau also came up during a great age of recorded music, from jazz greats and Broadway productions, to the beginning and expansion of the rock n' roll vernacular, and everything in between. In today's formulaic, techno society, he says people have lost something important. Young people today are not exposed to such musical diversity and don't get the full spectrum of what music can offer.

"It's not even possible for a kid these days. A kid has got to go out of his way to find things beyond MTV," which he pointedly stresses should be spelled Empty-V. "He's got to go out of his way. It's become so commercialized. They figured out the formula of what works for a mind between the ages of 11 and 19 or 20, when you're coming into your first allowance and there aren't that many things for you to spend it on. They've got it figured out to a formula and that's all you get a chance to hear. It's a rare kid whose parents say, 'Wait a minute. There's some other things to listen to.' I feel very lucky that I got a chance to have that stuff. I think I'm a different person because of it. Maybe I'm an improved spiritual being because of it."

Expressing nuance, feeling, emotion and special meaning is one of Jarreau's goals on stages across the globe. "I'm not going to wax sentimental and important, but you should read my mail. The people who thank me through the mail, or come backstage, with tears in their eyes. Like 'Air Force Lisa,' who found one of my songs during the time she was over in Desert Storm and got poisoned by some chemicals and wasn't expected to live. She heard a song of mine, listened to it. It got her through. Now that's God's work. And that's the idea, to do things that are pro-survival whatever your craft is, whatever it is that you do, especially you do it in front of an audience or a class. So that people come out of it lifted up."

Al Jarreau

Jarreau was attracted to music's effect on an audience from the outset, it seemed. As a young man in Milwaukee, he performed casually in public. He wasn't yet bent on a performing career, but it was something on his mind.

"I dreamed about it from the first moments I could put a song together. But the dreams were rather childlike ... That's the way it kind of begins," he says. "Then, as time goes by and you kind of get your footing and a better understanding of the possibilities out there and the possibilities inside of you, the dream begins to have more solid aspects and limbs and branches and trees. Then it becomes a real worked-on creative visualization, which is where it begins. You've got to dream it and see it in your mind in order to build that bridge, in order to put a man on the moon, in order to get out of bed and brush your teeth. If you've done anything in your life, besides veg, it's because you saw it in your head first and you followed that and you kept on seeing it in your head.

"I began seeing it in my head when I was 15 years old. I didn't know how it was going to happen, but I could see it in my head."

Enrolled at Ripon College in Wisconsin, Jarreau sang with a group called the Indigos during weekends and holidays. He graduated with a degree in psychology and moved on to the University of Iowa to earn his master's degree in vocational rehabilitation. But his singing experiences in his hometown, even if casual, "really let me know that I could say something up there with the microphone that made people smile and clap their hands when I was done doing it. That's a kind of breakthrough. That happened very early on in my life."

He moved to San Francisco and worked as a rehab counselor, a field his college education had pointed him to. But music still had a hold on the young man. "I was in a profession I'd have been happy to do for the rest of my life, I thought at the time. I moved to San Francisco to be closer to the music industry, after graduating from a program in rehabilitation counseling, knowing there would be good work for me."

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