Al Jarreau: Simple and Necessary Happiness
“ I have had the chance to live the artist life, to make my living creating. To be given that ability to create something where there was nothing before, empty space, and now there's a song; that's an amazing gift. ”
There are very few jazz greats that make people who love this music smile in awe while witnessing their beautiful talent. Jazz is larger than life, and they all contribute to its greatness every day, whether it is from a small stage in the Village in New York, or from some old record, spinning while popping and clicking away with that undeniable charm, making the music flow. As long as jazz happens, the magnificence of it all remains flawless and pure. Singer Al Jarreau has been a part of the exquisiteness of it all for decades.
The voice control, the cheerfulness with which he reassures the perfect meaning of every word in the lyrics, his scatting energy and soundso raw and so effective that it sounds as though he's picked up several instruments and stopped singing, because vocal chords just can't do thatthese are all parts of his signature: improvisation and momentary ecstasy meeting as jazz finds a lovely place to hang out through one of its most celebrated voices. Elegant. Sophisticated. Perfect.
A positive and caring spirit, this iconic artist has spent most of his life making music. At 71 years old, it continues to feed his life, and he chooses to keep sharing his contagious joy with the world. Touring with keyboardist George Duke, singing for the US Air Force's Big band, Airmen of Note, working on a new studio album, or collaborating with composer/arranger Eumir Deodato, Jarreau's stunning vocal vitality is always in a creative state of mind.
Simple and necessary happiness.
All About Jazz: Tell me a very simple fact about you.
Al Jarreau: I spent a lot of time, real important time in my life, in San Francisco, breaking into music. Sometimes people think that it is in fact where I live or where I am from. I am from Milwaukee. I was born five years old, across the yard (not across the street), fifteen feet away from a polka tavern. I know polka [laughs]. I know more polkas than Frank Yankovic [laughs]. Yes, I am from Milwaukee, I love that. I was in a restaurant with my wife the other night, and there was a guy there who was talking to the bartender, and he said a couple of words about his son, and I was like "hey, man, where are you from?" "I am from Wisconsin." "I heard that in your voice. I am from Milwaukee!" All guys from Wisconsin will talk like that, you know? [laughs]
AAJ: Tell me something about jazz.
AJ: The thing about it is that if you don't like this kind of jazz, whatever that may be, I bet that there is a hundred other jazz sounds that you will like. There is so much room for individuality in this music. It is one of the widest genres of music that you can find. There is even room for Al Jarreau from Milwaukee, even room for me. Isn't that odd? And you know, I am not one of the golden jazz singers. I leave that for Ella Fitzgerald, or anyone else that you can name. I do my own thing, and I am surprised when they call it jazz [laughs].
My voice comes from listening to those jazz influences, those jazz voices, early in my life, right in my living room. My brothers were singing quartet music in the living room when I was four and five years old. They were singing... [scatting]...stuff like that, that's what I wanted to be like. I wanted to be like my brothers, singing this jazzy music. And of course they were listening to the Mills Brothers, and Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan... I was listening to that music on the radio and listening to my brothers sing in the living room, and that's what I wanted to do, so those were the influences that I imitated, and all of that got stuck in my throat [laughs].
AAJ: Home is where all came from...
AJ: My mother was a piano teacher and church organist. My dad was a minister, and a singer. By the time I came along and was really conscience of my nose and my left foot, my dad had left the ministry, but my mom continued to be the church organist and played for me at church programs, and they were the influence, because they were very musical parents.
All my family sings. I have a younger brother who really kind of just discovered his voice around ten years ago. He just discovered that he can sing. He could probably sing to himself all the time, but with me being the singer of the family he probably didn't dare singing for anyone else, and just started singing in church. He is now singing his butt off now, singing in church, and can't get him to shut up about it [laughs]. So yes, they were very strong influences, and church influence is what I write about too. I can't write about those hip hop things, you know what I mean? I can't write those hip-hop themes; my music is pro-survival music: get you up in the morning and make you feel good music, with a pro-survival message, inspirational stuff.
And let me tell you a secret: I keep waiting for some radio program to adapt "Morning" as their morning theme, and to call me and let me know that they are using it for that, before I die. don't think there is one yet, someone would have called me by now.
AAJ: What do we need to know about you today, at 71 years old? Are you the same person you were fifty years ago?
AJ: We all change every moment, so probably not. I am changing and I am closer to "getting it right" now than I was before. And what I mean by "getting it right" is making the most and the best of your life that you ought to be committed to doing, and in some ways I am a lot the same and in some ways I am changing. I have some New Year's resolutions that I am better at keeping this year than last year [laughs]. Just doing some things differently in my life, because it's important. I have some doctors these days that I didn't have ten years ago, and they are shaking that finger in my face and saying "stop this and stop that," and I am still putting too much salt in my food, and I like my cocktail in the evening.
So in some ways I am changing and doing things better, and being honest with myself and my wife and those around me, but this is all stuff and a side of me that you wouldn't know unless I talk about it, but it's in the songs. Things that I knew that are important, like living a good, honest, clean, responsible life. The little life we all want to do when we sit and look at ourselves and then look at the man in the mirror. It's part of the answer, and maybe the most important part of what it is all about as I go into my 72nd year.
AAJ: Tell me about the US Air Force band.
AJ: It has been the second year in a row that I have performed with the US Air Force Band, jazz big band, called Airmen of Note. They are wonderful, brilliant men, one of the last performing big bands in the world. These guys have careers in the air force, and are serving their country, and are allowed to play music as their duty in the air force and represent the air force all over the world, going and playing this music and making people crazy listening to this great music that we call jazz. There's a singer in that band that sings a ton; it's a great show for people that know me in my normal situation to see me sing with this big band playing jazzy licks and R&B licks and solos, in a way they have never heard it before.
AAJ: It's a beautiful way to contribute to keeping this music alive.
AJ: Oh yeah, you are absolutely right. Keeping that music alive the way that band does, and I get a chance to help. All kinds of things get cut these days because there is no money for it, and I'll bet you this big band is just fighting for their lives. It's great to go and be with them and say "this is important music, don't cut it, don't stop it!" And, by the way, our school programs need some money. And so do our highways and bridges. And we can put people to work. We lost our railroads, we are not shipping on our railroads... We gotta wake up!
AAJ: The San Remo music festival.
AJ: A few years ago I was there and we stopped for some coffee, or some dinner, and there sitting across from me was the classical singer, Luciano Pavarotti, smiling with a nice, gentle smile, and waiving at me, and I could see him saying, "Al Jarreau." We were both singing at that festival. It is a very important music festival in Italy. These festivals keep the traditional sounds and music alive. And I say that in opposition of what has become a different kind of world music, all below the hips, all below the belt, you know what I mean? The new American music. That is why I am so glad about The Voice and American Idol, because it is still traditional singing, and I love that. Hip hop is fine, but it should have not taken over the entire world of music in America, just should not have. We have lost a lot of great kinds of music because one form of music has kind of taken over, just like it happened with rock 'n' roll, and today everything has become hip hop.
Everything became hip hop. It's like they can't find anything else to listen to..."you see what I'm sayin'?..." [laughs] And we can't do that. It's robbing people of a variety of music, whether it is polkas, bluegrass or the classical station, people can listen to different things at the same time, and all of those great promoters and radio people think that they can only listen to this kind of music, and get that other stuff out of the way because that's how they make money, and we lose stuff, we lose valuable things.
If you love the music and you do it right, you find your little audience that likes what you do and I tell you, if you are coming from the right place that'll be alright for you. You don't need to have a huge audience and make a gazillion dollars. You don't have to. I haven't made a gazillion dollars and I do okay. I do not put my record company in the red because they produce Al Jarreau music. They haven't gotten rich. I have my audience, and that is wonderful and allows me to sing what I sing and how I sing it, and the music that I do is for survival, and inspirational music, and there are people that want to hear that.
AAJ: George Duke, Al Jarreau and the George Duke Trio "Live" at the Half Note 1965 (Vol 1) (BPM Records, 2011), and touring together.
AJ: George and I have done more work together in the last four or five years than ever before. We have been to Russia a couple of times, and we are finding our way back together, and because we are finding our way back together, we found in the closet these tapes from 1965, and with this new technology we cleaned them up real nice. It's a good listen. Just a snapshot, a photograph of what we were doing when we were babies. What was Al doing in 1965? Here it is. There's some talking and some conversations between George and me now, and the owner of the club and the drummer, Al Cecchi, and the bassist, John Heard, talking about that music and that time, and it's fun. So yeah, George and I are probably getting on a busier schedule of doing things together, so it's fun.
AAJ: There is a long history between you.
AJ: Yes, we have a long history and I am so proud of that. George is one of the most important musicians on the planet and doesn't get enough credit. What was happening was that I had moved to San Francisco and was working as a rehabilitation counselor during the day, and in the evening I was doing music as much as I could, continuing what I had done most of my life. By the time I was nineteen or twenty I started doing some clubs, and with a trio or quartet get up and sing and do some music and get paid a few bucks for it here and there and continue to live and learn and grow as a singer, and then there I was doing it in San Francisco, with the George Duke Trio.
The way it happened was that I walked in one Sunday afternoon when George Duke was playing a matinee with his trio. A matinee was when musicians would bring their horns and singers would bring their voices and we would all go there and hang out and have a beer, and sing and make music together. At the Half/Note in San Francisco, we had a softball team, honey; it was great fun! [laughs]
When I came up and sang that afternoon, he asked me what I thought of working with the trio, and I started that following weekend. That lasted from 1965 through 1968, of me working with the trio, two nights a week, sometimes three if it was a holiday weekend. I think I grew the most that I've ever grown in that period of time with George Duke, and then in the period that followed with Julio Martinez, the guitarist. So it began in a Sunday afternoon, me singing at a matinee. Just one of the singers who got up and sang, and he asked me if I wanted to sing with the trio, and now here we are. George and I continued to be friends and he has helped with several projects of mine, producing songs, and this is just a wonderful new way to launch the next several years that we will do together in various kinds of situationsand especially with his trioand me getting up there are singing.
AAJ: What are you working on in the studio?
AJ: We began putting songs together for a new studio record for me fifteen months ago or so, and we are working with some guys in the band writing songs and there have been some songs sent to us, submitted by other writers that we like a lot, and I think we have found solid songs for this studio project. If I sound excited I am. It's a good time in my life. It's good to have that kind of motion going in your career, with new stuff.
AAJ: So how do you feel about being considered one of the Finest voices in music?
AJ: You know what? You look around in your life, and you know Stevie Wonder, and Ella Fitzgerald, Christina Aguilera...and you are just not too impressed with yourself! [laughs] So when I hear a compliment like that, I nod my head and say ,"Thank you very much." I can take a bow, but honey, I have listened to Stevie Wonder, and Pavarotti and others...
AAJ: But you do things with your voice that nobody else does. Like Betty Carter and the things she used to do...
AJ: Oh, bless you. Betty was total freedom and improvisational yearning every time you heard her sing. A vocal instrument. Amazing stuff.
AAJ: How do you think singing shapes you as a human being?
AJ: I don't know what else I am beyond what I sing about, and do as an artist. I have had the chance to live the artist life, to create, and make my living creating, and also to be celebrated as an artist, and to enjoy that. This business of picking a lump of clay, marble, wood, and in a little while it becomes "The Thinker." A moment ago, something was a piece of wood, and a guy picks it up and now it is a sculpture. Where there was a blank page, now there is a story. Now there is Beethoven's symphony. To be given that ability to create something where there was nothing before, empty space, and now there's a song; that's an amazing gift. And you're doing it as I speak now, finding the questions, so that between us, between you and me we put something together.
There's nothing more important than that, expect maybe creating a life. Just like that. It's an amazing thing. So being a singer and singing music has shaped my life, and I value that so very much. I do it to the best of my ability, and I am trying to get better; I think I am getting better. I am better in some ways than I was.
AAJ: Let's go back in time to "USA for Africa." What are your memories of that day?
From left: George Benson, Al Jarreau
AJ: I remember my management office at the time calling me in the afternoon and saying "tomorrow afternoon a bunch of people are going to get together and do this song that Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie have written, and Quincy Jones is going to produce, and they would love for you to go," and I went the next day. I walked in, and look at the picture; all of those people who came and signed in, most of them are voices that you can't pick out, they are voices in the background. Harry Belafonte, Johnny Mathis...you can't pick them out, and I got a chance to sing a little solo line. But all those people who you have seen in movies or on TV, and who had shaped so much of contemporary popespecially for R&B musicwere there, to help raise some money to a very worthy cause of people helping people.
Those few people knew that Ethiopia was in trouble during those Days, one of the great moments where people on the planet recognized and understood the message that we need to understand more and more today, as we have more homeless and hunger today than ever before, and yet we produce more food on the planet than ever before. Nobody should be homeless, nobody should be hungry, nobody should be without Healthcare. Denmark, Norway, Sweden...all those places have socialized medicine. What's going on in America? It's a business to make money.
So, anyway, those people standing there that day knew that what's important in this planet is for us to help each other. The value, the worthiness of us as a civilization will be determined by how we take care of each other; not how much money anybody makes, but how we take care of each other. There are many moments like that, and we continue doing it. We have to get together as a community and do it. That's what happened, that was the importance of that moment, and we all knew it standing there: people coming together for people and helping people. I recently saw Sean Penn down in Haiti, building homes, in the mud with a hammer. He brought his money down there. Where's that as a story? My God, it just slipped through under the wire, I just happened to catch it. People helping people.
AAJ: Michael Jackson.
AJ: Ah, what can be said that hasn't been said? Michael was such a gift to the planet. As a singer and dancer, none finer; there weren't any finer. Some people point to Michael as being a modern day Fred Astaire. Well, he was beyond Fred Astaire.
This is not my blackness speaking, this is just what happened in that life, beginning with that five Year-old, and I remember me talking to my guitarist and both of us going "Boy, that kid can really sing!" We're talking about Michael as a five year-old. A phenomenal artist who sadly paid for it in ways that kids who are pushed and prodded at such an early age to be adults usually do. He had to be an adult at a very early age, didn't get to be a kid, and suffered some things because of it. So we lost him really early. But I am telling you, what a shining starstill shining!
One of the last times I saw him was a couple of days before 9/11. It was Monday or Tuesday, just after there was a big Jackson family reunion that got videotaped and that didn't get much attention because of 9/11; but there was a bunch of us in New York City at Madison Square Garden for Michael Jackson and the Jackson family reunion. So, that's what I thought of Michael. Be there, whenever he opened his mouth and whispered my name, "I'm coming! I wanna be like Michael!" Just wonderful, what a tender heart, what a sweetheart. But he had his problems, didn't he? And I don't know anything else to say about that than anybody else has said, but what a voice, what a presence in the planet.
AAJ: You are a very spiritual person. What you say is always positive, in a world like this.
AJ: Maybe there's such emotion and passion gathered around spiritual beliefs that has to be important, it must be really important for people. Well, yes, we will have to fight wars, but spiritual beliefs, such as who we are, where we came from, what we are doing, what we ought to be doing and where we are going, these are the questions that get answered and we seek out and we search out and we hold on to, that define what we do and help us define where we are going and help us define what is important to be doing in the morning. So thank you Mom and Dad. I grew up in the Christian Church of Seventh Day Adventist, and boy, I'm telling you, we have more "don't do" than "do" at Seventh Day Adventist than Frank Yankovic has polkas [laughs]. But that's really important stuff.
AAJ: I would like to go back in time again, to 1975 and that very first album with Warner Brothers, We Got By. Do you remember how it felt back then to say, "Okay, maybe I have arrived, maybe here starts something"?
AJ: Oh yeah, I remember. I went to the studio on any number of occasions, and there's an engineer who did my first record with me, and his name is Al Schmitt, and Al produced that record and brought Tommy LiPuma in, who did several records with me later on. But the first record was Al Schmitt with me, and a staff of Warner Brothers people were saying, "Go for it, guys." And I remember the two of us sitting on that studio looking at each other and going, "We built a chapel, Schmitt."
That comes from Lilies of the Field (1963) with Sidney Poitier, where he is this carpenter, and his name is Smith. A group of nuns from Germany in a small town somewhere are trying to build a chapel in which to worship, and they come across Homer Smith. And they build a chapel, and the sister would say, every morning, "We built a chapel, Smith." And there we were, Al Schmitt and I building a chapel. If we said it twice we said it a hundred times. That's it, we built a chapel.
AAJ: And it's still standing.
AJ: Still standing. I wish I would have been brave enough to tell my father that story. He passed in 1977, but I never told it quite like I just told it now. I thought of it many times, but yeah, "We built a chapel, Schmitt," and it's still standing, that's right, that's how it felt. And those very first songs, including "We Got By," were foundational cornerstone songs that people heard and said, "Who's that guy? Al Janon, or something like that?" [laughs]
AAJ: What do you think is your biggest accomplishment in life?
AJ: Oh my...well I really think it's managing such a long career that's still going, and having a family that's pretty happy, you know? My wife hasn't left me, and my son is not in jail or doesn't do drugs or smoke. He just joined me on tour and he is loving it. Last summer he said, "Okay, let's do it," and it's working out great. Obviously to have a career that is working is great, is just a Godsend. I don't know what I would do if it weren't for this.
AAJ: What moves you?
AJ: People doing it right. That's what moves me the most. That's our challenge; and when we think to help each other there is the greatness of a nation, which is determined by how it treats people.
AAJ: And what upsets you?
AJ: I'll tell you one thing that upsets me is this Congress, that is looking at every turn to defeat this president instead of understanding some things about what we ought to be doing to get out of trouble, and to get ourselves back on track, as a nation under God. I am very upset about that. And unfortunately the world is watching and going, "Ah, no wonder they got in trouble, no wonder."
AAJ: You are an advocate for children and keeping literacy and music alive in children.
AJ: There is a need for educated children. We know for sure that kids who play instruments and who enjoy music are raised well, their math scores are right, and there is high potential there. Obviously, if they don't play music it is wonderful to enjoy music. Kids who enjoy music are college bound, and people who go to school make good neighbors.
AAJ: What has been your biggest dream come true?
AJ: Finding that there has been and still is an audience for this kind of music and this kind of message. That's serious dream come true. Before I get out of bed I am saying, "Thank you." I know how important it is to be thankful. It's a wonderful thing to have life and to look at all of this, all of creation and say, "Thank you." I even say it on stage, "Did you say thank you today?"
Al Jarreau/George Duke Trio, Live at the Half/Note, 1965 Volume 1 (BPM Records 2011)
Eumir Deodato, The Crossing (Soul Trade 2010)
Al Jarreau, The Very Best Of: An Excellent Adventure (Rhino 2009)
Al Jarreau, Love Songs (Rhino 2008)
Al Jarreau & George Benson, Givin' it Up (Concord Records 2006)
Al Jarreau, Accentuate The Positive (GRP Records 2004)
Al Jarreau, All I Got (GRP Records 2002)
Al Jarreau, Tomorrow Today (GRP Records 2000)
Al Jarreau, Tenderness (Warner Bros 1994)
Al Jarreau, Heaven and Earth (Warner Bros 1994)
Al Jarreau, Heart's Horizon (Warner Bros 1988)
Al Jarreau, L is for Love (Warner Bros 1986)
Al Jarreau, Live in London (Warner Bros 1985)
Al Jarreau, High Crime (Warner Bros 1984)
Al Jarreau, Jarreau (Warner Bros 1984)
Al Jarreau, Breakin' Away (Warner Bros 1981)
Al Jarreau, This Time (Warner Bros 1980)
Al Jarreau, All Fly Home (Warner Bros 1978)
Al Jarreau, Look To The Rainbow (Warner Bros 1977)
Al Jarreau, Glow (Warner Bros 1979)
Al Jarreau, We Got By (Reprise 1975)
Page 1: Courtesy of Al Jarreau
Pages 2, 3: David Turcotte
Page 4: KCJazzLark
Page 5: David J. Simchock