Al Jarreau: Simple and Necessary Happiness

Esther Berlanga-Ryan By

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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 sound—so 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 that—these 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...

LiveAJ: 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?


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