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Al Jarreau: Simple and Necessary Happiness

Esther Berlanga-Ryan By

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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.

We Got ByAAJ: 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?"


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