Sadly, yet another Soul/ Jazz superstar has passed away. The legendary Al Jarreau died on Sunday 12th February. He was 76. Jarreau was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on 12th March 1940. The fifth of six children, he was the son of a church minister and a church pianist. A church in which he and his family sung together.
He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology and then a Master’s degree in vocational rehabilitation at the University of Iowa. At the same time, Jarreau performed as a vocalist at various local Jazz clubs. By the mid 60’s, his work as a rehabilitation counsellor took him to San Francisco where he played in a trio with George Duke.
Gigs alongside acoustic guitarist Julio Martinez led to television appearances on shows such as Johnny Carson and David Frost amongst others. He also provided musical interludes at comedy shows including those by Bette Midler and John Belushi. It was during this era that he came to the notice of Warner Brother Records, who signed him, initially to their Reprise subsidiary.
His critically acclaimed Reprise debut ‘We Got By’, though commercially unsuccessful, marked Al out as a unique and special Jazz vocalist. His vocal style combined a deft delivery with use of improvisation and mimicking of various instruments. The follow-up ‘Glow’ was the first of his albums to reach the top ten in the Jazz chart (a feat replicated by all eleven of his subsequent Warners LPs). He had already gained popularity in Europe, especially Germany, with his amazing live set ‘Look To The Rainbow’ that featured a stunning interpretation of Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’.
Five of his albums reached number one in the Jazz charts including his classic ‘Breakin Away’ that featured the hit ‘We’re In This Love Together’ that helped the singer crossover to a Soul and Pop audience. Al’s music combined his vocal Jazz sensibility with an accessible brand of Jazz Fusion. Albums such as the ‘Breakin Away’, ‘All Fly Home’ (his best?) and ‘Jarreau’ stand testament to his talent, though all his albums throughout the eighties maintained a high musical standard. He also wrote or co-wrote many of the songs. And what songs – ‘Distracted’, ‘Spain’, ‘Roof Garden’, ‘Mornin’ and ‘Never Givin Up’ to name but a few.
Memorably, he guested on the 1978 version of Freddie Hubbard’s ‘Little Sunflower’ adding his own lyrics to this classic. He performed on the iconic ‘We Are The World’ charity anthem in 1986. In addition, he co-wrote and sang the theme to the popular TV series ‘Moonlighting’ that featured Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd.
During the nineties, he continued to perform live including in the Broadway show ‘Grease’, but took a hiatus from recording. Jarreau returned to the studio in 2000 and released the superb Paul Brown produced ‘Today Tomorrow’. The highly-acclaimed album of standards ‘Accentuate The Positive’ from 2004 earned him a Grammy for best Jazz vocal album – one of seven he received during his career. In total, he won or was nominated for about twenty times for a Grammy. In 2006, he collaborated with George Benson on the excellent ‘Givin it Up’. The album featured re-recordings of George’s classic ‘Breezin’ and Jarreau’s ‘Mornin’ as well as a lovely take on Billie Holiday’s ‘God Bless The Child’ featuring Jill Scott that earned him another Grammy.
Al had suffered ill-health for some time and was diagnosed with respiratory and cardiac problems whilst touring in France in 2010. A couple of years later he recovered from a bout of pneumonia and just days before his passing he retired from touring suffering from exhaustion. Sadly his retirement would be all too brief.
On a personal note, I had the pleasure of seeing Al Jarreau in concert a couple of times. His live shows were simply incredible. A more engaging and exciting performer, it would be hard to find and his vocal dexterity, tone and jazzy soulfulness were, well, unique. My brother Laurence and I had the honour of providing merchandising facilities for one of his concerts at Shepherd’s Bush Empire. You could not wish to meet a more humble, polite and lovely man. He stayed behind to sign CDs for members of the audience, have selfies taken and engage in conversation for ages after the end of the show. He had time for everyone, so much so that the staff at the venue had to kick us all out as they wanted to go home. Al did not (it was about 1am) even though he had to be up for a flight to Milan by five the next morning! He considered his fans to be his musical life blood; he seemed to adore them more than they did him.
We have lost a true great and a fantastic human being, whose warmth and humanity shone like a beacon. He will be sorely missed. Al, thank you for the great memories and the sublime music. RIP.
Soul Brother Records.