Al Jarreau, the acrobatically skilful, warmly soulful American singer, who has died aged 76, always seemed too generous an individual to get much pleasure out of proving knowalls wrong. But by the third decade of a career in which the jazz cognoscenti had often been snooty about his commercial leanings, and pop tastemakers about his jazz ones, he was getting plenty of opportunities for the last laugh.
Jarreau was broadminded enough, and talented enough, to have won three of his seven Grammys in different vocal categories – jazz, pop and R&B. Although some of his music over the years exhibited a radio-friendly funkiness that could veer towards the bland, his singing still fizzed with the risk-embracing vocal pyrotechnics that first marked him out back in the 1970s. He found himself pulling increasingly multicultural and multigenerational crowds in his later years.
Jarreau’s remarkable vocal range spanned the soulfully jazzy romantic lightness of an African-American male tradition running from Nat King Cole to George Benson and on to José James, and a bebop-derived improv agility as a wordless scat singer that always reflected the methods of his first jazz model, Jon Hendricks. Jarreau could also mimic the sounds of all manner of instruments with such uncanny accuracy that a ghostly Brazilian berimbau-player or a battalion of samba-shuffling Latin percussionists could often seem to be hiding in the wings.
His best-known work included his 1981 album Breakin’ Away (with its Top 20 pop hit We’re in This Love Together), his performance of Moonlighting, composed for the popular 80s TV series, and the star-packed Givin’ It Up (2006), a hit-swapping dialogue with Benson. Into his 60s, Jarreau also reached new audiences with symphony-orchestra settings for his work, and his explicit R&B and soul roots (though he loved and understood jazz, he did not see himself as a jazz singer) also brought an intrigued new generation of listeners into his orbit.
He was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His father was a minister with a fine singing voice, and his mother a piano teacher and accompanist to the church choir – in which the young Al began performing from the age of four, also learning close-harmony singing with his siblings in his early years. He continued to perform in local groups at weekends during his years as a psychology student at Ripon College, Wisconsin, in 1962 took a master’s in vocational rehabilitation at the University of Iowa and subsequently moved to San Francisco to become a rehabilitation counsellor.
But music exerted an irresistible pull on Jarreau, and in his spare time he began performing regularly with the pianist George Duke, who would go on to an illustrious jazz and rock career with the saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley and Frank Zappa. Jarreau also formed a duo with the guitarist Julio Martinez, and the pair’s popularity at Gatsby’s club in Sausalito led Jarreau to make music his career in 1968. He moved first to Los Angeles to work at high-profile haunts including Dino’s and the Troubadour, and on his move to New York began to appear on the TV shows of Johnny Carson and David Frost, and to work regularly at the Improv comedy club.
In 1975, Jarreau made his debut album, We Got By, for Warner Brothers – a session that extended the singer’s growing fan-club to Europe, with that album and its successor Glow (1976) going on to win two Echo awards in Germany. Jarreau performed on Saturday Night Live in 1976 and won his first Grammy for jazz vocal performance for Look to the Rainbow (1978, a collection of live takes from his first world tour), before the million-selling Breakin’ Away made him a mainstream star. Jarreau’s versatility and curiosity led him to explore more R&B-oriented styles in the mid-80s, and his crossover reputation was further secured by his TV performances of the Moonlighting theme, for which he also wrote the lyrics.
Jarreau toured relentlessly, but throttled back in the 90s to focus on the recording studio – winning another Grammy for the R&B-oriented Heaven and Earth (1992), and enlisting a cast of jazz stars including the saxophonist David Sanborn under the direction of the producer/bassist Marcus Miller for Tenderness (1994). He took a three-month acting diversion in the Broadway production of Grease! in 1996, and from 1999 began to work with symphony orchestras on widely acclaimed makeovers of Broadway classics and his own hits.
Jarreau continued to play symphonic concerts, festivals and clubs, and regularly visit the studio. In 2004 he made the jazz album Accentuate the Positive – featuring songs associated with Duke Ellington, Bill Evans and Betty Carter, among others. Two years later came a typical contrast, on Givin’ It Up, a duet with Benson’s silky voice and sleek guitar sound, and star guests including Patti Austin, Herbie Hancockand Paul McCartney – who happened to be working in an adjoining studio when an enthusiastic Benson roped him in.
In 2010, Jarreau had to go to hospital while on tour in France with respiratory and cardiac problems and again in 2012 after a bout of pneumonia. But he returned to live musicmaking – always his first love as a performer – until almost the end of his life. In February 2014, the chipper and delighted-looking Jarreau accepted the young British trumpeter Tom Walsh’s invitation to rerun the punchy R&B songs from his eponymous 1983 album at Ronnie Scott’s club. At the end of the performance, it was hard to tell whether Jarreau or the audience were the more grateful for the opportunity.
Jarreau is survived by his second wife, Susan, and son, Ryan, two brothers, Marshall and Appie, and a sister, Rose Marie.
- March, 12, 1940
- Milwaukee, Wisconsin
- February, 12, 2017
- Los Angeles, California
Cause of Death
- respiratory failure
- Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Hollywood Hills)
- Los Angeles, California