Today’s Guest: Al Jarreau, jazz singer, “We’re In This Love Together”
(NOTE: On today’s show, I’m reaching back in my archives to April 3, 1984 to share a telephone interview I conducted with seven-time Grammy Award winning jazz singer Al Jarreau. Al passed away in 2017 just short of his 77 birthday; I am sharing this now on what would have been his 78th, March 12, 2018. He was a sweet, gentle soul and a man whom my then roommate, Kathy Harrison, thought was one of the handsomest men in the world. — Bob Andelman)
The tonsils have been yanked, as Al Jarreau described the operation, and the talented jazz singer is back at work.
“I’m still a little puffy where they were taken out but I can feel it improving step by step,” he said in a recent telephone interview. The tonsilectomy, which caused the cancellation of his tour last fall, had “no effect on my voice at all.”
That will be good news to millions of people who have marveled and delighted to the sounds, clicks and textures of Jarreau’s unique vocal abilities.
WHEN MEDICAL problems interrupted his concert schedule on the eve of a St. Petersburg appearance last September, Jarreau was cruising the jazz and pop charts on the strength of his breath-taking album Breakin’ Away. Chock-full of songs like the scatting Blue Rondo a la Turk, Roof Garden and the smooth, easygoing title song, Jarreau’s music gained airplay on both progressive jazz and Top 40 radio stations.
Music critic Robert Palmer once suggested Jarreau had created a remarkable vocal vocabulary in his throat, as a way of describing the breadth of sounds that come from it. A German writer, equally dazzled, suggested Jarreau has a whole orchestra in his pipes.
Jarreau won the German-equivalent of Grammys for Best Male Jazz Vocalist in 1976 and Best International Artist in1977. He won back-to-beck American Grammys in 1978 and 1979, then took honors in 1981 for Best Male Jazz Vocalist (Blue Rondo a la Turk) and Best Male Pop Vocalist (Breakin’ Away).
AL JARREAU podcast excerpt: “I probably would have whatever meal I’m going to have (around 3 p.m.). It wouldn’t be a very big one … I don’t drink wine (laughter) or any alcoholic beverages before the show because I want to be totally there. These are my habits. I don’t suggest anybody do this (more laughter). I’d take a nap for an hour or two between now and then, spend easily an hour doing warmups, maybe more than that, warming up in the car on the way to the hall, I’ve usually called ahead when we plan-out the day, if they have a shower it is cleaned up because I’ll be in there 45 minutes, an hour, with the steam, doing la-hahaaa-haaa; la-ha-haaa-haa … getting second show prepared, the kind of readiness your voice is in when it’s ready to do the second performance in the night club. Well, you can’t wait for that. The warm-up tokes care of all that phlegmy stuff – you’re ready to hit.”
THE SON of a preacher, Jarreau, 44, began his singing career at the age of 4 evidenced, he said, by an old placard he found advertising his performance at a church fund-raising recital.
“It amazes me every time I look at it. I’ve been standing up in front of people, singing all my life. A lot of it I did as a real young kid in the church. They probably gave me a ‘bone’ of some sort that my mom and dad probably … took. ‘We’ll just hold this for you’ … I had my first paychecks, really, when I was about 14or 15 from this guy who had a 12-piece dance orchestra doing real standard stuff,” Jarreau said.
Q: Do you remember anyone who tried to discourage you, who said, “Don’t pursue music, you haven’t got a chance?”
A: “Never! Ever! There was nobody who ever did that. I’ll tell you what did happen …. My mom and dad never discouraged me. They did music, loved music, but there was something else that they put in me,8 practical bone deep inside my body somewhere. I knew that I would go off to school sometime and get a formal education in some area that would allow me to make some money. It was a practical sense of things they instilled in me. I got interested in psychology and sociology and ended up in one of the helping professions.”
Jarreau earned his master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling from the University of Iowa and spent five years working in San Francisco, singing up to four-nights a with George Duke’s trio.
A breakthrough came in 1968.
That was the year he stopped working as a rehab counselor. “I’d fallen out of love with that,” Jarreau recalled, “falling more in love with singing. I was beginning to feel a lot of validation regarding my music, in what I think was one of the greatest music-creating communities in the world during those days.”
He found a guitar player and for the first time was doing music as a feature rather than incidental member of a trio. “I found all of this room in which to create, accompany myself, and add to the music, improvise in away there had never been for: me before. I began to scat more and really open up to try a lot of different things.”
Q: Do you remember how you discovered the different depths and capacities of your voice?
A: “I never had any formal training. I am now, though. There was a lot of experimenting going on, but not in the laboratory sense. I never went to the back room and started cataloging the sounds or numbering them and noting how I did it. I was experimenting in a real practical performing sense, discovering there were places in the voice that I could go to. I was doing, for many years, ti-ka, ti-ka, ti-ke, ti-ka, ti-ti-ti-ka-a-a-a, stuff like that, making vocal percussion sounds by myself and just fooling around, entertaining myself, driving in the car, walking down the street, being my own radio, It was fun, trying this and that once in a while.”
Q: You mentioned you’ve just recently started taking lessons for voice.
A: “Yeah I’m really studying seriously, just now.”
Q: Is that to protect what you have?
A: “To preserve, and just get myself grooved in on the good techniques that I’ve learned, try to eliminate some other ones. Outside of things I picked up in senior and acapella choir in high school, I really had to discover on my own technically what to do and what not to do, what works for me in preparation for concerts.”
Q: If you were going to perform tonight, what would you do today to prepare?
A: “I probably would have whatever meal I’m going to have (around 3 p.m.). It wouldn’t be a very big one … I don’t drink wine (laughter) or any alcoholic beverages before the show because I want to be totally there. These are my habits. I don’t suggest anybody do this (more laughter). I’d take a nap for an hour or two between now and then, spend easily an hour doing warmups, maybe more than that, warming up in the car on the way to the hall, I’ve usually called ahead when we plan-out the day, if they have a shower it is cleaned up because I’ll be in there 45 minutes, an hour, with the steam, doing la-hahaaa-haaa; la-ha-haaa-haa … getting second show prepared, the kind of readiness your voice is in when it’s ready to do the second performance in the night club. Well, you can’t wait for that. The warm-up tokes care of all that phlegmy stuff – you’re ready to hit.
Jarreau used to daydream that someday, somebody was going to do The Nat King Cole Story.
Later this year the handsome jazz singer will get his wish and go before the cameras to portray Cole in a movie based on the composer’s life and music.
“In some places it will be a love story, but it will be biographical, basically, a description of Nat’s life, particularly the part when all that great music came out,” Jarreau said. “It’ll cover the influence of a single man on music, give some time to describing the scene at the time for him as a black man and the great strides and breakthroughs he made in those terms. It’ll probably describe how all of it came to an end too soon.”
“I hope we’ll go with Maria’s (Cole’s widow) blessing. She’s been hesitant to put her blessing to other projects. Her son Kelly is involved with µs, doing a lot of the re· search,” he added.
Q: Are there particular Cole songs you’re looking forward to doing?
A: “Lots of them. God, I think I know most of the repertoire. We’ll certainly be doing the later hits and some of the very first early ones. I’m sure we’ll be doing Sweet Lorraine and Route 66, gotta be doing Unforgetable, gotta be doing Too Young … Hey, the catalogue of tunes the guy did covers six pages, small type, listing one after the other!”
Q: Will you do Cole or Jarreau as Cole?
A: “I’m not sure. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I don’t want to wind up doing a caricature, either in the way I look or the way I act – I don’t want to do a parody. I want to find a way of doing the essential qualities and the other qualities that maybe we share and finding a way of magnifying those. I hope it is done with sensibility and sensitivity. That’s the important thing for me.”
Q: Have you got — a lot of — acting background?
A: “No — I don’t — have a lot — of acting background (laughter).
Q: You picked up on exactly the way it was phrased, too.
A: “I understand the tone … As a matter of fact, I’m scared to death (more laughter). I’ve never done anything like this. I’m taking some lessons. Anyone who’s been on stage performing brings something to acting, but God, you know, it’s another number.”
Jarreau, whose screen charms have been evidenced in the videos for songs like Roof Garden, will have an opportunity to portray himself in an early May episode of Days of Our Lives.
And while guest appearances ‘by celebrities -of the afternoon soaps have been in vogue, the producers invited Jarreau, not the other way around. “I’m certainly not a soap opera buff,” he insisted. “I’m not usually awake by then.”
Q: You’ve become much better known now to more people as a jazz/pop performer ‘than just a jazz singer …
A: “That’s correct, too.”
Q: Are there different challenges in each style?
A: “I think so. There is a jazz attitude and approach that runs through everything that I do. But certainly, doing Blue Rondo a la Turk is different than doing Teach Me the Night. (Blue Rondo) requires a lot of technical ability. All the stuff gets synthesized in me and goes through this Jarreau filter and comes out with this influence of jazz. The things that I write and perform aren’t strictly jazz pieces. They come through the filter. I definitely am doing lots of different kinds of music: R & B, pop and jazz.”
Q: After 15 years of becoming accustomed to what you do, being able to call up the sounds whenever you want to, do you feel like down the line you could teach someone else to do it?
A: “As a matter of fact, I’ve been seriously thinking about how to teach the kind of stuff it is that I do. I’ve been wondering how you teach that. I’d like to try teaching it some time, I really would.”