“What I haven’t done yet is my next studio project.”
So says Al Jarreau, Wisconsin’s most internationally recognized name when it comes to jazz singing when asked of his future plans. Mind, the man’s musical career goes back over a half-century, and he’s at the age when many men are in their dotage or greeting at WalMart. Retire? The only way the word may enter his vocabulary now is getting a good night’s sleep.
Speaking with Jarreau not only enthuses one about music, but life generally. His speaking voice bubbles with the same kind of peaceful vivacity as that characterizes his singing. And about the next album to showcase his vocal instrument, he envisions, “a little jazz, a little pop…just a keyboard player, or several keyboard players.”
That kind of sparsity in arrangement’s not dissimilar from other sessions Jarreau has committed to posterity, but significantly out of character from his first recorded work. It was those mid-1960’s 45’s he made for the Raynard label in his hometown of Milwaukee that led me to my first conversation with Jarreau earlier this year for a book chapter about the city’s R&B history. But those early sides in the ‘danceably’ uptempo manner of contemporaneous Motown and Okeh sides weren’t ever where his heart was.
“I grew up in family of jazz fans,” he says of the music that has touched his soul the deepest. Amidst the Duke Ellington’s, Nat “King” Cole’s and other jazzbo giants of the era to be heard in his house and the nightspots in Milwaukee’s Bronzeville neighborhood of his youth, there was another influence born of his parents’ work. “My dad was a minister, and my mother was a church pianist. My older brother sang in quartets that sang in my living room.” So, there’s gospel in Jarreau’s roots as well.
Theology, and the action it effects didn’t play into our conversation but it’s easy to hear positivity and appreciation for people in his voice. And he knows how he has been ‘gifted’ can help others. “Music heals. It lifts people up,”Jarreau beams, relating his art to a kind of emotional path-finding to which his listeners relate. “We (musicians) find sensitivities other people don’t find.” He ponders regarding the soulfulness of the people representing him at the state and national levels, “I’ll bet those people in Washington have never sung in a church choir!”
Ecclesiastical metaphor informs his talk of people’s everyday involvement with music as well. “There’s somebody talking about Thursday night rehearsal with the church choir…they can’t wait!…That’s what we can celebrate, even those who don’t have international careers. Making music makes you a nice neighbor.”
If Jarreau speaks idealistically of the place of his art form in the context of community, he doesn’t lack reason to do so. A calendar full of concerts throughout the globe, an extension of the stereotype of jazz elders finding more fervid audiences abroad than their U.S. home turf includes music workshops in Budapest and performance dates in Hamburg, Rome, and London. Though he had occasionally reached the upper reaches of the domestic pop chart in the ‘80s, Jarreau’s strengths may be best appreciated by listeners with broad palettes for refined tastes. In bringing his work, including this year’s tribute album, to Jarreau’s renowned former bass player collaborator and multiple genre mainstay, My Old Friend: Celebrating George Duke (Concord) to the globe, he abets a sort of international understanding among kindred souls better than the U.N. could ever hope to accomplish.
But his is an industriousness rooted in his Wisconsin upbringing. “It’s in my bones. I grew up with that work ethic that comes from the heart of Germany, Sweden and Poland. I’ve missed less than three days of school or work in my life. Milwaukee isn’t the only city contributing to his nose-to-the-grindstone perseverance, either. Ripon made an impact as well.
“Boys State was an exercise in local and state government, but happens at Ripon College. High school juniors are invited for a stay, and practice local government. I was governor at Boys State,” Jarreau says of the experience that led to his receipt of a scholarship he used toward his degree in social work…”which I lost in a year, but I picked up a basketball scholarship.” Also, he went shared the campus with actor Harrison Ford, a Ripon student at the time of Jarreau’s tenure there.
For all of his love for the state of his birth and its contributions to his career, he would still like at least a couple shows of reciprocation. Even with the city’s abundance of jazz on more than one radio station and numerous club nights monthly, “I still haven’t found a way to play Madison!” Jarreau exclaims with understandable frustration.
It’s not merely the mysterious reluctance of the genre gatekeepers in the capitol city, though. “We’re just going through such a drought and famine of adult music. Promoters are scared to death. It’s having an effect on the artists and the ability (of the public) to see them,” Jarreau said.
The recession and a concert market rife with acts possessed of more apparent youth appeal don’t get him down, though. Without talking himself up out of egotism, he knows he provides an inspirational example, “People from Wisconsin and Milwaukee need to hear about people from Wisconsin doing good,” he smiles.
Comparing the effect Prince has had on Minneapolis’ culture and bringing it to a wider listenership, Jarreau says of yours truly and Scene’s readership, “It’s so important for me to talk to good people like you.”
As it is for local music fans to remember home state guys-made-good, like Al Jarreau.
- Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
- Attended Ripon College earning a BS in Psychology – 1962
- Earned a Master’s Degree in Vocational Rehabilitation from the U. of Iowa
- Worked as a rehab counselor in San Francisco and moonlighted in a jazz trio
- 1968 he made music his primary occupation
- 1975 he released debut album “We Got By” winning a German Grammy
- Wrote and performed the theme to the TV show Moonlighting starring Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd
- He’s won 7 Grammy’s domestically
- 2003 he began touring and performing with orchestral symphonies
- He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
- His latest of more than 22 albums is a tribute to George Duke
- He still tours and performs live