Jazz vocalist Al Jarreau

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One of the most innovative vocalists in the music world, Jarreau gives an update on his recent projects.

Seven-time Grammy winner Al Jarreau has the distinction of having won the Recording Academy's highest honor in three different categories (jazz, pop and R&B). However, music wasn't always the major force in his life. He excelled in sports and earned a master's degree in vocational rehabilitation. The Wisconsin native began a career as a counselor in San Francisco, but ultimately gave in to his passion for performing, getting his start by moonlighting with a jazz trio led by the late George Duke. Described by Time as "the greatest jazz singer alive," Jarreau tours extensively worldwide and is a master in front of a live audience, with his sextet and in symphony shows.


Tavis: (Laughter) Al Jarreau earned his first international Grammy for his debut album, “We Got Vibe.” More awards quickly followed as his remarkable voice sent him to the top of the jazz, pop, and R&B charts, one of only two people to win Grammys in all three categories.

He stays on tour, where he’s made time for us tonight. I don’t know how you did that, because he never seems to be in town long enough to sit for a conversation. But he’s here tonight, just as he was when this series debuted on PBS 10 years ago. You see this sign behind me?

Al Jarreau: Uh-huh.

Tavis: That says “Tavis 10?” Al Jarreau was our guest on our very first night.

Jarreau: I tell people that. (Laughter)

Tavis: It’s all because of you that I’m still here. I just didn’t want this year, this season to end, no matter what you were doing, or doing nothing, I just didn’t want this season to end without getting a chance to say thank you for being here on night one. You ain’t got to have to have nothing going on. I just love talking to you. But I’m glad you’re here.

Jarreau: Well thank you, and I do mention that Tavis is a friend of Al Jarreau. Da, da, da, da, go Al, go Al. (Laughter)

Tavis: Before we get this conversation started, because I just love this voice, I want to hear some Al Jarreau. So let’s just take a clip at Al Jarreau on tour.

[Clip of Al Jarreau in live performance]

Tavis: I don’t know if I still have it 10 years later, but you still got it. (Laughter) You still got it.

Jarreau: Well, you definitely have it, Tavis. Your work is just – I remember saying to you, “Tavis for president.” I don’t know if I’d wish that on you these days.

Tavis: You see what Obama’s going through? I don’t want none of that. (Laughter) They’re trying to shut the government down and everything. I don’t want no parts of that, no parts of that. We’ll get to politics in just a second here.

But you are always on the road. Whenever I reach out just to say hello, you’re somewhere in some strange part of the world. You’re not tired of all this traveling yet?

Jarreau: Oh, it’s part of my prayers every day, man. Thank you, Father, thank you, Father. We’re coming into the Thanksgiving season, but every day is Thanksgiving for me, man. Yeah, I still have an audience, and they ask the local promoter, “When is Al coming back?” Thank you. (Laughter) I don’t know what else I would do anyway.

Tavis: How have you, after all these years, protected this instrument? Because it’s one thing to sing sort of straight ahead, but the runs that you take your voice through on all of your stuff, how do you protect it?

Jarreau: Well, I push it, I push it, and I’m closer to a baritone bass than I am trying to scream up there with all of those tenor voices, Michael and Robin Thicke now, all those guys singing up there in the soprano range.

So I pushed my voice and it does wear and tear on the throat. But the main thing is just I’ve been healthy, and I think a singer is an athlete. I’ve always tried to stay fit. Until my knee said, “Uh-uh,” I was jogging. Then I started walking. They don’t like walking a lot, but I’ll push them.

I’m walking every day and just staying kind of fit, and try not to have too many bad habits. Keep it minimal.

Tavis: Speaking of knees, I went down on my knees in prayer a couple of years ago, and I hated the fact that you were so far away from me that I couldn’t get to you. I couldn’t get you on the phone because you were sick. I couldn’t get you on the phone, I couldn’t reach out to touch you, but I was on my knees praying for you back in 2010, I think it was. You gave us a healthcare – in France.

Jarreau: Yeah.

Tavis: Man, I was just, I was like, Lord, don’t let nothing happen to Al Jarreau.

Jarreau: Well what I discovered is that I have a couple of valves that were leaky and had been giving, gave me a problem then. But I hadn’t noticed anything up until then.

A couple of incidents of shortness of breath and checked myself into a hospital, but that one in France really sat me down for a few minutes – a very few minutes, because seven days later I was in the studio, and eight days later, I was no the stage. (Laughter)

Tavis: My man.

Jarreau: No, I’m not stopping.

Tavis: How did you know – I’ve asked this question of so many guests over the years, and I ask it because I’m always curious about how and when and where you came into the knowledge that this was your unique gift, that you were going to spend your life empowering and entertaining and inspiring and helping us fall in love and make babies and all the stuff you helped us do?

Jarreau: Oh, Tavis, I sat on the piano bench next to my mother in church. Something happened before I set foot on this planet. I was crawling around inside of her. She was a church pianist. My dad was a brilliant singer. I was hearing it.

Tavis: Milwaukee.

Jarreau: In Milwaukee. I came here with something in me that I inherited from my folks. So I’m going to do something called life and times. You can call me Alwin when – my first name is Alwin – and it’s going to be about how I came to be who I am.

It’s going to be musically done, one man, and I got some people interested in that as a story that includes an orchestra. I can’t say a lot more about it, but we’re going to do that and tell this story about what happened. I was age six or seven, and singing, (singing) “Jesus wants me for her son, beep, to shine for him,” and people smiled and pinched my cheeks till the blood vessels broke, (laughter) and I knew I was doing something right.

I had the fever really early on, six or seven years old. I did a concert at five years old in the garden of one of the church members, and we raised some money to buy a new piano in our little church.

Tavis: At five?

Jarreau: In Milwaukee, yeah. So yeah, I kind of knew something was going on, and my older brothers and sisters were singing be-boppish kinds of stuff in the living room, and I was listening. I started singing, (singing, unintelligible) warmer than a summer night, at seven or eight years old.

I didn’t know I was not supposed to sing intervals like that. But there it was, right in front of me, to take in as stuff that would later become part of my signature and thumbprint.

Tavis: Speaking of thumbprint, you said to me in one of our conversations that – and I’m paraphrasing, I can’t say it as beautifully as you said it. But just like our thumbprint makes us uniquely different than anybody in the world, you said to me in one of our conversations we have a thumbprint on our throats.

Jarreau: In our throats.

Tavis: That every one of us has a thumbprint in our throats.

Jarreau: That’s right.

Tavis: Your voice is distinctive in the world, and you’ve got to give some volume to your voice. The world needs to hear what you have to say. But we all have thumbprints on our throats. Man, that was the most deep, philosophical thing I’d ever heard.

Jarreau: Well Tavis, anyone who hears your voice in the middle of the night knows that’s Tavis Smiley. If you sang and did your first record, they’d know your voice just because of the textures in your voice that make your voice different than Billy Dee. (Laughter)

Tavis: I wish I had those Billy Dee looks. But how did you become, though – so you discovered this thumbprint on your throat when you’re five years old. You’re giving concerts in Milwaukee.

But how did you become so proficient? I’ve said it two or three times, I’ll say it again in case somebody tuned in late. You’re one of only two artists to win Grammys in three different categories. How did you become so versatile in so many different genres?

Jarreau: Well, it’s all background experience and listening and exposure. That’s why it’s so important for people today and during any time to expose your children to lots of different kinds of things.

I know more polkas than Frankie Yankovic. (Laughter) I grew up next door to the Polka Tavern in Milwaukee. Are you kidding me? Shoot, I can sing some polkas. Don’t get me started. (Laughter) And proud of that. And proud of that.

Tavis: But you have not done a polka album, though, have you?

Jarreau: No, I have not.

Tavis: Al Jarreau does polka. (Laughter) Yeah, who knows, man? I don’t know if that would sell or not, but yeah.

Jarreau: But the point is I watched Elvis Presley become – I listened to Elvis Presley. I watched Chuck Berry become. I listened to Little Richard. I heard that music, and it was part of my upbringing.

I sang do-wop on the street corner before it was called do-wop. We just did a concert the other night, and I and the band come down front, (singing do-wop). And I’d say (singing do-wop).

Tavis: (Singing) “Photo op.” (Laughter) I love it.

Jarreau: I did that with Take Six in the airport. (Laughter) In Istanbul, we ran into each other in Istanbul and we took pictures and we started singing “photo op” in harmony in the Istanbul international airport. (Laughter)

Tavis: See, I would – first, I love Istanbul. But I would have died – all those voices. First of all, Take Six is amazing.

Jarreau: Amazing.

Tavis: And you put Al Jarreau and Take Six together and you’re singing a capella? Oh, that’s – oh, man.

Jarreau: In the airport, taking photos. (Laughter) Well, they sang on my Christmas record and I sang on one of their records. Our families go back to this little denominational school in Huntsville, Alabama.

Tavis: Oh, yeah, I know it –

Jarreau: Oakwood College.

Tavis: I know it well.

Jarreau: My dad graduated seminary there, and so did (sounds like) Mark Kimball’s grandfather. They sang in a quartet together, my dad and Mark Kimball’s grandfather. So – thank you, Father. Amazing, amazing, yeah.

That gets mentioned every night on stage too. Every day is Thanksgiving. Thank you, Father. On this stage you’re going to hear God and none of them other words, and I ain’t going to touch my stuff. (Laughter)

Tavis: Yeah. None of that, huh?

Jarreau: Excuse me, y’all. (Laughter)

Tavis: You’re a class act.

Jarreau: Well, the thing is –

Tavis: You’re a class act.

Jarreau: The thing is, Tavis, we need to keep some voices that represent some kind of wholesome stuff, because we’re – there are other voices that are making a gazillion dollars –

Tavis: That don’t.

Jarreau: – doing the other thing, and kids are listening. Kids are listening.

Tavis: Speaking of kids listening, and you mentioned Take Six, I would assume – and I could be wrong – I would assume, though, it’s one of the great joys of your life to have listened to all these persons you listed earlier when you were a kid growing up in Milwaukee.

To now have artists as they launch, as they break, I see so many times where people say, “He sounds like Al Jarreau.” I remember when Kim, the artist out of Detroit, came out. They said, “Oh, man, you’ve got to hear this guy Kim. He sounds like Al Jarreau.”

I’ve heard two or three other people who – but I’m only getting at it must be, I assume it must be a high compliment when people come out that what they’re trying to do, or at least the way the music critics write about it, is that they compare them, or say he’s trying to be an Al Jarreau.

Jarreau: Well, that’s wonderful. Come on with it. I have to warn you, there ain’t a lot of money to be made doing it like me. (Laughter)

Tavis: You don’t want to be Al Jarreau, huh? Yeah. (Laughter)

Jarreau: Oh, I’m getting along okay. Come on and join it the way I joined it, and it was that – I do this for free and did it for free. A lot. And would still be doing it in some fashion for free, even if I had to make my money shining shoes.

I would still be singing, because it’s part of my heart and my soul, and it lifts me up. Find something you would do for free.

Tavis: That’s it. That’s it.

Jarreau: Let that get you up in the morning and put the light in your eyes. I’m telling you, it makes you a better husband, mother, father, neighbor, citizen, when you have that light in your eye, that you feel so good, and you’re a pleasant person to be around.

“Good morning, sir. Did you find everything that you need? Oh, that’s over in aisle seven. I’ll come help you as soon as,” that’s the stuff. Find something. It could be planting flowers, especially if you can watch it.

If you can make something where there was nothing before. Plant a flower. Rearrange the furniture. It wasn’t that way before. I think I like that. Ooh, that felt good to do that.

Tavis: See, I’m glad you said that, because I’ve always gotten the sense – obviously I’ve been a fan of yours since I was knee-high, but I’ve always gotten the sense that part of what turns you on every day, to your point now, is the chance to create something every day.

I’ve heard you in concert more time than I can count. I’ve never heard you do even songs I love – on this new project, your latest project, “Al Jarreau and the Metropole Orchestra,” there are a couple of tracks on here that I’ve heard you do a thousand times.

But the way you do it with this orchestra I’ve never – “After All,” first of all, is “After All” one of the greatest love songs ever written, or what?

Jarreau: Oh, a wonderful love song. David Foster and Jay Graydon, who did some work with me in the early ’80s and helped me find a new audience that was R&B and pop, wrote that music, and I did a lyric.

Yeah, it’s a sweetheart love song. These days I like to say for one brief, shining moment there was a place called Camelot. In fact, I’ve used that in reference to that period in America, where we got beyond our differences and we elected a Black man.

That sent messages across the universe. It might have even been a woman at that time. Could have been Hillary.

Tavis: Might be.

Jarreau: What a message, yeah.

Tavis: Might still be, yeah.

Jarreau: What a message. Anyway, yeah, I like what happened in that song, and we sing it every night.

Tavis: It could be “After All,” it could be, obviously, the big, big, big, big, big, big hit, “We’re in This Love Together,” it could be “Spain.”

Jarreau: Yeah. I sing those things –

Tavis: But you never sing them the same way. You’re creating something different every time.

Jarreau: Well, that’s what –

Tavis: You scat your way through it, you change keys.

Jarreau: Right. Well, that’s one of the commandments of improvisation, and improvisation is happening now in rock and roll, where guys are improvising in this, according to this dictate that was jazz.

Come there and step out there and venture and create something tonight that you didn’t do last night. Let that person in the first row with the green dress and red hat make you play a little differently than you did last night.

It happened to me the other night. There was a lady in the audience, I sang to her. (Laughter) That’s the commandment. That’s what jazz brought. Jazz brought this sense of democracy where four guys come together and your name may be on the marquee, but in this moment, when you’re the soloist, it’s you, and we follow you. We follow you.

Tavis: But it takes a great deal of courage – here’s where your modesty comes in and I’ve got to push back on your modesty, respectfully. What you do is to improvise live every night on stage.

I can tell you some bands that I actually like, but I can go to their show right now – I ain’t going to call their names, but I can go to their show tonight and I can tell you the run of the show.

I can tell you the time they’re going to play each song. I love seeing them because I love the way they sound, but I know what to expect. There’s no improvisation. The show never changes. It is what it is, and they still sell tickets.

But you step out on stage with courage every night and improvise live in front of us. That takes a bit of courage to do that, I would think.

Jarreau: Well, I learned it from the guys around me who did it before, and that was the lesson that they taught – that it’s okay to step out there. It does take that kind of courage, and thank you for paying me that wonderful compliment.

Tavis: Well, it’s what you do.

Jarreau: I’d like to say it every day, but I can’t do that. But you did. (Laughter)

Tavis: No, you deserve it. You mentioned earlier in this conversation, you made mention of citizens. That’s a word that I use all the time. It’s a word that so many of us don’t use. I use the phrase “fellow citizen” all the time when referring to the – people always say, “The American people, the American people.”

I prefer the phrase fellow citizen because there’s a power in that, there’s a responsibility, there’s a duty in using that phrase fellow citizen. But since you went there, and I don’t want to color this question any more, because if you don’t know Al Jarreau, then you don’t know that Al has thoughts about everything, (laughter) and I love hearing them.

So talk to me about – yeah, I know. (Laughter) Let me make you political deliberately and on purpose. Give me – I don’t want to ask a particular question. Just give me your thoughts about the nation, the world that we live right now.

You’re always traveling the globe. Talk to me about how we’re doing as citizens of the world, of this nation.

Jarreau: There’s a group called the G9, and that’s all of the industrialized nations. Some of them were our allies during wars, but we mention them all the time because they are our friends.

I’m talking about France and Germany and Italy and Spain – new friend Germany – and I love that story, how they lead the world in some things that the world needs leadership in. Amongst them we’re the only ones without national healthcare.

Can’t go to a hospital and not worry about falling into bankruptcy. They go to university free. We’re killing our students with debt. That scares me. The 405 is the worst freeway to the airport that I’ve ever driven on.

I’ve been on a lot of freeways to the airport. Because our infrastructure is falling apart. Somebody has threatened Washington with no, you can’t raise any new tax dollars.

It’s got to come from deep pockets that hide it. I’m real unhappy about that. That hide it and don’t – and use our highways, use our airports, use our fire departments, use our libraries, use our universities, and then hoard it away and sit in an office and move zeroes and decimal points around.

Nobody’s doing this. Breaks my heart. We’ve got to find a way to fix that, because there are a lot of things that need some fixing and need some help, and a lot of it needs revenues, and new revenues.

Tavis: How much – I got two minutes to go and I could do this for days, for days, literally. In these last couple minutes, how then, given all that you’ve just laid out, all that our fellow citizens are up against, when they take their hard-earned money and choose the spend it in this country or anyplace else in the world, to come see Al Jarreau, does that give you – you’re going to give them the best show anyway that you can give them.

But given what people are up against and what they have to go through to come see you at a show, does that put any kind of extra “oomph” in your (laughter) performance because you know people had to make the sacrifice oftentimes to get there?

Jarreau: (Laughs) Yes. That’s always in the back of my thinking, that my – and it’s always been there – that my audience is not an audience that is flush with money. These are people who’ve really worked hard to come and hear me.

I love my cross-sectioned, cross-cultural audience. Some of them are doing better than the average guy, but my audience has always been people who are struggling to stay in the middle class.

Tavis: Everyday people.

Jarreau: Yeah, struggling to stay in the middle class, and I love that. That’s me and my dad and my family.

Tavis: I got 30 seconds left. Say a quick word about our now dearly departed friend, George Duke.

Jarreau: George Duke. Boy, what a power. We celebrate George every night since George went back to the angel realms that he came from. We celebrated him just the other night, and we did (unintelligible).

Tavis: Yeah, oh, what? You (unintelligible) the other night? Oh, man.

Jarreau: (Singing, unintelligible)

Tavis: I would have loved to have seen that. (Laughter) I love it, man, I love it. Al Jarreau is welcome; he’s welcome on this show any time. In case you tuned in late, Al Jarreau was my very first guest on my very first night on this show 10 seasons ago.

We didn’t want this season to end in December without him paying a visit, and so we finally caught him in town for 24 hours.

Jarreau: I thank you so much, Tavis.

Tavis: He’s still traveling for –

Jarreau: I love you. Keep on. Tavis for president. (Laughter)

Tavis: I love you. Al Jarreau for president – I love you. With our view, neither one of us has to worry about getting elected, though.

Jarreau: You’re right. (Laughter)

Tavis: The latest project from my friend Al Jarreau is called “Al Jarreau and the Metropole Orchestra Live.” Add it to your collection. Anything Al Jarreau does is worthy of being listened to, appreciated, and embraced. I love you, man. Give my best to Susan.

Jarreau: I love you. I will, thank you very much.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: November 6, 2013 at 11:32 pm