Tribute to Musician & Singer Al Jarreau

We pay tribute to the legendary musician and singer who recently passed away.

Multiple Grammy winner Al Jarreau 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—to whom he paid tribute with his CD, "My Old Friend." Described by Time as "the greatest jazz singer alive," Jarreau toured extensively and was a master in front of a live audience, with his sextet and in symphony shows. The talented and world renowned vocalist passed away February 12, 2017 leaving a legacy of artistry that will never be forgotten.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight we celebrate the life and legacy of Al Jarreau. We’re glad you’ve joined us. A tribute to Al Jarreau coming up right now.

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

Tavis: Yesterday, Al Jarreau died here in Los Angeles at the age of 76. The seven-time Grammy winner had recently announced his retirement from touring after being hospitalized for exhaustion. I feel most fortunate to have had him on this program many times over the years.

He helped us celebrate many milestones on this program, including our fifth and tenth year anniversaries. In fact, he joined us on our very first night on this network back in 2004 and was kind enough to perform one of my favorite songs. I’ll let introduce it for you.

Tavis: “As we say goodbye tonight, I’m thrilled to have a dear friend who brought his unique voice along with him to help us bring our first show to a close. He’s had so many hits and I have so little time, but he’s here to sing a song I love called…

Al Jarreau: “Jacaranda Bougainvillea”.

Tavis: Yeah, that song [laugh]. My dear friend, Al Jarreau, take it away.

Jarreau: Oh, wow. I’m sorry we have to cut this short because it was starting in the middle. A tribute to New South Africa, the New South Africa.”


Tavis: Al celebrated our successes and we celebrated his. This next conversation took place after he learned that his tribute album to his friend, George Duke, called “My Old Friend” had topped the charts. We discussed why he chose music as a profession, his creative process and if, after a decades long career, he believed that music still had the power to change the world.

Tavis: “Number one this week?

Jarreau: Yeah.

Tavis: Number one? So you’ve done it again, you’ve done it again [laugh]. A number one album. Tell me about the decision and maybe it even wasn’t a decision, but how did you process back in the 60s swimming upstream, as you put it?

Jarreau: I couldn’t help it.

Tavis: Cutting against the grain?

Jarreau. I couldn’t help it. That’s what I was saying a moment ago. Maybe neither of us had any choice. I came up listening to Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstein, Nat Cole and all those people in my living room. My brothers and sisters were older than me. I was number five of six…

Tavis: Back in Milwaukee?

Jarreau: Back in Milwaukee. Number five of six kids, and they were listening to jazzy kind of music, big band music, and those artists that I mentioned there. So I listened to that in my living room and they were singing it. That’s the main thing is they were singing it. They had quartets in my living room. They were singing stuff and I was looking up going [scatting] and didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to do that [laugh].

Tavis: My man [laugh].

Jarreau: That’s what I mean by no choice [laugh].

Tavis: I’m laughing because I’m sure at five, you really were doing that.

Jarreau: Well, let’s have some of that, yeah.

Tavis: I’m sure you were, man.

Jarreau: I didn’t know I was not supposed to say, “Your lips were like a red and ruby chalice warmer than the summer night.” I was singing that stuff six or seven years old kind of to myself. I didn’t want them to hear me. But when I went down to the basement shoveling coal – we had a coal fire stove in the basement – oh, my goodness.

Yeah, so that’s kind of what I mean by it being in your bones. And the church was there too with its message, Tavis, so all of that is inside the music. I’m glad for having no choice. You know, I think in some kinds of ways, we are all born into stuff that gives us no choice.

Tavis: That thumbprint.

Jarreau: And we have a thumbprint to express, and that’s kind of the beauty of people born on the other side of the tracks. Nobody can tell that story like you. A guy born with a silver spoon in his mouth can’t tell that story like you can tell that story with this thumbprint born into your life. Celebrate it. Do something with it and celebrate it.

Tavis: I want to come back to this project in a second. But that little scatting thing that you do all the time, you just did a moment ago, how did you – not that I ever will – but how did you become proficient at that?

I mean, I can just say, “Go, Al,” and you can make the most interesting sounds and beats and rhythms with your vocal chords. Is that just a gift? Have you worked with that over the years?

Jarreau: Yeah, I’ve worked at it. There’s some gift there. The gift comes, you know…

Tavis: Do that again. Give me something else. Do something.


Tavis: My man, my man [laugh].

Jarreau: You know, you got to be driving your car, you got to be washing dishes [scatting], and that’s when good music and new music comes. Busy your hands with a little something that doesn’t mean anything to do. Just busy your hands, drive the car, it opens up that other side of your mind. We ought to talk about creative process sometime.

Tavis: Yeah. Let’s talk about it now.

Jarreau: Okay.

Tavis: Tell me about it.

Jarreau: I was just saying that’s how songs begin. That’s how you get in touch to create now like God created if you can get in touch. And you kind of do it in the garden, working the garden. You’ll plant some flowers, people feel at peace and such good feelings inside of them. A lot of people will write the beginning of a song. Happens all the time for me.

And there’s some research about what happens when you busy your hands with about what’s going on in a certain kind of your brain, prefrontal, that opens up a whole other thing and it’s the create. You see and hear. I saw us talking today. There’s a whole line of things that we could talk about that I saw this morning when I was washing dishes [laugh].

Tavis: I got to start using my hands, then. I got to start using my hands more often, yeah [laugh].

Jarreau: Just driving the car, the rock garden. You know, the priests in Asia, rock garden, opening up that other side of the mind, getting in touch with God. Sisters know the Rosary. It ain’t about saying that over and over again. It’s what happens when your hands and your mind are busy with some repetitive, manual, simple function and what it does.

It opens up this way to be in touch. It’s the joy, Tavis, in waking up in the morning and go {sniff], man, here I am. Thank you, Father. I’m not as — I’m not running 1,000 miles an hour anymore. My 100-meter times are not the same [laugh].

But here I am and I got this song to sing and I got some people who like hearing me singing it. What did Maya Angelou say? “People may forget what you say. People may forget what you do. But they will never forget how you’ve made them feel.”

Tavis: How you made them feel, yeah.

Jarreau: You got to the stage with that in your heart and bring people a feeling that uplifts them, gives them courage and strength and faith and hope. That’s the deal.

Tavis: There are a lot of folk — I didn’t just hear you. I felt that expression. I felt it across this space here. There are a lot of people, though, sadly, who no longer believe that music is still pregnant with that kind of potency, that kind of power. You still believe music has the power to change the world.

Jarreau: Incredible power, great power. Marcus Miller was with us when we did this great celebration of jazz in Turkey sponsored by the U.N. and the Thelonious Monk Institution in collaboration.

Tavis: You and Herbie, yeah.

Jarreau: Yeah. Herbie was there too and Marcus Miller sat on the stage and a question like that got raised. And Marcus said so wonderfully and eloquently, “Well, you know, we go to Japan or we go to Italy and people don’t speak the same language that we do. But as soon as we start to play, we’re talking the same language.”

Music, special magic that communicates feelings and sensitivities that are human and what is so wonderful about the art. Let your kids get involved in the arts and study this workshop of human sensitivities. Sadness, joy, happiness and aware of sadness and joy and happiness in their lives. Our Congress ain’t never listened to any kind of music [laugh].

Tavis: That’s the problem, huh?

Jarreau: Hey!

Tavis: Congress needs a music appreciation class.

Jarreau: Yes, that’s right.

Tavis: And that might change their whole outlook [laugh]. You might be on to something, Al. Instead of cutting music programs in schools, they ought to be sitting in a music class, yeah.

Jarreau: That’s right. Human sensitivities, the workshop of human sensitivities [laugh].”

Tavis: In 2006, Al collaborated with then label-made George Benson on the album, “Giving it Up”. They stopped by the studio and revealed how Sir Paul McCartney who was anxious to meet Al dropped by their recording session and ended up on the record.

Tavis: “I’ll let you tell the story. Go ahead.

Jarreau: Go ahead, George.

George Benson: I’ll tell you this. He came in to pay his respects. I’ve been knowing him for 20-something years…

Tavis: He came in from a studio next door where he was recording something?

Jarreau: That’s right.

Benson: He was on the grounds because it’s a big complex, got a lot of studios. And out of the clear blue sky, he comes in. Now everybody’s in the room. You know, we got super stars in there, Herbie Hancock and Stanley Clarke and…

Tavis: And George Benson and Al Jarreau.

Jarreau: Marcus Miller.

Benson: He came in. He wanted to meet Al because he’d never met Al. He came in and he said, “George?” And everybody’s jaw dropped. They said, “That looks like Paul McCartney.” I said, “Sir Paul McCartney to you!” [laugh]. We had a very friendly, you know, meeting and, Al, tell them what happened when I asked them — because we were playing back, you know, Sam Cooke’s tune and…

Jarreau: “Bring it on Home”. We were listening to it again, getting ready to do some work on it ourselves. George says, “Paul, you know this song, don’t you? Would you do it? Would you sing it down?” Paul says, “Do you believe the bloody cheek of this guy? I’m trying to do me own album. He’s getting me to sing on his album? What do you think of that?” [laugh]. Two days later…

Tavis: But it worked.

Jarreau: Two days later, he came back. He thought about it and, two days later, he came back and was ready to sing [laugh].

Tavis: That’s a cool story.

Benson: Oh, it’s a wonderful story.

Tavis: So McCartney just drops in and, two days later, here he is on the record.

Jarreau: Amen.”

Tavis: The only thing more important to Al Jarreau than his music was his love for people. He was always traveling the globe meeting people where they lived. He saw himself as a citizen artist and we talked about it.

Tavis: “I don’t want to color this question anymore because if you don’t know Al Jarreau, then you don’t know that Al has thoughts about everything and I love hearing them. So talk to me about — yeah, I know. Let me make you political deliberately and on purpose.

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. They 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: (Laugh) 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.”

Tavis: In the aftermath of the passing of his friend and collaborator, George Duke, Al shared his own thoughts about death. It would be his very last appearance on this program.

Tavis: “When you lose a friend, a 40 or 50-year friend like George Duke, and he was gone so fast, it seems, do you start to think about your own dance with mortality?

Jarreau: Of course, of course.

Tavis: And what are you thinking, if I can ask?

Jarreau: Hey, man, it gave me a chance to review the truth about the matter and it’s that we are okay. I’m from the spirit of God which is cross over and move on. We cross over and move on. We talk about it all the time at funerals, that he’s moved on, and we mention and he’s gone on to heaven. Well, the ideas we got from somewhere and, whatever we got it from, it’s right.

It’s that this ain’t the end. It would be unlike anything in existence that I know of that is like this and ends here. Nothing ends. It comes from something, goes on to something else, and that’s the mission that we’re on is to beautify this, study and learn that…

Tavis: And move on.

Jarreau: And move on. Sorry, Tavis, I probably blew the whole hour, didn’t I?

Tavis: No, you didn’t. You said something profound that I’m sure people at home are wrestling with right now, marinating on even as we speak.

Jarreau: It’s okay. That’s the thought.

Tavis: It’s okay.

Jarreau: That’s the final thought.

Tavis: And it’s okay.

Jarreau: It’s okay. We are in the bosom. We sing about it all the time, but keep singing about it until you understand it. We are in the bosom. God loses nothing.”


Jarreau: Here comes some Lionel Hampton.


Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

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

Last modified: February 14, 2017 at 2:59 pm