Full name, Alwyn Lopez Jarreau; born March 12, 1940, in Milwaukee, Wis.; son of Emile (a minister and welder) and Pearl (a pianist) Jarreau; married Phyllis Hall (divorced); married second wife, Susan. Education: Ripon College, B.S., 1962; University of Iowa, M.S., 1964. Addresses: Office-- c/o Patrick Rains, 8752 Holloway Dr., Los Angeles, Calif. 90069.

Al Jarreau is regarded by many fans as the quintessential jazz vocalist. Schooled in the jazz tradition that produced such scat singers as Billie Holiday and Nat "King" Cole, Jarreau has adapted the style to become one of jazz-fusion's premier voices. His remarkable versatility and orginality have earned the singer/songwriter widespread acclaim, including two Grammy Awards for best male vocalist as well as several European music awards. Dubbed the Acrobat of Scat, Jarreau, for many critics, stands unrivaled by other singers of his generation.

Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Jarreau grew up as part of a musically inclined family. His father, a Seventh-day Adventist minister, was an accomplished singer, and his mother was a church pianist. Some of Jarreau's earliest musical experiences, in fact, involved church music. As he told Robert Palmer in an interview for Rolling Stone: "I can remember rocking on my mother's knee in church, hearing music and being transported by it. I think I got transported sometime way back there and never really came back yet; some part of me is still way off out there."

As a youth, however, Jarreau was exposed to more than just church music. He listened to everything from country music to the then-popular tunes of entertainers such as Patti Page, Frankie Lane, and the Four Freshmen, whose harmonizing ability he particularly admired. In addition, Jarreau sang songs from Broadway shows as a high school student, and he fell in love with jazz. Indeed, throughout his college and graduate school years, as well as during his days as a counselor for the handicapped in San Francisco, Jarreau found time for jazz.

Finally, in 1968, the singer decided to give up his counseling career and devote his full attention to music. Although he had been singing in San Francisco night clubs as a sideline to his primary career, even performing with pianist George Duke's jazz trio, the transition to full-time musicianship was a difficult one for Jarreau. He spent nearly a year teamed with Brazilian guitarist Julio Martinez, entertaining at Gatsby's, a jazz club in Sausalito, California, then moved on to Los Angeles and subsequently to New York City. But despite performances in many eminent venues, Jarreau was unable to secure a recording contract. Though this was not considered unusual in the late 1960s, when heavy metal and acid rock were in vogue, Jarreau decided to head back to his hometown, Milwaukee, where he temporarily fronted his own jazz-rock group.

Shortly thereafter, Jarreau returned to Los Angeles, where, still unable to interest the record producers, he continued to develop his repertoire of vocal techniques and began creating his own lyrics. Before long he became a popular performer at Studio City's Bla Bla Cafe, and his career was launched after Warner Bros. president, Mo Austin, heard him perform at the Troubador in Hollywood. Austin signed the singer to a contract in 1975, and Warner Bros. released his first album, We Got By, that same year.

Comprised mostly of original songs, We Got By showcased the versatility and inventiveness that had earned Jarreau such a devoted local following. He is most highly praised for his innovative scat singing. Scat, an improvisational vocal style that evolved with be-bop in the 1940s, uses nonsense words and syllables for vocal effect. Jarreau is credited with both continuing and adapting the tradition of such greats as Billie Holiday, Nat "King" Cole, John Hendricks, and Dave Lambert. Writing for Rolling Stone, Robert Palmer observed that "while the scat singers of previous generations imitated saxophones and trumpets with their shun-diddly-do-wahs and jazz drummers with their oop-bop-sh'bams, Jarreau imitates the electronic and percussive hardware of the Seventies."

After We Got By, Jarreau continued to record well-received albums. His next, Glow, incorporated some pop, Look to the Rainbow was a live recording, and All Fly Home combined originals with oldies. Although Jarreau had toured Europe, where he was enormously popular, the artist remained relatively unknown in the United States, despite Grammy Awards for best male jazz vocalist in 1978 and 1979, until the commercial success of Breakin' Away in 1981.

Jarreau's very success, however, has given some critics cause for disappointment. There are reviewers, for example, who disparage Breakin' Away for relying on formula ballads that please pop fans while neglecting the scat skills that have made Jarreau one of jazz-fusion's top talents. Similar laments have greeted the artist's succeeding albums, with recent releases, like High Crime and L Is for Lover, regarded by jazz purists as pop-funk style commercial recordings.

Regardless of the criticism accorded his albums, however, Jarreau rarely gives anything but superlative live performances. Indeed, the Acrobat of Scat is a charismatic performer who delights in displaying the full range of his vocal talents--and who refuses to be limited by anyone. As he told down beat 's Steve Bloom: "I like to do a lot of music, so I don't intend to be confined by my critics or anybody else. I might want to do some punk rock & roll someday. And I like to sing rhythm & blues, too. I may funk for an album and then do some jazz. Or my next thing might be inspired by some classical piece of music 'cause that's in me too. But you can be sure of one thing--whatever it is I do, it'll always be fine music."

by Nancy H. Evans

Al Jarreau's Career

Worked as a counselor for the handicapped in San Francisco, Calif., 1965-68; jazz vocalist and composer, 1968--; solo recording artist, 1975--. Has appeared on television and in film.

Al Jarreau's Awards

Named outstanding male vocalist by German Music Academy, 1976; named number one jazz vocalist by Cashbox magazine, 1976; Italian Music Critics Award for best foreign vocalist, 1977; winner of down beat magazine readers' poll for best male vocalist, 1977-81; Grammy Awards from National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, 1978 and 1979, for best male vocalist; Emmy Award nomination from National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, 1985, for musical theme for television series "Moonlighting"; recipient of Mabel Mercer Award.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

almost 14 years ago

I have been a huge fan for many years and have seen him in concert 18 times and he is trully a performer. He has been my favorite artist since the early 80's and I hope to see him many more times. I was a little scared when I heard that he fell ill while in Europe but am happy that he will make a full recovery. I am going to see for the 19th time in August. Get well soon Mr. Jarreau, your fans still want to hear you perform.