Grammy-winning singer and beloved jazz musician Alwin Lopez Jarreau, 76, died Sunday morning in Los Angeles after being hospitalized for exhaustion, just two days following the cancellation of his concert tour and his retirement from music after spending practically a lifetime doing it.
Jarreau, who shortened his professional first name to Al before recording roughly two dozen albums over four decades, was one of the most celebrated jazz vocalists of the modern era. He came as close to being mainstream R&B and pop as any modern-day jazz artist could. Not that being a mainstream artist is every (or even any) jazzman’s dream – I firmly believe that musicians who choose jazz do so because of their love of the music and the art form, certainly not because of any great financial rewards they can reap from it, which are usually meager when compared to that of their mainstream counterparts.
However, every now and then, the moon and stars align perfectly to create that perfect storm where a jazz artist can see daylight on popular music charts and paychecks with a couple of extra zeros on them.
Al Jarreau was one such artist.
However, despite the allure of pop stardom, Jarreau was one of those musicians who stayed close to his jazz roots throughout a long, stellar career that included seven Grammy Awards, eighteen more nominations, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, entry into the Soul Music Hall of Fame, and honorary doctorates at the Berklee College of Music and the University of Wisconsin at his hometown of Milwaukee. He remains the only artist who’s won Grammy awards in the jazz, pop and R&B fields of music, winning for jazz and pop in the same year for his classic album Breakin’ Away in 1982.
Indeed, music fans and critics alike loved Breakin’ Away – and by extension Al Jarreau himself, whose success before that breakthrough album was limited to the jazz charts and a few low-placed entries on the R&B list.
But his Jazz success was indisputable. Of the 21 studio and live albums he released between 1975’s critically acclaimed début We Got By and his most recent, 2014’s My Old Friend: Celebrating George Duke, he reached the Jazz Top Ten in Billboard 17 times, including six Number Ones.
In 1980, after the release of his fourth album, This Time, black radio began to give him a few more spins, which resulted in his first Top-40 single on Billboard’s Hot Soul Singles chart, the No. 26-peaking “Never Givin’ Up.” I vividly remember that song as a teenager living in the Philadelphia metro area and how legendary R&B station WDAS-FM had it in heavy rotation. It made such an impression on me that I placed the song in the top-five of my weekly Top-75 personal countdown, which at that time I was creating on a regular basis.
In a way, one could say that Al Jarreau contributed to my ever-expanding love of music at a very young age, an effect he would soon have on a larger audience with his next release.
That’s when Breakin’ Away came (in 1981) and opened the floodgates.
That album yielded the title track and a song that would become a permanent staple in old-school R&B radio, “We’re In This Love Together,” his first of three pop crossover hits. Indeed, that song – along with future hits like “Mornin’,” “Boogie Down” and “Moonlighting (theme)” – demonstrated just how versatile an artist Jarreau was and that he was just as comfortable crooning over a smooth R&B groove as he was scatting over a free-style jazz vamp.
And it didn’t stop there. Al Jarreau extended his talents to other projects as well, lending his name to children’s albums (for which he received two Best Children’s Album Grammy nominations and one win – in 1981 for In Harmony: A Sesame Street Record) and motion picture and TV soundtracks, including the aforementioned “Moonlighting” TV theme and six movies (Do The Right Thing, Breakin’ and Out Of Africa among them).
Needless to say, Jarreau was a highly sought-after artist during his prime. He was one of the 45 artists who contributed to “We Are The World,” for which he was given a lead vocal segment (“and so we all must lend a helping hand”).
He even delved into rap, performing the role of a philandering playboy in Sister Sledge’s 1983 hit, “Betcha Say That To All The Girls.” Although the pickup lines he used in the song to separately “hit on” all four sisters ultimately lead to his character’s undoing, they were delivered quite convincingly in rap form, especially for a jazz artist with very little experience in hip-hop – itself still a relatively new genre at the time.
I never had the pleasure of seeing Al Jarreau perform live in concert, but by many accounts he was reportedly a very good live performer who toured vigorously up to the end. That end came just last week with the announcement of his retirement due to illness.
I had the eerie feeling at that point that he was saying goodbye to us. Little did I know that it would come this soon.
I already miss him.
Below, I’ve created a small tribute and token of appreciation to this legendary jazz/pop/R&B artist with a djroblist of his ten greatest musical memories. I hope you enjoy it.
Rest in power, Al Jarreau.