Al Jarreau on Finally Playing Denton, Singing at PTA Meetings and Sharing a Stage with Miles Davis
Courtesy the artist
At 74, Al Jarreau is one of the living legends of jazz and R&B. For well over five decades, the man has been one of the few singers to cross over and have success in the pop marketplace. Jarreau's 1981 album Breaking Away featured his signature song, the lovely "We're in This Love Together." Since then, Jarreau has been a consistent presence on both the jazz and pop charts.
Speaking from his home in California and in anticipation of headlining Friday's portion of Denton's Arts and Jazz Festival, Jarreau spoke with DC9 about his work as a rehabilitation counselor and how that related to his role as a musician.
DC9 at Night: You are headlining the Denton Arts & Jazz Festival. How long has it been since you've been in our area?
Jarreau: We were in Dallas sometime in 2013. I can't remember exactly. We were in Dallas recently, but never in Denton and I am not happy. Why didn't those guys invite me before? You have a jazz festival going on for a long time.
Yes, it is surprising seeing that Denton is the jazz capital of Texas.
My point exactly. Well said. So why hasn't anyone invited me before? That's many years as an oversight. We will make up for lost time.
You tour quite a bit. Is it too taxing physically and emotionally?
Of course, it's taxing, but it's what I do. It's how I have the most fun. That's the joy. I never planned to do this in my basement alone. The joy is to get out there and be with people and do the music. It's the fellowship. That is an old church word.
Then you would rather perform than record? There was a gap there in the '90s where you didn't release a lot of studio work.
Wait a minute; you better check my record. You want me to lay it out for you? I can. In 2002, I released All I Got. In 2004, there was Accentuate the Positive. In 2006, there was Al Jarreau and George Benson. In 2009, there was Excellent Adventure. In 2010, there was a record with George Duke. Check my record, Holmes. Don't bring that shit in here.
What I meant was that, in the past, you have stated that you would rather perform than record even though your albums are always well received. Your popularity has never waned over a long period of time.
I've been really, really fortunate to have an audience that has stuck with me. I think I am doing something right, something appealing. My audience takes joy in a certain kind of music that includes me and others that I hope to keep company with. I am doing a record with George Duke now which is a tribute to him. I hope I get mentioned in the same breath with people like that, people like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter and Chick Corea. That audience really looks to people like us to give them music that is hard to find. It is another kind of music. Yes, I've had a really loyal audience and I get on the charts.
You have always been successful throughout your life. You were student council president in high school.
Yes, extracurricular activities are my middle name. I always enjoyed sports and students organizations and the PTA. I've sang at more PTA meetings than anybody in the world. I enjoyed those activities, the whole broad scope of participation. This wasn't just in the classroom, but also in student affairs. There is a business to being a student. The entire educational process is monumentally important. I got a sense of that early on and I still feel that way. I am right alongside Bill Cosby when I say get on back to school.
You received your degree in psychology and worked as a rehabilitation counselor. Is that what you would be doing if you were not working in music?
My degree is in rehabilitation counseling. We worked with the disabled a lot. That is a broad category. We worked with everyone from people who were physically disabled to people with emotional, alcohol and drug related problems. I would be doing that if I wasn't in music. I did it for four years in San Francisco. That's where I first met George Duke. I was singing three nights a week with George while I worked as a counselor during the day.
Music does have its therapeutic aspects.
You bet, man. That's what attracts me most. I like having the opportunity to sing healing words to people. Music is like cardiology. We take care of people's hearts.
You album Breaking Away from 1981 really broke you commercially. What was it about that album that appealed to people outside of your normal fan base?
Up until then, my appeal was probably jazzier. On that album, I had come in touch with a young producer name Jay Graydon. I was just talking with him the other day. He told me that he wanted to tell me something. He was younger than me. He had that young friend attitude. He told me that I had a great pop voice, a great R&B voice. He told me that we should do some music that brings people to jazz by doing some pop things. On Breaking Away and other records that I did around that time with Jay, I began to do some things that reached a different audience than I had been reaching before. [And] they hung in there because they liked that mix.
You've shared the stage with many jazz legends. What was it like on a bill with Miles Davis?
I love Miles Davis. I never got to work with him in a studio. We shared the same stage. Once, we shared a bill together and I was supposed to open for him. He wanted to go home early so he refused to play unless he could go on first. That is a great story. I love that one. That is really the connection. I love him. I feel that I am singing like Miles.
You've done a lot of work with George Benson.
Yes, he is an incredible musician. He is one of the best singers born on this planet. It is amazing that it took as many years as it did for him to open his mouth and start singing. Once he started singing, people forgot that he is everybody's best jazz guitar player.