Al Jarreau, a nimble, charismatic singer who bridged contemporary jazz and smooth soul in a career that yielded both popular success and critical regard, died on Sunday at Los Angeles. He was 76.
His death was confirmed by his manager, Joe Gordon. Jarreau had announced his retirement from touring just last week, after being hospitalized in Los Angeles for exhaustion.
Jarreau won Grammy Awards in the three fields that defined his musical career: jazz, pop and R&B. His first Grammy, for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, was for the title track of Look to the Rainbow, a live album released in 1977. His sixth and most recent, in 2006, was in the Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance category, for a version of “God Bless The Child.” (It was from an album jointly credited to Jarreau and George Benson, and they shared the award with a featured guest, Jill Scott.)
In the realm of popular culture, Jarreau is best known for a handful of hit singles, including the theme song to the ABC television series Moonlighting (for which he also wrote the lyrics). His most popular hit was “We’re in This Love Together,” a carefree celebration of a lasting love affair; it appeared on his 1981 album Breakin’ Away, which has sold more than a million copies.
Jarreau’s slinky malleability and satiny tone were an easy fit for the ascendant pop-R&B sound of the late 1970s and early-to-mid ‘80s, but he always maintained the instinct and foundation of a jazz singer. His set list included signature versions of “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo A La Turk,” personalized with vocal percussion, scat improvisations and vocalese lyrics. He toured and recorded with crossover-friendly jazz musicians like keyboardist Joe Sample and saxophonist David Sanborn, and his albums featured the work of keyboardist George Duke and bassist Christian McBride, among dozens of others.
One of Jarreau’s bravura feats of jazz translation is a popular version of “Spain,” the Chick Corea composition, which he performed as a dramatic set piece: beginning in a stately rubato, with lyrics of pensive reminiscence, it leaps into action at the chorus. Known as “Spain (I Can Recall),” this version was well known in musician circles for the flair with which Jarreau, backed by a band including drummer Steve Gadd, executed its tricky intervals and syncopations.
Jarreau could bring a jazz flexibility to any performance, regardless of the style. Even over a funk backbeat, he could make a single note balloon and swoon. He was impeccably crisp with his enunciation, like his longtime peer Nancy Wilson, but had the improvising urges of a trickster, like one of his heroes, Jon Hendricks. His sound was as smooth and airy as whipped cream, but his phrasing had the snap and recoil of a rubber band.
Alwin Lopez Jarreau was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on March 12, 1940, the son of a Seventh-Day Adventist minister and a church pianist. He grew up singing in worship services and on street corners, absorbing a wide range of music. “I know the lyrics to more polkas than most German and Czech people,” he once told the Chicago Tribune. “It's all in those wrinkled folds of gray matter.”
Jarreau earned a bachelors of science in psychology from Ripon College in Wisconsin, and followed it with a master’s degree from the University of Iowa. Then he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, working initially as a rehabilitation counselor.
He began singing in local clubs with a group called the Indigos, and eventually teamed up with the the George Duke Trio, in a regular gig. This led to more touring and television variety appearances — and then his career breakthrough, after he opened a show at the Troubadour in Hollywood for Les McCann, and landed a major-label record deal.
Jarreau’s debut album, We Got By, was released on Reprise in 1975, and established his wily, pied-piper charm. He followed it with Glow, in 1976, appearing that year as a musical guest on the first season of Saturday Night Live. As a measure of Jarreau’s standing in jazz, he won Best Male Vocalist in the Down Beat's Readers’ Poll from 1977 to ’81, the year that Breakin’ Away turned him into a pop star.
But live performance was always Jarreau’s preferred metier, the format in which his talents found the most natural showcase. “Everything that’s happened for me up to now has worked because I go out there and I do a good show,” he told the Los Angeles Times.
Jarreau is survived by his wife, Susan, and a son, Ryan. A previous marriage ended in divorce.
Among the memorable performances of Jarreau’s late career was one on the south lawn of the White House last spring, for International Jazz Day. For his part on a crowded bill, he sang “Take Five” with a band including Corea, saxophonist Sadao Watanabe, guitarist Lee Ritenour and drummer Brian Blade. Time constraints kept the performance brief, but Jarreau brought his characteristic scat pyrotechnics, ending with a site-specific flourish.
The day after the White House concert, he perched on a stool onstage at the Kennedy Center, for a panel discussion titled “Jazz Expressions: Vocals & Dance,” alongside his fellow singer Dee Dee Bridgewater and dancer-choreographer Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards. Jarreau was the presiding elder of this group, but he carried himself with youthful enthusiasm, gracious but playful as he recalled his early immersion in music, just happy to be there.