What is it that makes a great musical artist?  A Bing Crosby, a Paul Robeson, a Frank Sinatra, a Nat “King” Cole?  They were all great singers, great story tellers, great personalities.  But there was something else, as well.  Something that took them above and beyond the level of singers who were similarly successful, well-known and best selling.  Something that made their every performance, their every recording into a memorable experience.

The answers, I’d say, can still be experienced today, in their full creative blossom, whenever Al Jarreau stands in front of a microphone, smiles his engaging smile, and lets the music flow. Like the stellar names I’ve listed above, Al has a golden musical touch.  And, like Crosby defining the holidays with “White Christmas,” Robeson transforming “Ballad For Americans,” like Sinatra vividly bringing “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” to life, and Nat Cole finding the elusive message of “Nature Boy,” Al doesn’t just sing a song, he inhabits it.

Hearing Al sing over the years – from the ‘70s to the present – has been one of my great pleasures, a very special perk of being a music journalist.  It didn’t matter what the subject matter was, whether it was hearing him gift an ebullient Monterey Jazz Festival crowd with a soaring version of “We’re In This Love Together” and a brilliantly improvisational “Take Five,” or watching him roam the stage at Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Hall, singing a tender, deeply touching reading of Paul McCartney’s “She’s Leaving Home” followed by a stunning, vocally demanding romp through Chick Corea’s “Spain.”  Al made each song – in each of those rare and special moments in time – his own. 

But it isn’t just the ability to inhabit a song and make it his own that brings Al, along with Crosby, Robeson, Sinatra, Cole and others, to the exalted heights of great musical artistry.  

Add, as well, the almost indefinable element of charisma – the quality that mesmerizes an audience, embracing them within the intimate communicative orbit of a performer.  It’s a quality that produces an almost visible glow of sheer energy when Al finds his groove and takes his listeners on an irresistible rhythmic journey.

Then, in addition, and equally important, there’s the vital element of believability.  Call it the sense of truth, in both the words and music – the feeling that both the story and the atmosphere are real, that the singer is sharing something with his listeners that is as alive and present tense as the evening news.  An old adage says that “a picture is worth a thousand words.”  But a song sung by Al Jarreau can – and usually does — create the emotional authenticity of a gallery full of entrancing pictures.

All of these qualities require a delivery system, of course.  And one of the prime attributes that joins Al with Crosby, Robeson, Sinatra, Cole and others is his extraordinary voice.  One could probably make a case, in fact, for Al’s vocal instrument as a combination of many of the attributes in my entire list of great male musical artists.  At times, I’ve heard him sing with the dark baritone timbre of Sinatra, the snappy rhythmic articulation of Cole, the cool balladry of Crosby and the dramatic bravura of Robeson. 

And there’s more, much more.  Depending on his musical mood of the moment, Al can pop out percussion sounds that can rival the layered textures and the upbeat swing of a full drum kit.  He can simulate the sounds of horns and scat sing through complex chord changes and tricky rhythmic meters with an unstoppable flow of ideas.

Like Robeson, Al’s roots are in gospel.  Raised by parents who were deeply involved in spiritual music – his father a minister and a singer, his mother a church pianist — he sang as naturally as he played sports. The inherent aspects of the music, with the rich, melismatic qualities invested in it by African American culture, provided one of the important elements of what would become the Al Jarreau style. 

There were others.  Drawn to jazz early on, he discovered another foundation stone of his style in the improvisational art, with its inspiring combination of creative freedom, blues/gospel structures and the propulsive rhythmic drive we call “swing.” 

Over the course of Al’s remarkable, five decade-plus career, all these attributes coalesced into one of the music world’s most uniquely eclectic  voices, as well as one of the globe’s most universally popular artists.  He is only the second artist – Michael Jackson was the first — to win Grammy Awards in the jazz, pop and r&b categories.  And he has done so because of his unerring ability to bring authenticity to each of those styles.  

Even beyond that admirable quality, Al has been honored for his rare capacity to perform in the recording studio with the same sort of dynamic electricity he brings to his live appearances.  Listening to an Al Jarreau recording can be almost as exciting as experiencing him up close and personal.  That’s a fact that can be attested to by the Recording Academy voters who have selected Al for twelve Grammy nominations, and granted him seven Grammy Awards.  Even more impressively, the Awards and the nominations have taken place over four decades – from the ‘70s to the 2000s – a rare and impressive display of career continuity.

Having made the case for Al as one of the great musical artists, fully worthy of being grouped with the likes of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Paul Robeson and Nat  “King” Cole, among others, I must also add that he would probably be the last to claim such exalted status.  Despite his fully justified inclusion in the ranks of music world royalty, a complete view of Al must also include the modesty that drives his dedication to giving his all, on stage or in the studio – as dependable and productive as a blue collar good guy who knows what it means to work hard to make an honest dollar. One who feels genuine joy in what he does, and communicates that joy to his listeners.

Al Jarreau, in other words, is not just a great musical artist.  He’s the real deal.

– Don Heckman 

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Al Jarreau passed away today, February 12, 2017.  He will be missed.


A few days ago, I was asked to describe Al to someone who knew of his success, but did not know him as a person.  I responded with this: His 2nd priority in life was music.  There was no 3rd.  His 1st priority, far ahead of the other, was healing or comforting anyone in need.  Whether it was emotional pain, or physical discomfort, or any other cause of suffering, he needed to put our minds at ease and our hearts at rest.  He needed to see a warm, affirming smile where there had not been one before.  Song was just his tool for making that happen.


A few things I think he would want mentioned right now:

To Al’s wife, son, sister, brothers, and family:  You allowed Al to share himself with the world.  He was grateful that you gave him that gift.  He knew it was difficult, and regretted that more than he could explain.  Please know that your gift was to us, too, and that we are also grateful.

To everyone who attended his concerts, and listened to his albums:  He needed you, and you always were there for him, for more than 50 years.  He was thankful for you every day, and did his best to show that to each of you.

To his band, and to the many, many talented musicians, writers, composers, and arrangers who played and collaborated with Al over the years:  You enabled, supported, and thrilled him.  He treasured you, and considered you brilliant.  He loved sharing the stage with you, and was honored that you shared it with him.

To each promoter, presenter, and producer:  Thank you for your faith in him.  Your commitment to Al was both essential and endless, and he never took you for granted.

To his agents, managers, crew, counselors, publicists, and journalists who supported his work, and also to all of the airline, hotel, venue, and other people who hosted him like royalty:  He noticed every bit of the dedication and effort that you unselfishly provided, without limits. And, he appreciated you completely.

To young people everywhere, especially the musicians he was grateful to meet at school workshops, musical competitions, residencies, and at concerts:  From you, Al asks a favor.  Please find any artistic thing that you can do with passion, and do it.  With art in your life, you will be a better family member, neighbor, friend, and citizen.


Finally, to Al Jarreau:  Thank you Al, from all of us. You completed your ministry in a beautiful and gracious way.   Godspeed… you’ve earned it.

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Al Jarreau has teamed with 3 of his longtime band members to create a special version concert appearance to be part of an evening of wonderful entertainment and goodwill on September 9.  The event, at Denney Theatre in Houston’s High School For The Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA), will benefit the school and also a scholarship fund created to honor the school’s longtime teacher, Robert “Doc” Morgan.  The trio will be bassist Chris Walker (HSPVA alum), drummer Mark Simmons (HSPVA alum) and pianist Joe Turano (Al Jarreau’s music director), and the performance will include unique versions of some of Al’s favorites and classics.  The HSPVA student band will also perform that night.  Be sure to join everyone on September 9 to hear wonderful music and to support this very worthy cause.  Tickets and info are available by clicking here

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Al Jarreau on “Jackie’s Groove”

Al visited percussionist and radio host Jackie Bertone’s studio on July 15 to record an episode of the “Jackie’s Groove” radio program.  Al and Jackie visited for almost 2 hours, taking about Al’s musical background, his approach to singing, and Jackie surprised Al with call-ins from a few of Al’s long-time friends.  And, there was music, of course.  Check out the EnterTalk Radio show by clicking here.  InJoy!

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Columbia, SC – workshops with Auntie Karen Foundation

A choir of 80 voices sang “Mornin’,” “We’re in this Love Together,” and “Boogie Down,” and accompanied by a trio, piano bass & drums, that was quite solid. I couldn’t stop grinning… All Al Jarreau music. Tre, who had done an introduction of me, with all of the basics and specifics, stood there with Karen, just smiling and laughing, knowing and anticipating correctly how I would react. I was rocking back and forth, laughing out loud. I could almost hear them going, “See??” They were right. I’m beginning to hear my music come back at me more and more these days. I suppose, if I were Stevie or Aretha or Herbie, I might be more accustomed to it, but for me, it’s quite new and it’s still thrilling. We had a Q&A period. I had asked Chris Walker to please come join me on this morning with the kids because he is so smart and always has something interesting to say.  He speaks not only as an extraordinary singer, but also an extraordinary bass player, and as a producer too. There was a question or two that came from the student moderators, that needed at least a two or three part answer. One of those answers had to do with a love for the music and the craft that goes so deep that you can’t imagine your life without it.

 That’s when Chris talked about graduating from a high school of the arts and taking off for New York City, with forty dollars and a dream. Going to The New School.  In short, he arrived at the school one afternoon, with his bass under his arm, with the idea of just investigating, as a new perspective student. He passed by some practice room, with some guys jamming, who didn’t have a bass player. They saw him with his bass and asked him to play with them. The new school president happened by and heard Chris playing that afternoon and gave him a full 4 year scholarship. Forty dollars and a dream. Well, the truth is Chris walked in with a million dollars of ability and faith. Because he dreamed that dream, and prepared himself for fulfilling that dream, doing it over and over and over and over, dreaming and walking toward that dream, it came to be. It came true. It all begins with a dream. Seeing it in your head as you get ready. Basketball players exemplify this phenomenon. He stands at the foul lane, bent at the waist, bouncing the ball, 15-20 times, and talking to himself. He looks up, gets poised and ready, and you see his eyes watching the ball go through the hoop. THAT’S CREATING YOUR FUTURE IMMEDIATELY! Right now. Happens all throughout athletics. The high jumper, the long jumper, standing there, at the end of the lane, rocking back and forth. That’s how we built the Empire State Building, and set a man on the moon.  That describes the high tech aspect of what prayer is all about. It’s more than begging God for the result you want, it’s seeing the result, and then doing things that allow it to happen. Morning, noon, and night, and all in between time. I love talking to kids that way.

One of the student moderators asked me if I could teach someone to scat, and I said, “well, ok!” I was a little unsure about that exercise, but I had thought about it before. I said something like, “Ok, let’s start with something like this piece of music,” and I sang Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb, his fleece was white as snow. I did it without a lyric, and I think many recognized it at that point. But then I sang it with out a lyric, and then with a lyric, I used the basic melody and improvised a new melody with no lyric. Obviously, the practice of improvising gets to be a more complex venture than the above, when it’s Coltrane, or Dizzy Gillespie, or when Wayne Shorter is the improvised soloist that you’re listening to, BUT the basics still hold true. That is the improvising of a new melody based on the original, with as much complexity as you like. A young lady named Jazzy knocked everybody’s wigs off, when she came up and helped demonstrate that above activity. This time, I asked her to sing some small part of a favorite song that she liked. She sang a few lines from an R&B song that just thrilled the whole audience. They yelled and shouted and clapped their approval at hearing her. I then asked her to sing all of that again but to not use lyrics now. Just ooo shoo be doo type syllables, that she could invent on her own. She nailed it, it was a great demonstration! I think she came across an approach for herself that was quite quite “jazzy” in its overall nature.

Other questions gave me the opportunity to talk about how people doing arts develop sensitivities to our all important human emotions of joy, pain, happiness, sadness, etc. In so doing, we develop an individual who has keen, fine, and delicate sensitivities about other’s hurts and pains and joys and happiness, who then will make important choices and decisions that are good for the family and the community. I wish we had had more time for Q&A with this audience of 400 students. It went much too quickly, and I’m certain we missed a lot of important questions, but this was a great template for things in the future.

At around 6 o’clock that evening, I attended a reception for the Auntie Karen Foundation staff and friends. We met the Dean of the USC music department, who has been a friend to the Auntie Karen Foundation for a long time, and often offers his services and facilities to Auntie Karen… this is wonderful. It just adds so much to the community support. Our universities and colleges are very, very important pillars of the community and are opinion leaders that the whole community respects. What a great friendship! That really captures it.

I’m reprinting the information from the Auntie Karen website, with the added comment that part of the mission statement goals is to develop programs that are REPRODUCIBLE!… Anywhere in the country or world.

I recorded a song written by Siedah Garrett, called “Random Act of Love.” Check it out. The key phrase in the chorus is this, “There’s one thing that I know that’s a gift unto the giver, and that’s a random act of love,”: meaning that the person that gives the gift actually gets more in return than what he gave. Now look, that’s not the reason to be giving a gift! On the contrary, you give a gift because you see a need and your compassionate sensitive heart reaches out to that other person and offers help. And, in so doing,  you find a new kind of joy… by the way. Me and my guys got the biggest gift by going and helping Auntie Karen. From manager to sound techs and assistants, we got the greater gift. Auntie Karen and I are talking about other activities already. Thanks Karen Alexander, thanks everybody! Talk to you soon.



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