His style is unique; he doesn’t so much sing as play his voice, using it to emulate flutes, cymbals, guitars and drums. He’s probably the most artful practitioner of scat since Ella. In recognition, he’s won two Grammys for Best Jazz Vocalist and is consistently at the top of Downbeat’s critics’ and readers’ polls as Best Male Vocalist. Yet it wasn’t until last summer, with the release of his album Breakin’ Away, that Al Jarreau’s name became widely known in this country. His single We’re in This Love Together made pop’s Top 20, giving Jarreau, 41, the first gold record of his 13-year career. It also capped a string of triumphs that are as much personal as musical.
“For a long time I wasn’t nearly as thoughtful about people and their needs as I should have been,” says Jarreau, whose first marriage failed, he says, “because of my stupidity—I had illusions about the whole institution.” He and his second wife, Susan, have had troubles too; they separated briefly two years ago. But now she accompanies him for part of his six months a year on the road. Being an interracial couple was not a problem, he says: “I realize there are areas where interracial marriage is not very popular. But I was raised in a family where anything was cool in terms of lovers or loved ones.” What was the trouble? He only hints at it. “I’m introverted and introspective,” he says. “But I think I’ve made some progress.” Smiling, he adds: “Finally I’m breakin’ away.”
Jarreau attributes his new equilibrium in part to the United Church of Religious Science and to Scientology, two groups on the self-help fringe that he credits as major influences. The religious impulse is a family trait—his father was a Seventh-Day Adventist minister in Milwaukee—and so is music. His father “had a beautiful voice,” Al remembers. His mother, Pearl, played piano, and his older brother, Emile Jr., introduced him to jazz. Though Jarreau’s oddly affecting, deeply felt lyrics and interpretations suggest a painful life, he insists it isn’t so. “I was a boringly good kid,” he says.
President of the student council in high school, Al earned a scholarship to Ripon College. He was acutely shy at that time and suffering from a severe case of acne. “I was one of three blacks at Ripon,” he recalls. “I finally had a date my senior year. It took me that long to get the courage to ask someone.” He graduated in psychology and went to the University of Iowa for a master’s in education in 1964. There he met and married Phyllis Hall, a fellow student. After a stint in the Army reserve, Jarreau moved with his wife to San Francisco, where he worked as a state rehabilitation counselor. “The job fit my temperament, but the bureaucracy didn’t,” he says.
After three years of moonlighting as a singer with the George Duke Trio, he quit to try music full-time. A year after that his marriage ended. He moved to L.A. briefly and, since West Coast record company doors were still closed, he ventured to New York. There he won guest spots on the Carson, Douglas and David Frost shows but still failed to make it big. He headed back to L.A., but a brief stop in Minneapolis stretched into nine months, and Jarreau began to write music for the first time.
Returning to California in the spring of 71, Jarreau soon found himself with a cult following at Studio City’s Bla Bla Café. He met his wife, Susan, now 27, when she showed up in the audience one night. Several years later, playing the Troubadour, then L.A.’s music mecca, he was introduced to Mo Ostin, president of Warner Brothers Records. Within six months Warner’s released Al’s first album, We Got By, and Jarreau won the first of his two German Grammys. He won his U.S. Grammys in 1977 and 1978. “They certainly don’t make for hit records and greater sales,” he notes wryly. “On the other hand, I value the recognition from my peers.”
Success on the pop chart is paying off in more concrete ways, but he and Susan still live in a modest two-bedroom house in North Hollywood and Al drives a battered ’64 Chevy II wagon. Onstage, he’s “a bit wild and woolly,” he admits. “I’ll be a more effective artist as I gain more discipline.” Offstage, his outlook is unassailably ordered. “I did buy Susan a 1980 Volvo coupé and I’m restoring a ’49 Cadillac, but I’m resistant to flash,” he says. “I’m not poor, nor am I struggling, but I always knew I wouldn’t let this business change my life.”