Al Jarreau, Versatile Vocalist Who ‘Played His Voice,’ Dies At 76

Since the legendary singer began his career in the 1960s, he won Grammys in the jazz, pop and R&B categories. Just one clue that Jarreau, who died Sunday, was impossible to categorize.

Written by Felix Contreras from NPR

Updated at 3 p.m. ET

Al Jarreau, a versatile vocalist who defied categorization for decades, died Sunday morning at the age of 76. Earlier this week, Jarreau had been hospitalized in Los Angeles “due to exhaustion,” according to his official Facebook page.

In a statement posted on Jarreau’s website, the musician was lauded for his compassion and caring for those around him.

“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.”

As an artist, Jarreau was impossible to define and had a voice impossible to mistake.

Since he recorded his first album in the 1960s, Jarreau demonstrated a vocal dynamism and flexibility that outpaced many of his peers — as can be seen in his track record at the Grammys. Jarreau won seven of them over the course of his career, becoming the only vocalist to win plaudits in the jazz, pop and R&B categories.

Even in his first album, recorded in 1965 with just a jazz piano trio, he was already breaking out the sliding and bending of notes that would eventually make him a favorite of jazz fans all over the world.

A few years after releasing that album, Jarreau walked away from a career as a vocational rehab counselor with a degree in psychology. He spent his earliest years bouncing between San Francisco, New York and his native Milwaukee.

Four years after settling in Los Angeles in 1971, Jarreau was finally heard by the right people and was signed to Warner Brothers Records. He then released a string of albums that fell into a sweet spot between jazz, pop and R&B.

As NPR’s Rose Friedman notes, “He was famous for his scat singing, using his voice like a musical instrument.” People magazine put it simply: “He doesn’t so much sing as play his voice.”

Jarreau may have had a unique talent, but he also readily paid tribute to his influences — as he did in a 2011 interview with NPR.

“I’m touched by rock ‘n’ roll. I’m touched by the Beatles. I want some of the music I do to reflect that. Here I am. I love Sly Stone and James Brown and Stevie Wonder and I want my music to reflect some of that. Here I am. I’m touched by Jon Hendricks. I want some of my music to reflect that. And when I write, you’re going to hear it.”

Jarreau could more than hold his own with the jazz tradition of Hendrix — but he also wrote much more than scattable lyrics to jazz tunes.

In 1981, his song “We’re in This Love Together” kicked off a decade of nonstop top-selling albums, tours and Grammys.

In fact, the song and the album it came from, Breakin’ Away, is what made the jazz vocalist a pop star. It reached No. 10 on the Billboard pop chart and pulled off the unlikely feat of being No. 1 on both the jazz and R&B charts.

If that weren’t enough, in 1985 he penned the theme song for the popular TV show Moonlighting, where millions heard his voice every week.

His manager, Joe Gordon, tells NPR that Jarreau died surrounded by his wife, son and some of his family and friends.

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2 thoughts on “Al Jarreau, Versatile Vocalist Who ‘Played His Voice,’ Dies At 76

  1. Wow, I didn’t know that Al had passed. He definitely had a special and unique voice like Phillipe’ Wynn. I loved his music. I’m a sax player and I love my jazz and in fact, I will be going to Austin, Texas in March to play in a jazz festival they are having and I’m told that some of the world’s best jazz artist will be there and I was hoping that Al would be there as well. I’ve only seen him once in concert and this time I was hoping to beg him to let me play in his band if he was going to be there.
    If you would please, give his family my deepest condolences as we pray for them to be comforted and healed all in God’s time. I know it’s hard and we hear it all the time, but he is in a better place. Thank you very much for allowing us, especially all jazz artist and listeners to be able to post our thoughts on here. May God be with all of us as I pray for you, please pray for me as well. Have a blessed day!

  2. If ever there was an artist who exuded PURE JOY when he performed, Mr. Al Jarreau was its epitome. I had the privilege of attending a couple of his concerts and I couldn’t help singing or whistling along (though I’m no good at either) and when I hear one of his songs on the airwaves I can’t help doing it still. One can’t help but believe that how he was on stage was who he was at his core and in his soul – joy, kindness, love which was manifested in his prodigious talent. Thank you Mr. Jarreau for the music, I will miss your presence.

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