One-man orchestra Bobby McFerrin uses his four-octave range and vast array of vocal techniques to remarkably reproduce the trumpet in a jazz standard, the cello in a classical composition and the bubbly melody of a pop song, to name but a few sounds in his eclectic repertoire. But McFerrin is much more than a mimic. His a cappella improvisations re-imagined the most primitive of instruments: the human voice. The multi-talented artist's playful and imaginative approach to music is matched by a serious dedication to his art form, whether working as a vocalist, composer, conductor or educator.
Born in New York City to two classical singers (his father, Robert McFerrin Sr., was the first African-American male soloist at the Metropolitan Opera), Bobby McFerrin began studying musical theory at age six. In 1958, his family moved to Los Angeles. There, the aspiring musician picked up the clarinet but soon switched to the piano after the reedman's braces got in the way. He continued to play while attending California State University and, after graduation, embarked on a cross-country tour with the Ice Follies, later performing in a series of cabaret-style cover bands.
In 1977, McFerrin emerged from behind the piano to test his skills as a singer, moving from New Orleans, where he was part of the group Astral Projection, to San Francisco. He soon met comedian Bill Cosby, who set the vocalist up with a gig at the Hollywood Bowl as part of the 1980 Playboy Jazz Festival.
The following year, McFerrin triumphed on the East Coast with an appearance at the Kool Jazz Festival, New York City. In 1982, he released his self-titled debut and, after touring with jazz greats Herbie Hancock and Wynton Marsalis, launched a series of experimental solo concerts.
In 1983, McFerrin began performing as an unaccompanied vocalist and took his improvised a cappella show to Germany the following year. This led to the landmark live album The Voice (1984) - the first ever jazz vocal solo recording on a major label.
The one-man orchestra arrived at the Festival that same year, returning again in 1987 and 1988. Montréal audiences were onto something: McFerrin was, indeed, a truly unique voice - and he had yet to reach the height of his fame.
After a string of Grammy-winning hits, the singer released Simple Pleasures (1988), which featured a ditty that was spontaneously created in the studio and went on to become the international phenomenon Don't Worry, Be Happy. The single hit number one on charts worldwide and won Record of the Year and Song of the Year at the Grammys.
Rather than follow-up with another pop album and cash in on his unexpected success, McFerrin steered his career onto an unexpected path. In 1990, on his 40th birthday, the vocalist made his debut as a conductor with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, following an intensive training period that included lessons with maestros Leonard Bernstein, Gustav Meier and Seiji Ozawa.
He further expanded his repertoire by taking on cross-over projects such as Play (1990), a collaboration with jazz pianist Chick Corea, and Hush (1992), an album that had the singer pairing up with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and marking his debut on the Sony Classical label.
In 1994, McFerrin was named creative director of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Minnesota, which was featured on Paper Music (1995), his first recording as a conductor that reinterpreted the work of Mendelssohn, Mozart, Bach, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky, among others.
For the rest of the decade, the multi-talented artist continued to develop his groundbreaking vocal experiments with albums such as Bang! Zoom (1995) and Circlesongs (1997). For the latter, he reunited with Voicestra, the a cappella ensemble he founded in 1990.
In 2003, McFerrin was presented with the Ella Fitzgerald Award at the Festival for his outstanding contribution to vocal jazz. He returned two years later for a sixth appearance at the event.
In January 2010, the artist contributed his skills to the improvised opera Bobble, his very own creation. Presented in Moscow by the Musical Olympus Foundation, the 90-minute creation saw McFerrin sharing the stage with a cast of 16 singers.