One of the most versatile vocalists of his generation, Al Jarreau has effortlessly slipped into several different roles as an artist: scat master, soft rock crooner, smooth R&B singer... While he made it big in pop music at the beginning of the 1980s, Jarreau stayed true to the jazz tradition throughout his 50-year career.
Alwyn Lopez Jarreau was born on March 12, 1940 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The son of a vicar, he began singing in the church choir as a child. While completing a bachelor's degree in psychology at Ripon College, he performed with local group The Indigos in his spare time.
After moving to Iowa and earning a master's degree in vocational rehabilitation, Jarreau headed to San Francisco to pursue a career in social work. There, he joined a trio headed by George Duke and began singing in small jazz clubs. It didn't take long for him to realize that his true calling was show business.
In 1965, the vocalist recorded his first album, a selection of jazz standards, with a group of musicians in Illinois. He didn't attract much attention, however, until the following decade.
After relocating to Los Angeles in the late 1960s, Jarreau started performing in popular nightclubs such as Dino's, the Troubadour and the Bitter End West. In New York City, he gained national exposure with television appearances with Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, David Frost and Mike Douglas. The singer also secured a regular gig at the famed comedy venue The Improv, playing sets between up-and-coming comics.
Debut number two
In 1975, Jarreau signed with the Warner Bros. label and released We Got By that same year. Riding on the success of his "debut," he followed up with Glow in 1976. The double live album Look to the Rainbow (1977) cemented Jarreau's reputation as a rising vocal star, reaching the Top 50 on the U.S. charts and earning him a Grammy award for Best Jazz Vocal Performance in 1978.
The singer won the same award the following year for All Fly Home, a collection of jazz and funk tracks, the majority of which Jarreau wrote or co-wrote. With This Time (1980), he offered fans a polished pop album that led his career into new, chart-topping territory. The follow-up, Breakin' Away, did just that, flying off record store shelves and selling more than one million copies, and winning Grammys for both Best Pop and Best Jazz Vocal Performance in 1982.
Nine albums and a decade later, Jarreau released Heaven and Earth in 1992, taking home the Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance, which made him the first vocalist to have won the award in three different musical categories.
In 1995, Jarreau returned to his jazz roots with a visit to the Festival, offering Montréal audiences his first ever concert in la belle ville. Three years later, he inked a new deal with Verve/GRP and reunited with Tommy LiPuma, who produced We Got By. He then released a trio of successful albums: Tomorrow Today (2000), All I Got (2002) and Accentuate the Positive (2004).
Back in the recording groove, Jarreau teamed up with guitarist George Benson on Givin' It Up (2006), which saw the crossover artists revisiting a classic smooth '70s jazz sound. Featuring illustrious guest musicians such as Herbie Hancock and Paul McCartney, the album was nominated for three different songs at the Grammys.
In 2009, Jarreau returned for the 30th edition of the Festival, sharing the bill with Canadian jazz songstress Molly Johnson. In 2017, the artist passed away.