Obituary: Al Jarreau, jazz singer, but a Grammy winner in three separate categories

Singer and musician Al Jarreau. Picture: Getty
Singer and musician Al Jarreau. Picture: Getty
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Alwin Lopez Jarreau, jazz singer. Born: 12 March 1940, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Died: 12 February 2017, Los Angeles, California, United States, aged 76

Grammy-winning jazz singer Al Jarreau, who transcended genres over a 50-year career, died at a Los Angeles hospital on Sunday, just days after announcing his retirement from touring because of exhaustion, his manager Joe Gordon confirmed.

His official Twitter account says he died surrounded by his wife, son, other family members and friends. He was 76.

Jarreau was hospitalised earlier in the week and was said to have been improving slowly.

The cause of his death was not revealed, but he had experienced a number of respiratory and cardiac issues in recent years.

The Milwaukee native won seven Grammys over the course of his half-century in music. His biggest single was 1981’s We’re in This Love Together from the album Breakin’ Away. Jarreau was also a vocalist on the all-star 1985 track, We Are the World, and sang the theme to TV’s Moonlighting.

“We feel very fortunate to have worked with Al, one of the most distinctive and extraordinary vocalists in music,” said Concord Records President John Burk in a statement.

“He was truly a force of nature and a beautiful human being that will be fondly remembered and deeply missed by us all.”

Jarreau is one of the few artists to have won Grammys in three separate categories – jazz, pop and R&B. Time Magazine once called him the “greatest jazz singer alive”.

News of Jarreau’s death came as the Grammy Awards were kicking off in Los Angeles.

“He was really one of the most creative vocalists who ever lived,” jazz singer Tierney Sutton said. “His voice was like an instrument.”

Sutton collaborated with Jarreau on the Joni Mitchell tribute album After Blue from 2013.

“Al Jarreau was incredible,” said R&B singer/songwriterJill Scott. “He was one of the most awesome, strange performers I ever met – and I mean strange in the best way. He was all about elegance, whether it was drinking a cup of tea or saying good morning.”

Scott, an R&B singer, recorded with Jarreau and George Benson in 2006 on God Bless the Child.

Tributes poured in on social media in remembrance of Jarreau as well. Director Ava DuVernay tweeted that her mom used to play Jarreau’s vinyl and that his voice made her happy.

Actress Octavia Spencer wrote that Jarreau “had a mellifluous voice. Soothing. Beautiful.”

Singer Chaka Khan tweeted that he was an “unrivaled improvisational genius”.

In a 2014 interview with the Arizona Republic, Jarreau revelled in his crossover tendencies.

“I grew up in Milwaukee, and I took it all in. I want it all. Don’t cut me off at the pass and say I can’t listen to Muddy Waters because I’m a jazzer. Or I can’t listen to Garth Brooks because I’m a jazzer. Get out of here,” he said.

Music wasn’t always Jarreau’s focus, however – he didn’t even record his first album until he was 35.

Born to a minister father and a mother who played the piano in church, Jarreau sang from an early age, but he was also an athlete who earned a master’s in vocal rehabilitation and started his career as a counsellor in San Francisco, playing jazz on the side.

But he eventually gave up his first career to do music full time.

“His second priority in life was music. There was no third,” read the statement on Jarreau’s website. “His first priority, far ahead of the other, was healing or comforting anyone in need.”

His final album, My Old Friend: Celebrating George Duke, was released in 2014.

Jarreau is survived by his wife, Susan and a son, Ryan.

LINDSEY BAHR