Al Jarreau: Class Act

Pioneer. Trendsetter. World-renowned. Legend. Choose any list of adjectives you can conceive, and none of them can accurately describe what Al Jarreau has accomplished in almost 40 years in the music business. He is the only vocalist, male or female, in history to win Grammy awards in three different categories (jazz, pop, and R&B, respectively). […]

Pioneer. Trendsetter. World-renowned. Legend. Choose any list of adjectives you can conceive, and none of them can accurately describe what Al Jarreau has accomplished in almost 40 years in the music business. He is the only vocalist, male or female, in history to win Grammy awards in three different categories (jazz, pop, and R&B, respectively). Originally groomed to become a social worker after receiving a master’s degree in psychology, Jarreau first hit the music scene in the mid 1960’s, but was largely unnoticed until 1975, upon releasing his widely appreciated “We Got By.”

Subsequently, he would proceed to take the entire world by storm, releasing 15 full-length albums from 1976-2002, becoming a world-class figure, and receiving scores of accolades and critical acclaim. To see the 63-year old Jarreau perform today is a constant reminder of his greatness. He continues performing for millions of fans across the globe, with no signs of slowing down in sight. In the midst of a frantically busy schedule, the living legend sat with to discuss his opinions of the Hip-Hop culture and the influences that jazz has on all music.

AllHipHop Alternatives: As you could probably imagine, our publication covers Hip-Hop acts, as well as R&B artists from time to time. My goal is to get more people to recognize artists such as yourself because, in my opinion, all forms of music are birthed from your particular style of music.

Al Jarreau: Well, I think any new music does not happen in a vacuum, and so it does have influences. I’m not so sure about the responsibility of new artists to recognize that in any other way than doing what they ought to do musically. Maybe it’s the responsibility of other people to interview them and talk with them and ask them about those influences. It does take people with an historical perspective to point out the fact that no music is born a baby that doesn’t come from some traditional forms of making babies.

AHHA: From your own perspective, what kinds of Jazz influences do you hear in the Hip-Hop genre? More and more Hip-Hop groups are becoming “bands,” taking live bands on the road with them and implementing live instrumentation into their shows. That was taboo for many years.

Al Jarreau: Whenever they do that, it points at roots that, if no other reason than the fact that they’ll use a combination of tracks and drums, but to the extent that they are using a drum or even a bass. They will borrow some things from music that has it roots in the traditional R&B or jazzy kind of music. They will pick-up and relearn and give a new accent to feels that was born earlier. If you look at some of the things that are sampled, you have to understand that there are previous kinds of music that are a big part of the Hip-Hop culture. Do you agree?

AHHA: I absolutely agree. I want to piggyback off of that sampling comment you made, if I may. Do you feel that it takes away from the creative aspect that music was originally birthed from, or does it pay homage to the person who originally created it?

Al Jarreau: It certainly pays homage to the artist who created the particular loop that they are taking. There is something real positive to be admired in finding that and recognizing it as a great feel for what they want. On the other hand, I am enjoying that there is more real singing in Hip-Hop these days, and as you described a moment ago, are bringing more bands on the road with them. I want that 6-year old and 10-year old to have some heroes who played some bass, drums, and guitar. For a few years now, our heroes have not been real musicians. They’ve been strictly rap artists, doing their thing with poetry and all. Sure enough, there are going to be some Maya Angelous who comes out of Hip-Hop, with the messages and poetry of Hip-Hop. And I would dare to say that there are going to be some Spike Lees who come out of that as well.

AHHA: What is your opinion on the messages and the images that have been portrayed in Hip-Hop, as opposed to the messages and connotations of love that you have perpetuated over the course of your career?

Al Jarreau: Just in your question is implied my point of view. I don’t think there’s been a lot of balance on broadcast radio or MTV of the other part of the Black community, which is more than t### and ass. There hasn’t been a lot of balance. A teenager in Rome, Hamburg, Germany, or Stockholm, Sweden, for example, sees a kind of African-American that is not of a very balanced point of view. Certainly, for me, it’s not the healthiest image to be portraying our African-American culture in. We’re more than that. Everything doesn’t have to be the Huxtables.

AHHA: They are only seeing one side of the story at this point.

Al Jarreau: Right, and I think there is some cause for concern. But, it’s typical of how any pop direction tends to take over and everybody goes there, radio programmers and artists, in order to sell space. It’s very commercial.

AHHA: What are your thoughts on the current talent pool in this industry today? In your time, people actually jammed! The technology that is available to us nowadays did not exist then, so if you had no talent, you were not given any visibility.

Al Jarreau: Well, again you are implying something I totally agree with. There is something about that creative process that involves playing instruments. It involves knowing your instrument well enough to improvise and jam, which is missing if there are no instruments or no one learning those instruments. Creatively, it’s a very limited crop of new artists who are emulating and imitating what is immediately around them. It falls short of a bigger creative pool of ways to be creative. Where is the new Maseo Parker from the James Brown Band? Where’s the new Sly Stone, who could play the organ and bass? Where are those people? There is definitely a loss of that kind of potential for creativity and desire to go in that direction. There may be a pendulum swing, however. As you are seeing the buds of this new group of Hip-Hop people who are beginning to bring live instruments back into it, the pendulum may swing back the other direction, if for no other reason then to bring forth something new. In finding something new, we will find the rediscovery of instruments.

AHHA: If memory serves me right, you are the only artist in the history of this industry to win the Grammy award in three separate categories (R&B, Jazz, and Pop). This is a very underrated accomplishment, and I want to know if you see anyone in Hip-Hop that has that same crossover ability to gain that sort of following.

Al Jarreau: Well, I don’t see it at the moment, but I don’t follow the genre close enough to know whether or not if someone is operating in Hip-Hop who also has a strong pop influence to crossover and have a song sitting on the charts right next to someone like Sting or the Marsalis Brothers, or whoever might be a contender for a Grammy in jazz these days. It’s so highly specialized, the Hip-Hop creative thing. I don’t see that kind of breadth, and I don’t see radio as a resource to encourage diversity to people.

AHHA: Well, as you and I both know, radio is a glorified platform for whatever is popular. If Hip-Hop is the “in” thing, they could care less about diversity, creativity, or anything of the sort. That platform is simply a cash cow.

Al Jarreau: The other thing is earlier on in the history of radio, there were varied formats that got as much attention for the minds of the kids in center city America. They could see it as a possible other direction to go in. There was enough pop music for a young kid in center city to go, “hmm…there’s something there.” Also, there was enough traditional singing, instrument playing R&B being heard in an earlier generation. Diversity is disappearing, so radio is not encouraging the young performer who might win the Grammy in jazz, pop, or R&B. A lot of things mitigate against it, including how pervasive the Hip-Hop scene is. There are fewer choices for a very young center city kid to listen to on the radio that might attract them to be jazz or pop artists.

AHHA: With a lack of selection, it doesn’t allow for the birth of creativity in someone else’s mind. If you hear one thing, that’s the model that everyone else will follow.

Al Jarreau: That’s right!

AHHA: May I ask where your musical roots come from?

Al Jarreau: The previous jazz, the previous R&B, and the previous pop music. I listened to it all, it took root in me, and that’s why I have to sing it. As a kid growing up in Milwaukee, I was listening to the big bands and artists like Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughn, Johnny Mathis, and John Hendricks. All the instrumental combos, you know, the small jazz trios all the way from Miles Davis and his groups to Dizzy Gillespie to John Coltrane and Dave Brubeck. I was singing Doo-Wop on the corner before it was Doo-Wop. I also developed a love for orchestra, so I listened to classical music. I also included folk music that Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell represented for that era. I’m a guy that’s always promoting as much diversity in the marketplace and at radio as there can be just so young people can have some choices.

AHHA: The ideology of diversity has somehow gotten lost along the way.

Al Jarreau: It’s commercialization. It’s all about the dollar, how to make a dollar, and finding an audience and pumping them for all its worth. It’s real centralized so that fewer people are in control of the media. Their idea mainly is to make money, and if there’s a spending audience, they will target that audience. That results in a narrowing of what people who are making money at are presenting. They are presenting things that only that youth market enjoys. We lost over 100 orchestras last year, and you know where jazz stations have gone over the past 15 or 20 years. There’s just narrowing in what is available to people on the airwaves.

AHHA: Hip-Hop ties into all this because it is the leader in certain instances. For example, we have the power to sell drugs, crime, sex…it can sell water to a drowning man.

Al Jarreau: Very important stuff you are describing there.

AHHA: It sells all those things. Having said that, do you foresee necessary change in this particular genre of music? At one point, the rap community was a militant, pro-Black, empowering force. Now, if you turn on B.E.T. or MTV, you see the total opposite of that. Plus, it is the biggest advertising mechanism in the world. Hip-Hop has single-handedly kept liquor companies and retail outlets in business due to the free advertising we present in our lyrics. Hip-Hop artists are going as far buying liquor companies these days.

Al Jarreau: My point of view is obvious. There are things that attract the public in general. You can put them in the category of “sensationalism.” Human beings have not evolved beyond being attracted to blood, violence, sex, drugs, and alcohol. They represent a sensational attraction. It makes me nervous for a world that needs more pro-survival images. I think a lot of it sells and represents an approach to life that we don’t want for our three and four year-olds. If you can say “this is what I want for my child,” then it is OK. If you can say “I’m not sure that I want my daughter dressing like that lady on TV, doing the nasty, or hanging out with people who preach a language of violence against women or anyone else,” then there’s something questionable about it as a medium in a pop culture. We need to take a real serious look at the message.

AHHA: My problem comes in with the access that we have to these things. I have two teenage daughters myself, and they enjoy certain types of music. The young men that they take a liking to can sell sex better than any pimp on any street corner. These are the people they look up to, so naturally, they will emulate what they see them do.

Al Jarreau: Right. And it is accessible broadly. There’s a lot to be said about the parent who watches what their kids see. To the extent that undesirable stuff is available to the world at large, it requires us to think about how we want to monitor that. How do we want to look at images that glorify blowing someone up? The world in general has been shaking a finger at Hollywood for going there so often and so much. If there’s an accident on the freeway, people stop and stare at the blood because we can’t help it.

AHHA: It has gotten to the point where Hip-Hop has almost changed the English language. I don’t know if you have paid attention to that.

Al Jarreau: We need to be careful. It’s disturbing to me that a lot of it is coming right out of our midst in center city. Right out of Afro-American culture. Disturbing.

AHHA: We try to propose change, but if the next person is not willing to go with the idea of change, and they do not see the need for it, then it will never be.

Al Jarreau: Quite right. Everything is so dollar driven and there are things that bring dollars that may not be the best for us. Even down to something like McDonalds, it isn’t the healthiest stuff for us…

AHHA: But believe me, that McGriddle is so good; we are willing to risk a heart attack or stroke just to taste it!

Al Jarreau: (laughs)

AHHA: And that same idea comes in with music. CNN glorifies war, we glorify the many excesses you see on TV everyday, and it peaks human interest. There is no selection, and again, selection needs to be a more integral part of our daily lives.

Al Jarreau: Along with that diversity and selection, we need some more God. None of those people are talking about God.