Interview: Al Jarreau shared his thoughts on Milwaukee, jazz, & more

Interview: Al Jarreau shared his thoughts on Milwaukee, jazz, & more

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The legendary singer reflects on his Milwaukee upbringing in one of his final interviews.

Legendary vocalist and Milwaukee native Al Jarreau passed away early yesterday morning at the age of 76. His death occurred the same week it was announced that he would be retiring from touring due to health concerns. He had been hospitalized and was recovering alongside his family and friends.

Throughout his career Jarreau sold millions of records and was the only Grammy vocalist to win in the jazz, R&B and pop categories. One of Milwaukee’s most decorated Grammy winners with 23 nominations and 7 wins, Jarreau passed away the morning of the 2017 Grammy Awards.

Jarreau’s family has asked that instead of sending flowers and gifts, consider a contribution to the Wisconsin Foundation for School Music.

Last summer I had the opportunity to speak with Jarreau over the phone from his home in Los Angeles. I was interviewing him for a two-part series on Milwaukee jazz, which I am expanding into a book.

Click here to listen to the interview and read below for a full transcript of my interview with Al Jarreau, in which he talks about growing up on the north side, attending Lincoln High School, important gigs early in his career at the Pfister Hotel, and some of his favorite homecoming performances.

I’m on the phone with the prolific, the celebrated, the 7-time Grammy Award winning singer from right here in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Mr. Al Jarreau.

Right. From Lincoln High School and Ripon College. Rippin’ good! Yes indeed.

And where are you calling in from today Al?

I’m at home in Los Angeles. I don’t live right in the heart of the city. I live in a little suburb called Tarzana. In the last 20 years since we’ve been here I’ve just watched the traffic increase and it’s an ant hill now.

I know it. I’ve got family out in LA and visit often. Speaking of where you live, I’m curious, where did you grow up in the city of Milwaukee?

I grew up on the north side on a street called Reservoir, so named because it is the street that led to the reservoir in Milwaukee at Reservoir Park, which is out there east of Holton about a mile and where North Avenue kind of makes a swing around the reservoir. But it’s a real reservoir with water in it and I’ve loved it, and a bed of flowers that you can see for a mile on the slope of the reservoir that’s been tended to for years and years. It’s a landmark. It’s wonderful.

So that’s where I grew up and I went to a little grade school that’s no longer there called Henry L. Palmer grade school and then I went to Lincoln Junior-Senior High School. Milwaukee was very important for me.

I know like a lot of musicians who came up in Milwaukee, you started playing, or in your case, singing, in the church, is that right?

Yeah, I’m like a lot of singers in the world who began singing in the church. A lot of singers get turned on by that experience of singing for the public in the church. It’s one of the first and only places where that can happen, unless you were like me and your mother played piano for you and you sang at PTA meetings. I did.

But where else can you perform publicly before an audience? It’s the church. So lots of singers, black and white, have their first experiences singing in the church. Some of them shortly after that or at the same time, in the grade school. So all of that for me. Those kind of formal environments or semi-formal environments, however you want to call them, where music is played and heard, I sang at every chance that I got.

I come from a family of people that were very musical. I’m the only one that didn’t play an instrument, but they all sang and played and did so in my house, in my living room, and all of that was the “for example for” me. This is what you do when you’ve heard Ella Fitzgerald. This is what you do when you’ve heard Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughn. All of that happened in my living room and just touched my silly little heart.

And it was so open, it was like predestined in that way that I would become a singer or someone associated with music. So that’s how it began and you know what? I should’ve learned piano. Because my mother taught piano, but I couldn’t get the baseball glove off my left hand. Really, I was playing baseball and didn’t want to stop playing baseball and study piano.

But what was happening on the other hand was that rather than study music, I just wanted to do it. So I did it. I didn’t study piano or study theory or anything like that and didn’t learn a horn. I wish I had. My writing these days would be more mature by leaps and bounds if I knew some of the laws of writing and could sit down to a piano and pick a few things out.

Instead you learned some things on the street, quite literally. I know you sang while in school with doo-wop groups on the street, right?

That’s right. Doo-wop groups on the street, on the playground, at Lapham Park, at the social center at 4th Street Grade School singing there on the street. On the way to school we sang. My quartet would meet up on the way to school and sing on the way to school. Oh my goodness, (breaks into song).

All of that doo-wop stuff. That’s very important training for ya. I mean we pass it off as singing on the street corner doo-wop, but man oh man, that’s very serious training to understand how the voices come together and know what the function of the bassline is in a song and be able to sing the bassline and know the importance of what that bassline is doing. Very important training that I was getting that was not formal, but maybe you could call it “OJT,” On The Job training. We weren’t getting paid, but we sure were singing like somebody was going to pay us. Well they did, with applause.

I’m curious about Lincoln High School. That was one of the big high schools back then. What was your experience like, did you have any music teachers or choir teachers that meant a lot to you?

Oh absolutely. I’m still in touch with one of them now. He got an award a couple of years ago and I was in touch with him regarding that award. That was a very important time in my life, those years at Lincoln High School. In a kind of formal situation came across a very important kind of music, and that was Broadway. Bob Badune and Ron Davillers. Bob was choir and Ron was the band teacher and brought Broadway to Lincoln High School. And taught kids Broadway. And one of the most important things was not only was it the music of Broadway and it’s breadth and depth and great songwriting and great humor, but also the ethics of Broadway.

The ethics of Broadway are the ethics of the country at large, of Western Civilization at large. This is okay to do and that’s not okay to do. And you learn that in studying Broadway, so it was a very important institution Broadway. I sang things from West Side Story and South Pacific. Just marvelous background for me that I have to consider formal and informal studies that were not the same as learning theory but in their way there was a kind of theory that was being taught in the writing of other people who were theory people.

When you were coming up in Milwaukee, when you were a kid in Milwaukee, jazz was arguably at its peak at this time and there was a very healthy jazz scene in Milwaukee and I’m curious if you ever went out to shows, did you go out to Walnut Street or to any of the clubs in downtown?

Well you know what, I have a memory of the Milwaukee scene of jazz music being pretty limited. I mean it may have the image today of being a very healthy scene as we look back at it, but I can count on one hand and two fingers of the other hands places that were doing jazz in Milwaukee. As we look back on it now that was a pretty healthy scene, but back in those days we were going, “Where’s the club to do so and so? We need a this and that.”

And maybe that’s just the way we are and the way it is. Because I say the same things about what I realize is a very healthy jazz climate in Los Angeles these days, but at the time we were going, “Oh my goodness why can’t? Where is? There’s only the blah blah blah.” So yeah I felt something in Milwaukee. There were very important people I came across that changed my life, one of them was a guy named Lazlo Czimber from Hungary.

He came to Milwaukee running from the revolution that was going on at the time, they were in an uproar against Moscow and there were people on the run that were accepted into the country and into Milwaukee. This guy was a brilliant piano player, took me under his wing and we sang some very important dates together at the Pfister. I learned so much from Les Czimber, he’s part of my yellow brick road. As was the Pfister Hotel where I’m going to get an award in October, a lifetime achievement award  that was only given three other times. One to the band director at the University of Wisconsin and to Les Paul, the Wisconsinite who invented the electric guitar. What a thing, what a change he made in our lives.

The pride of Waukesha. I know you played Potawatomi at the Northern Lights Theater last year. And I’m just curious as to some of your favorite or most memorable homecoming shows over the years?

Oh my goodness. Well certainly that one last year at Potawatomi, boy people turned  from everywhere. From Lincoln High School, from North Division High School, King High School, kids that  I went to grade school with sitting in the very first row. Kids I went to high school with, folks from Ripon College. It was a wonderful reunion that we had at Potawatomi and Potawatomi has always opened their arms to me and especially events that I want to do. Fundraisers and all, to educate some kids to go to school to be teachers in Milwaukee, they’ve been a part of that.

That’s certainly highlight event, every time I’m there it’s a highlight event. One of the other highlight events has to be when we did the first fundraiser for the Tom Cheeks Scholarship at Lincoln High School. People came over there and rejoiced in acknowledging Tom Cheeks, a great teacher at Lincoln High School who helped kids who lived on the other side of the tracks realize that they could do it too and encourage us to go on with school and a whole bunch of us did. And so that’s an outstanding return to Milwaukee for me.

I would have to mention one of the Summerfest events, being greeted by thousands in Milwaukee on that occasion. That was really just a trip you know. I mean, I’m there and I got my 1,500 people or so who come out to hang with Al Jarreau. But to go to Summerfest and sing before 15,000 people that’s a whole trip in itself. So outstanding memories of that sort for returns to Milwaukee. But I still think that the best is yet to come, though I’m not sure what I’m talking about.

I love the outlook.

But I plan to be coming a lot more.

Well, you do have the event in October to look forward to.


Where do you hang out when you come back to town? Do you still have family here?

Oh I do have family in Milwaukee. Family and friends. And we always have some little get-together. My brother and his angel wife invite us to come and hang out at his house. There won’t be a ton of people there, you know 10 or 15. A few people from grade school and high school and various periods in my life in Milwaukee. That’s what we do. There was a time when I came to town and sang and would go to local jazz places and hang out and listen to music and all, have a glass of wine, but these days I kinda stay close to home, and that means the hotel too.

What were some of those jazz clubs you’d hang out at back in the day?

There was a place called the Doll’s House.  

Did you ever go to the Jazz Oasis?

Where was that?

On Holton Street.

Yep. And then on Farwell, Sardino’s was doing jazz.

Did you know Manty Ellis? Did you go to Lincoln High School together?

Yep. Manty’s a little bit older than I am, but yes I knew Manty. He was in my older brother’s gang and crowd. Manty became a really brilliant guitarist and not many playing at that level that he does. I mean George Benson and a few others play at that level. Manty didn’t get famous, but Manty was well known for his great work.

I’ve just got one more question for you Mr. Jarreau. You’ve done over your career jazz, pop, R&B styles. I’m curious what you love about jazz? Not just singing, but also as a listener?

Maybe I can’t help loving it and I love it because it was some of the first music that I ever heard and it’s in my heart and soul. But inside of that music I find a music that in itself has a real breadth of feelings that can be expressed. From sadness to joy. You know the bluesy stuff, sadness, and then the joyous stuff. And obviously, of course, this improvisational aspect of it that brings a level of communication with an audience that is really special. When they hear you create something new right there in front of them, their reaction is immediate and with awe. And that kind of communication is just priceless and rare.

It’s found its way into rock and roll playing. All of those two great jazz guitarists are improvising in the fashion and thinking of Coltrane and all those guys who improvised and set that kind of expression on the map. And said “It’s okay, here it is and here’s how I feel about it today.” Jazz does that.

At the same time it offers you and asks you to be free in that way it also demands and ask you to be proficient with your instrument. To know it well. To study it like a classical player, so that it’s a part of your hand or lips and all. And for you to know the theory on that instrument. “Okay now you know it, come and be free. Come and make your statement. Improvise. You know the changes and the melody, now make a new melody that you just thought of now.” That’s some deep stuff. That’s a calling that is so inviting as a player, as a singer.

Fantastic. I love that, thank you.

Thank you for the time. I love these occasions to talk to press and radio from Milwaukee and to say thank you to Milwaukee. And for them to know that there’s a guy named Al Jarreau who does indeed come from Milwaukee, from the other side of the tracks.