Tracing the origins of scat singing, like all musical idioms, is all but impossible. Scores of vocalists including Caucasians Gene Greene (1881-1930) and Al Jolson (1886-1950) left early-recorded examples of this form, which features artists vocalizing nonsensical syllables to freestyle melodies and rhythms.
Others point to evidence of time-honored rituals in West Africa, which obliterate the separations between music and verbal language to achieve a certain “parity” between the two. A more recent standard bearer of this tradition, multi-Grammy Award winner Al Jarreau, passed away on Sunday, Feb. 12 in Los Angeles. Dubbed the “Acrobat of Scat,” for his eclectic song stylings, he was 76.
Alwin Lopez Jarreau was born on March 12, 1940 the fourth of five children in Milwaukee, Wis. Like many recording artists, his was from a musical family. His father was a Seventh-day Adventist minister, while his mother played piano, as Al sang in the choir from the age of four.
Influences came from other sources in that culturally diverse city, including the Catholic Church across the street from the family home. In a 1992 interview for the Chicago Tribune, he remembered the Czech and German polkas he absorbed in his childhood.
“It’s all in those wrinkled folds of (my) gray matter,” Jarreau said.
His talents extended beyond music. An accomplished academic, Jarreau won a scholarship to Wisconsin’s Ripon College, where he played on the basketball team, and performed locally with a collegiate vocal group. Graduating in 1962, he went on to graduate from the University of Iowa (he was lauded as that school’s Distinguished Alumni in June of 2005). By the late 1960s, he found himself working in San Francisco as a rehabilitation social worker.
However, the pull of a music career haunted him, as he sat in on sessions at small clubs along the West Coast with the likes of keyboardist George Duke.Summoning the courage to quit his “day job” and pursue his craft seriously, he moved to Los Angeles where he shared the stage at the legendary Improv comedy club with then unknowns John Belushi, Bette Midler, and Jimmy Walker.
His perseverance paid off with a recording contact courtesy of Warner Bros. Records, circa 1975, which resulted in the acclaimed album “We Got By,” and his (first) Grammy-winning album “Look to the Rainbow” in 1977.
During a career that produced 20 plus albums, Jarreau was one of the few musicians to win Grammys in three separate categories—jazz, pop and R&B.
The January 1982 issue of People Magazine attempted to categorize his performance thusly:
“… he doesn’t so much sing as play his voice, using it to emulate flutes, cymbals, guitars and drums.”
The Chicago Tribune called him “the voice of versatility;” the Detroit News proclaimed him “one of the world’s greatest natural resources,” while Time Magazine simply entitled him “the greatest jazz singer alive.”
Throughout his life, Jarreau maintained a spiritual sensibility including brief alliances with the United Church of Religious Science and Scientology.
The turn of the century brought with it the onset of health-related maladies, aggravated by his grueling touring schedule. In 2002, he entered the hospital at USC for emergency surgery to alleviate compression on his spinal cord. Prior to a 2010 concert in the Alps, he experienced breathing problems due to difficulties becoming acclimatized to the high altitude of that region. This was followed by a bout with pneumonia in 2012.
Jarreau’s wife, actress/model Susan Player and his son Ryan, 33, were at his side when he died. A previous marriage to college girlfriend Phyllis Hall ended in devoice in 1978.
Flowers and other tributes have been placed on his star on the 7000 block (north side) of Hollywood Boulevard. (bestowed in 2001).
A private memorial service is being planned. To honor his legacy, fans are encouraged to donate to the Wisconsin Foundation for School Music http://wsmamusic.org.