The first time I became aware of the name Al Jarreau was when receiving a letter (of the old-school variety penned by hand) from a former college roommate exclaiming how thrilled he and his girlfriend had been to attend one of his concerts. Despite my former roommate's enthusiasm, which rarely bubbled over so heatedly for anything other than football and slightly-older women, I did not really understand all the fuss over Jarreau.
Then a couple of years later, in the early 1980s, I got to see the rhythm-bending phenomenon myself in Berkeley, California, on a bill that also featured Carlos Santana and Frankie Beverly and Maze. The world by then had come to know him as the Grammy Award-winning talent behind the albums Look to the Rainbow (1977) and All Fly Home (1978). For my part, I finally got to experience the truth of a statement Jarreau would make many years later:
“I have missed the boat over my career by not doing every second or third CD live, because things happen on stage that don't happen in the studio.” (Al Jarreau Biography.com)
By its accommodating democratic nature, live jazz is often a music of improvisation. And by his brilliant fluid aesthetics, Al Jarreau was able to adapt his vocal vibrations to whatever genre he chose. But he was also, in essence a flesh, blood, and soul embodiment of jazz. It would not be absolutely wrong to describe him as a male Ella Fitzgerald or as a contemporary Cab Calloway, both of Harlem Renaissance fame, rolled into one. It might be more accurate, however, to say he was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of talent.
Among the things to which he alluded that could "happen on stage" was for him to suddenly turn his chest and rib cage into a drum set, transform his clapping hands into tambourines, or absorb an inspiration from the improvisational moment and blast it out of his lungs like a laser cannon lighting up multiple Sonny Rollins solos.
What happened on the stage was the kind of inexplicable enchantment that made music journalists rush to describe the "quintessential jazz musician" who could duplicate the superlative performance of a brilliant quartet, or even an entire orchestra, with just his singular voice and body carved from music. Think of him this way--Al Jarreau did not just perform his music: right before your astonished eyes and heart he brought it to kicking, shouting, dancing, holy cosmic life that left you breathless with wonder.
Forced to Make a Difficult Decision
The horrible dilemma with which I had to deal the night I saw Jarreau at the Berkeley Coliseum was that he had already been onstage for an hour, took a very short break, then came back for an additional set that lasted even longer. Dependent as I was on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) subway system to get me back to San Francisco, I could not ignore the fact that it was close to midnight and, according to my schedule, the last train to the city would leave at that time.
Thoroughly immersed in the essential work of channeling raw creative energy into musical genius, the singer himself clearly had no use for clocks or schedules and the band seemed happy to match him song for song. Knowing no one from whom I could beg for a ride if I chose to stay, I forced myself to leave and head for the subway.
Just as I was about to enter the station some blocks away, something incredible caught my attention. It was his voice. Whether due to the unique acoustics of the coliseum or the undiminished intensity of his performance, I could still hear him. It was if the night itself with the surrounding buildings, street lamps, trees, and sweet cool air had become his microphone and speakers. I smiled, then laughed out loud, and then laughed some more while simultaneously trying to sing along with him and hurry down the subway steps.
NEXT: Jarreau Jazz-riff Earth-tunes for the Angel of Compassion: Essay with Poem (part 2)
Bright Skylark Literary Productions
Author-Poet Aberjhani is currently completing a book of nonfiction narratives about race relations, histories of erasure, the cultural arts, and practices of slavery in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia, USA.
When the doors of the Jepson Center for the Arts opened to the public in Savannah, Georgia’s, downtown Historic District on March 10, 2006, it served as one more important reminder that the city is much more than a time-capsule filled with unique Civil War memorabilia. It is also home to many creative progressive thinkers eager to see a more sensible social and political balance than those presently evident.
This week marks the 10th anniversary of the most avant garde facility within the complex of the Telfair Arts Academy museums. The Center’s cultural and educational value to Savannah since its opening has been demonstrated many times over. It proved especially momentous to this author personally when the publication launch for ELEMENTAL, the Power of Illuminated Love (co-created with artist Luther E. Vann) sponsored by the Friends of African-American Arts, was held there May 29, 2008.
Sonic Revelations Painted Abstract Divine
The following year I returned to the center on March 22 with the intention of reporting on an exciting multi-media event taking place there. It featured a group of visual artists referred to as the Creative Force Artist Collective creating abstract paintings and sculpture while jazz saxophonist Jody Espina performed with a live band and audience members danced to the free-flowing vibes. The energy was so intense that I stopped jotting the notes I had been taking to write my story. Instead, my pen joined in with the flying paintbrushes, wailing music, and dancing souls by spontaneously writing the poem titled “Sounds Scribbled Mixed-Media Platinum at the Jepson Center 3/22/09.” The following is an excerpt:
A man sitting monkey-like
The complete poem was later published in The River of Winged Dreams. For me, the event that inspired it and the poem itself came to symbolize one of the ways that the Jepson Center for the Arts had come to exert a powerful regenerative influence on the city’s evolving cultural identity.
Claude Monet and Esteemed Company
Flashing forward to January 2016: I took a trip to the Telfair Museum of Art and Jepson Center for the Arts to conduct some field research for my current book-in-progress. The first surprise as I walked through Telfair Square toward the Telfair was discovering that it undergoing heavy-duty maintenance and repairs. The building was surrounded by scaffolding and the museum’s iconic trademark statues were sheathed in plastic. It would seem administrators wanted the senior museum at its best in time for the younger gallery’s birthday.
Inside the Jepson, I was fully prepared for the splendor that greeted me as I viewed the Monet and American Impressionism exhibit in the Steward Galleries. Given the combination of how French artist Claude Monet’s (1840-1926) singular brilliance had defined, and transcended, an entire era in art history so powerfully that its impact was celebrated in the Southeastern United States two centuries later, breathtaking splendor was about the only thing anyone could have expected. What I had not been prepared for were two different but equally-stunning exhibits in the form of photographs by Jack Leigh and the captivating oversized collage canvases of Mickalene Thomas.
The Evolution of
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.