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.
Dance is a political strategy that says “yes” to life as opposed to the corporate and terroristic manipulations that so eagerly promote polarization and glorify violent entries into death. Simply put, that is one important reason David Bowie’s 1983 Let’s Dance video (directed by David Mallet) is one of my all-time favorites. Through its subtle acknowledgment of the plight of Aboriginals in Australia, the late great Bowie Jan 8, 1947 - Jan 10, 2016) made two very important statements:
The first statement is very similar to that made by Leonardo DiCaprio when accepting a 2016 Golden Globe Award for his performance in the movie Revenant. It is namely this: the lives of indigenous and “minority” people are something much more than hindrances to a given company’s or government’s preferred agenda. As such, colonizing them (something which can be done in many different ways: economically, politically, socially, etc) or marginalizing the same is not the “acceptable option” so many seem to believe it is.
Put on your red shoes and dance the blues
Dance to the song they're playing on the radio
While colour lights up your face
Sway through the crowd to an empty space…
The second statement made through the video is that as tragically depressing as social injustice and its accompanying agonies can be they do not have to frame or define every moment of one’s existence. The physical and creative energies of dance can relieve the paralyzing tensions caused by systemic drudgery and replace it with a healing sense of inspired positive motivation.
To “put on your red shoes and dance the blues,” as Bowie suggests so compellingly, is one way of transforming sorrow into a temporary state of something close to bliss, and of reshaping subjugation into an exercise in transcendent advocacy. It is a bit of folk wisdom that people of African descent applied to superlative effect during the days of legal slavery in America.
Dancing Away the Blues
At the beginning of Let’s Dance, a young Aboriginal woman (Joelene King) steps into a beautiful pair of red shoes as her friends look on approvingly. Toward the video’s end, the shoes come to symbolize forces of oppression which threaten her native way of life as well humanity in general. So she takes them off and with her companion stomps on them and rejects what they now represent. The young woman and man (Terry Roberts) are last seen dancing atop a green shrub-covered cliff as images fade into gray contrasts between them, the city of Sydney, and open land.
Almost Like Russian Social Realism
Bowie himself stated his intentions in regard to the Let’s Dance video more bluntly. Speaking of both it and the video for China Girl, he pointed out the following in an interview with Kurt Loder for Rolling Stone Magazine:
"They're almost like Russian social realism, very naive. And the message that they have is very simple - it's wrong to be racist! ...I see no reason to f*ck about with that message, you see? I thought, 'Let's try to use the video format as a platform for some kind of social observation, and not just waste it on trotting out and trying to enhance the public image of the singer involved. I mean, these are little movies, and some movies can have a point, so why not try to make some point.” (David Bowie: Straight Time)
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.