When JT publisher Lee Mergner spoke to Al Jarreau in June, what was originally intended to be a conversation about the vocal-jazz hero joining the 2017 Jazz Cruise snowballed into an inspired, freewheeling dialogue. In this interview, edited for space, the 76-year-old discusses his return to the duo format, his upcoming Ellington big-band project, what icons like Ali and Obama mean to the American spirit and why he “ain’t scared of Trump at all.”
Lee Mergner: I wanted to talk about you doing the Jazz Cruise for the first time. One of the unique aspects is the hang with your fellow musicians.
Al Jarreau: Yes, yes. And to rub some shoulders with the important people that you do it for. You could do your music in the basement or you can do it with recordings, but we do all that to make our music for the people to hear what we’re doing and thinking and feeling. On a ship for a few days, there’s an opportunity to meet the people and chat.
Do you enjoy that aspect, meeting your fans?
I love that part of it. I’ve done it less in recent years, because of my issues with my back and walking. I don’t get around as much as I used to, but man, that’s the most valuable part of it, that communion with people, that communion we make when we sing together. When I play, you stomp your feet or you dance. When we sing this little chorus together, when we laugh and tell this funny little story together. That’s the shit.
Freddy Cole is the éminence grise of the the cruise. He’s the guy that, when he plays late at night, all the singers and pianists and other instrumentalists come out to listen and hang together. Some of them, like John Pizzarelli, even heckle him a little. As the elder, he becomes the gathering point.
The watering hole, as it were. That’s part of the stuff that happens only on a cruise anymore. There’s a piano bar sometimes in a hotel around the world, but not with Freddy Cole. I’m about to reintroduce that piano-bar concept with [musician] Joe Turano. I’m not going to do it in a piano bar but I could, and that’s the point. Along the way here, as we get more and more involved with this way of performing as a duo, it will get more and more piano bar-ish: You know, sitting on a barstool, Joe sitting next to me at his piano, whether it be a Rhodes or an acoustic piano, and doing this music that has fire and intimacy right there in your face. You can see the color of my eyes or my sweat on your blue-suede shoes, with the closeness and intimacy and the heart and spirit in the music, all in what is basically the piano-bar situation. They can take it to a concert hall-to Carnegie or the Berlin Philharmonic-but it will be the same thing, as long as you bring the people close and don’t put them 100 yards away.
Right, and you can put a tip jar on the piano and make some easy cash, tax-free.
Hello, thank you for reminding me. I’m going to do it. It’s a little scary, because it’s a different concept for me, in an environment that people have not seen me in before-just working with one other guy with one instrument. [sings long rhythmic percussion section]
You’re going to be working hard for your money.
But there’s an intimacy that they don’t get in any other kind of way, and a personal statement that can’t be made with five other guys onstage. It might be a new viewpoint of who I am. And the thing is that it’s really not new. It will be new this time, in my life, but after working four years with the George Duke Trio and doing standards as a jazz singer with a trio, à la Tony Bennett and Diana Krall … that was an era out of which my jazzy side came.
When our job together ended in 1968 at the Half Note, [it] ended a certain era and style and approach to music in my life, and I found a guitar player who was as in love with Brazilian music as I was and we became a duo. And that’s when I found that part of me that’s become my thumbprint, like what I just sang for you-singing vocal percussion and singing a little bit of guitar-ish sounding stuff. There were just two of us, and the sky opened up with all that space. A lot of what became my thumbprint that people have come to know me for over the years happened in the duo situation. So we’re going to return to it. Maybe my next record will be called Piano Bar. I think Joe and I are going to call ourselves JoeReau.
JoeReau! You’re working it. I understand that you’re also doing an Ellington project with the NDR Big Band.
Yes, with the NDR Big Band, which has been around for [more than 60 years] and is a jazz band extraordinaire. These cats play like they’re from Chicago and St. Louis and they got Miles and Dizzy on the run. They play it with the best that are around today. I’m going to sing with one of the few existing working big bands in this section of the universe, and that’s the NDR Big Band. And we’re going to do Ellington. We’ve been putting the program together, doing some arrangements, and that will happen in the late fall or early winter.
You also appeared at the White House recently.
It was wonderful that the Obamas, almost by executive order, welcomed International Jazz Day to the White House lawn. We’re only about five years into International Jazz Day, which is celebrated on April 30 in  countries, sending out this joyful thank you and appreciation and playing of jazz. It was just perfect that it took place there. I was so glad that I was a part of it.
Did that have special significance to you, being at the White House?
Yes, being at the White House puts a lot of energy into whatever. It has a lot of significance that Republicans have not been able to tarnish. They tried to assassinate this administration and have done a pretty good job of killing the country in favor of their selfish ideas. Shut the government down and all that. It’s obvious why we don’t talk about it. You are not going to hear it from corporate radio, press and television. “Wrong color. He cannot be my commander-in-chief.”
No, this world is not changing that much. “You’re not going to come to America and integrate from all over the world, with a world that’s getting smaller. And mess with the status quo. No, wrong color, wrong type of hair. We’ve been doing this and it’s ours. We are the true Americans.” Am I putting it together for you?
Hey, he’s half-white, so I can take credit for him and be proud of him too.
That’s right! And I hope you get to watch the Muhammad Ali funeral service and see people of every stripe saying eloquent things that haven’t even been said about dead presidents, about a guy named Muhammad Ali who came from nothing and stuck to his principles and his religious beliefs. Which is who we are and what we are as Americans. Freedom of religion. They shut him down because of it, took away his money, his position. And he still became King of the World. The Greatest. That’s the message in his funeral today. If we watch it and listen to it, it might cut through the Donald Trump bullshit and the selfishness of Wall Street’s greed and all of it that just denies that we’re in this world together.
What is that phrase about history bending toward the truth? That well described Martin Luther King, and probably does Muhammad Ali.
The phrase is “The arc of the [moral universe] is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Well, I believe that will be true of Obama as well. History will show that he was a great president, probably one of the greatest.
That’s right. He was the greatest president we’ve ever had. You better be careful about saying that too loud.
I’m not afraid to say it. OK, here’s a question sent to us from the Jazz Cruise audience. If you had to name four vocalists whose styles are part of yours, who would they be?
Let’s begin with Jon Hendricks. Second, Miles Davis, one of the best vocalists there ever was, on the horn. Stevie Wonder, in the rhythmic treatment of stuff. [long pause] There are so many possibilities-like the Beatles and Joni Mitchell-who have been such a major influence in my life, and from whom I borrowed a lot of shit. You’d have to listen real close to hear it, but it’s there. I’m just thumbing through what’s important in this content. Let’s leap context and say Bobby McFerrin. I guess that’s not really a leap of context.
Well, when most of us first heard Bobby McFerrin we thought, “Wow, he sounds like Al Jarreau.”
He’s from the same kind of school.Beyond the vocal-jazz influences, he loved all that music from the 1960s and ’70s-the Beatles and the singer-songwriters like James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. That all came through him.
How lucky we were as musicians to have those influences which were really present in our lives. There were no walls then; there are so many walls today. Hey, I ain’t scared of Trump at all. I’ve seen some walls that affect my very industry-walls that wall off the listener from this kind of music or that kind of music because somebody is making this money presenting this song from there. And then you have to listen to all this walled-off shit that they thought is important for this category of music. It’s crazy. I grew up in a time when on one station, if you turned it on in the morning you heard classical music, and then at noon you heard Billy Eckstine and Perry Como and Patti Page and Brenda Lee, and at night it became a blues station and you’d hear Muddy Waters and Guitar Slim. It was all presented without walls or qualification.
One question I often ask of singers is what songwriters will have their work performed many years from now, in the same way the Great American Songbook writers have been performed by jazz people. Who will be in that next Great American Songbook?
In my lifetime, that would be Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon. And certainly the Beatles. It’s pretty powerful stuff that they were talking about and singing inside of a song. Bob Dylan is part of that group. And their music is still relevant. [sings] “Late last night I heard that screen door slam, a big yellow taxi took away my old man. Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone? They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Paved paradise and put up a parking lot. Go Joni. That’s some deep shit. [sings] “Hey farmer, farmer, put away the DDT…”
I recently heard Paul Simon’s “America” on Louis CK’s web series Horace and Pete, and I swear that tune went right through my bones.
Oh, don’t it hit you right in your mind and then in your bones? That’s the way to write. Responsibility to the message. What are you going to say? You’re a singer and you sing the lyrics. Find the lyrics that you want to sing. It’s OK to sing, “Ooh, wooby doo, I love you, the sky is blue and so is my shoe.” But there are times where there’s a responsibility to say something more, like “Going off to look for America.” Man, where is it? We were just talking about it [with] the Muhammad Ali service today. There it is. There is America. It got tarnished and trampled underfoot for a while, but the spirit of America arose and challenged us to think and to discover who we are. And let us know that we can be the greatest. We are the greatest. We got some problems, but we can fix them.