Al Jarreau, RIP

I am so sad to observe the passing of the singer Al Jarrreau today in Los Angeles at the age of 76. Matt Schudel does a good job of paying tribute to Al in the Washington Post obituary. Margalit Fox provides a more ambivalent take in the New York Times obituary. I want to add a local note on Al’s death.

Al was a native of Milwaukee. Once he was able to make his voice heard on record in the mid-1970’s, he developed fans all over the world, but he had a special following long before then in Minneapolis. Al came to town for a gig with his then guitarist Julio Martinez in 1970 and stuck around to date a local woman.

Everyone who heard Al perform back then knew he was an awesomely talented musician. My first and best friend through high school was Scott Sansby. When I came home from college in the summer of 1970, Scottie told me I had to see Al. He raved about Al’s talent. He was certain that Al was going to be a star.

Scottie anchored the rhythm section on drums in Zarathustra, the house band at Minneapolis’s old Depot club (the predecessor to First Avenue), and Al would occasionally sit in with the band. He approached Scottie about playing with him. Scottie talked him into using Bobby Schnitzer (guitar) and Rich Dworsky (keyboards) and Dik Hedlund (bass). Texting this afternoon, Scottie reminds me: “We knew how good he was the first time we heard him sing.” Bobby and Rich subsequently moved out to Los Angeles with Al as he sought to make it big.

We were thrilled when Al returned to perform at Minneapolis’s Pantages Theater in 2011. I think all his old fans turned out to see the show. Al caught up with the audience’s musical contingent at a party after the show. From left to right in the photo below are Dik Hedlund, Rich Dworsky, Scott Sansby, Al and Bobby Schnitzer.

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While we saw early on what Al had to offer, it took the music industry another five years to seize on Al’s talent. Scottie was recording for Shelter Records in the early 1970s and took Al’s demo tapes to Shelter president Denny Cordell. Scottie tells me that Cordell thought the tapes were “great but that he didn’t know what to do with Al as far as genre and marketing, so he passed.” Scottie adds that the Twin Cities’ own Pat Rains — former owner of The Prison teen club in Burnsville — became Al’s manager and finally got him signed to Warner Brothers, where he released his first album in 1975.

The rest is music history. Al won seven Grammys in three musical categories (jazz, pop and R&B, respectively). According to the AllMusic Guide biography, Al is the only artist to win Grammys in three different musical categories.

Al’s music expressed infectious joy and endearing romanticism. You can hear the threads of his talent in his approach to Chick Corea’s “Spain.” It was an instrumental until Al put words to it (video below). As you listen to this I defy you to be unhappy. Can’t be done.

Al also put words to Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” (video below).

In his lyrics to “Take Five,” Al wrote: “Stop your busy day and take the time out to see that I’m alive, I’m alive.” Indeed he was. RIP.

NOTE: My thanks to Scott Sansby for helping me bring back the memories today. The Star Tribune elaborates on the local angle here.

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