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Al Jarreau: A multiple Grammy winner who deserved a bigger stage

The singer, who won in jazz, pop and R&B categories, died Sunday

How ironic that Al Jarreau, who died Sunday at 76 of undisclosed causes, should die on the day of the 59th Annual Grammy Awards.

Over the course of a spectacular 50-year career, Jarreau was no stranger to the Grammys, having captured seven of the coveted trophies, including honors for best jazz vocal performance, best traditional R&B vocal performance and best male pop vocal performance. One of the few vocalists to win in jazz, pop and R&B categories, Jarreau may not have been physically present during music’s biggest gala Sunday, but his spirit haunted the proceedings like a Dickensian ghost of Grammys past.

Yet despite all the accomplishments and accolades, many fans were left Sunday with the belief that Jarreau died deserving even wider recognition. After all, how many musicians are so good that they helped create a new radio format, as Jarreau did by pioneering the R&B-inflected “smooth jazz” subgenre?

In music, as in sports, one can always spot the true students of their craft, those players who diligently examine the greats, then borrow to create their own unique style. Jarreau was one such student. His rubbery baritone was a marvel of assimilation. Savvy listeners could detect Nat King Cole in his warm tone and meticulously rounded vowels, Jon Hendricks in his rapid-fire scat delivery, a hint of Lou Rawls in his cosmopolitan delivery. Yet for all his skill as an appropriator, nobody sounded like Jarreau, before or since, and it seems doubtful that anyone will be able to simulate his singular vocal magic.

A fearless interpreter, he could take a standard such as Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” and transform it into a staccato soul-jazz workout, or sculpt James Taylor’s elegiac folk-pop ballad “Fire and Rain” into a gutbucket funk jam. A human beatbox well before rappers conceived such a thing, Jarreau could contort his voice to create impressionistic emulations of guitars, bass and percussion. It’s no wonder that acclaimed singer/actress Audra McDonald tweeted in response to Jarreau’s death Sunday: “Listen, learn & love. Nobody did it better than Al Jarreau.”

McDonald was among a bevy of luminaries who offered condolences Sunday via social media, including Rev. Jesse Jackson, Dianne Reeves, Jane Monheit, Joey DeFrancesco, Billy Dee Williams, Paula Abdul and Robert Glasper. “The key to Al’s success — he was passionate about what he was doing,” said famed trumpeter and A&M Records co-founder Herb Alpert on the red carpet at Sunday’s Grammy Awards ceremony. “[Jarreau] was doing it for the right reasons, he was doing it because that was what was coming out of him … that’s what all artists strive for.”

Born in Milwaukee in 1940, Jarreau moved to Hollywood in the late 1960s, establishing himself on the Los Angeles scene by opening for up-and-coming entertainers such as Jimmie Walker, Bette Midler and John Belushi. As he arrived on the global music scene in the mid-1970s, jazz had been hijacked by fusion artists whose spacey, guitar-intensive sounds owed as much to progressive rock as to jazz legends such as Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Jarreau himself was something of a fusionist, only instead of high-voltage rock, his frames of reference were more traditional genres such as hard bop, R&B, funk, bossa nova, gospel and spirituals.

His 1975 debut LP, We Got By, sounds just as relevant today, featuring an organic, back-to-basics sound that perfectly captures the modern African-American experience. Tunes such as “You Don’t See Me” and the title track address the eternal struggle, while the album’s intimate performances give the impression it was recorded during an after-hours club session. Of all the recordings in his discography, We Got By is still Jarreau’s earthiest album, and one of the finest debuts in contemporary jazz history.

Curiously, his music would never again achieve that streetwise rootsiness. Subsequent albums were exercises in optimistic, scrupulously recorded jazz-pop, with Jarreau struggling for a hit sound while retaining his artistic integrity. With cream-of-the-crop players such as keyboardist Joe Sample, bassists Wilton Felder and Willie Weeks, guitarist Larry Carlton and more, Jarreau became one of the foremost artists of the emerging smooth jazz genre, a distinction he shared with Warner Bros. Records labelmates such as George Benson, Michael Franks and Fourplay.

After releasing a steady stream of acclaimed but modest-selling albums including Glow, All Fly Home and This Time, Jarreau hit paydirt in 1981 with the LP Breakin’ Away and its top 40 hit, “We’re In This Love Together.” The singer would return to the pop charts again in 1983 with the life-affirming smooth jazz jam, “Mornin’.”

His career received another boost in 1987 with the Emmy-nominated single “Moonlighting,” a Jarreau composition and the theme song to the hit TV series of the same name. Jarreau cemented his reputation as one of the top performers of the ’80s with his contribution to “We Are The World,” the legendary 1985 charity single recorded by the supergroup, USA For Africa, in which the singer performed with Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, George Michael, Lionel Richie, and dozens more.

Hit singles notwithstanding, Jarreau’s career is ultimately defined by deep album tracks that received little top 40 airplay, including fan favorites such as “Rainbow in Your Eyes,” “Fly,” “(If I Could Only) Change Your Mind,” and the sublime “I Will Be Here for You (Nitakungodea Milele).”

It’s testament to his artistry that he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the prestigious Berklee College of Music, along with another from the University of Wisconsin in his home state.

Enfeebled in recent years, Jarreau took to performing while seated on stage. Yet he always gave 100 percent. Just last week, he announced that he was retiring from touring. Then Sunday came the sad news of his death. He died an entertainer’s death, performing almost to the end.

Bruce Britt is an award-winning writer and essayist. He lives in Los Angeles with his three dogs and his Fender Stratocaster guitars.