During an interview, the exceedingly polite Jarreau--who will perform as part of a fund-raising concert for the University of Arizona Hillel Foundation Saturday night in the UA's Centennial Hall--often grasps for out-of-reach words or even names that seem to escape him. At times, he finds it easier to simply start singing to illustrate a point.
When asked for the identities of his early musical role models, Jarreau roams back in time beyond his mid-1960s stint in San Francisco with jazz pianist George Duke's trio.
"I got my first mentorship in my living room," he said, and launched into a rowdy, bebop first verse of Nat "King" Cole's "Straighten Up and Fly Right," generously seasoned with adventurous scatting.
Jarreau was born in 1940 in Milwaukee, Wisc., the fifth of six children and son of a Seventh Day Adventist pastor, who also sang. As he grew, Jarreau found further inspiration in such artists as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn and Billy Ekstine, not to forget Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Stan Kenton, George Shearing.
That place where supper-club jazz and swing crossed over with early bop "spoke to me and I knew that was the direction I'd go. But 'How Much Is That Doggie in the Window' also spoke to me," he chuckled.
"Later I sang music with doo-wop quartets, not to make money or have a career from it, but rehearsing four or five times a week just because I loved the sound of those harmonies so much."
So Jarreau came to musical maturity listening to jazz, pop and soul music with equal love. Those influences can be heard through his career as a singer of limber, gentle melodies in all three traditions, usually buffed to a high-gloss shine. His hits include such mainstream tunes as "Never Givin' Up," "We're In This Love Together," "Mornin'" and, perhaps most famously, the theme song from the '80s TV series Moonlighting.
Jarreau is one of the few artists to have won Grammy Awards in the categories of jazz, pop and R&B. And his natural style is to borrow from each of those disciplines, he said.
"A typical pop singer doesn't improvise as much as I need to and want to. And a jazz singer doesn't funk as much as an R&B singer does. I mean funk in the way that James Brown does, or à la Sly Stone, à la Aretha (Franklin) and Stevie (Wonder). They are funky singers. And so, in fact, is that Canadian woman who is so fantastic and getting ready to re-enter the music world--what is her name?" Not Celine Dion? "Oh yeah, she's a funky singer. No, really, in the world of pop, Whitney (Houston) and Celine are both funky singers."
Despite stylistic differences, Jarreau finds jazz, pop and R&B all different frequencies in the same musical spectrum. They needn't be separated, he said.
"In the first half of the last century, jazz was the pop music," Jarreau reminded. "It was the dance music of the 1930s and '40s.
"My understanding is--because I was just a kid in the middle '40s, remember--that jazz had a bigger impact then than even the pop music of today (has). It's something that I try to keep in mind whenever I wax jazzy.
"But many people grew away from jazz because it stopped being the music of the people--we got real cerebral in the '50s. And Chuck Berry and Little Richard took that part of jazz music that was the dance beat, that down 'n' dirty sound (here he punctuates his words with syncopated chunka-chunka-oomph scatting), and began this whole run of rock 'n' roll that is still with us today."
Speaking of today, Jarreau groaned when asked to deliver a state-of-the-music-industry address. "Oh, well, how about those Diamondbacks!" Translation: don't get him started.
Too late. He's already in second gear.
"I want to be careful when I talk about the deplorable state of things in music today. But if you get down to it, it's the fragmented categorizing of music with each with their own audience and commercials cynically played to that particular audience and demographic. It always sells the listener short on his ability to appreciate Debussey at the same time that he can listen to Ray Charles."
To combat the trends of contemporary pop music, Jarreau continues performing and recording. He's hard at work in the studio on his latest album with producer Paul Brown, who also was behind the board for the singer 's 2000 release, Tomorrow Today. Expected to hit the streets in July, the album does not yet have a name. But Jarreau promised a special treat in a duet recorded with Joe Cocker. "It sounds good, too, man."
The velvet-toned Jarreau and gravelly-voiced Cocker reveled in the contrast of their singing styles while recording the song--probably to be titled "Wrong Place at the Right Time" or "Lost and Found."
"We just looked at each other and laughed out loud with joy," he said.
Of course, Cocker won't be present Saturday at Centennial, but a seven-piece backing group will. And Jarreau promises the show will smoke.
"Like everything else I do, it's just another way of expressing myself."