A master of the art of swing, overwhelmed by commercial success, the Afro-American singer Al Jarreau, who died on Sunday in Los Angeles at the age of 76, had an eclectic repertoire, moving with class and naturalness from jazz to pop, from soul to funk, sometimes spiced with Caribbean or Brazilian rhythms.
"I hate labels, I love music, mixing genres, and I'll never get over it even if I'm accused of being commercial," said this artist with a velvety, swinging voice, capable of exceptional modulations, which he sometimes used like a real instrument.
Al Jarreau had won seven Grammy Awards, the only singer to have won these distinctions in three different categories (jazz, pop, rhythm and blues) and this, over four different decades, from the 1970s to the 2000s. In April 2016, he was among the artists invited to perform at the White House by Barack and Michelle Obama.
Born on 12 March 1940 in Milwaukee, Alwyn Lopez Jarreau was the son of an Adventist minister and a church pianist. At an early age, he sang in the bars of his hometown: his voice did not go unnoticed.
As a kid," he says, "I was passionate about improvised music. I grew up in the golden age of rock, all my friends at school swore by it, but I wasn't fascinated by it. I preferred to listen to Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan.
Then he studied psychology, without giving up singing. In San Francisco, he worked as a counsellor in a rehabilitation centre, while performing in the city's clubs at night.
He began to make a name for himself outside of California: in New York and on television, notably in Johnny Carson's shows.
In the early 1970s, he began writing his own songs that would remain in his repertoire, such as "Lock all the gates" and "Sweet potato pie".
He performed at the Troubadour Club in Hollywood and was successful, joining the Warner Brothers record company.
At the Montreux Festival in Switzerland at the end of the 1970s, he triumphed, accompanied only by his pianist, after being dropped at the last minute by his musicians.
The 1981 album "Breaking Away", based on the jazzy improvisations that would make him famous, confirmed his success. Tracks such as "We're In This Love Together" and "Roof Garden" were a hit.
His vocal imitations, from the sound of the calabash to the rolling of the bass drum, were a delight to the public. Al Jarreau already rejected all musical barriers and did not hesitate to combine pop and jazz, as in "Heaven and Earth".
He became one of the most popular jazz singers of the time. While the 80s saw the advent of synthetic music, he did not escape this trend with the album "High Crime".
In 2006, he teamed up with George Benson for a joint album "Givin' It Up". Among the musicians invited on this CD are Paul McCartney, Herbie Hancock or Marcus Miller...
Al Jarreau was a great stage performer, elegant and often wearing a cap or a black beret. He moved with talent from a warm ballad with an unequalled groove to a frenzied scat of which he had the secret.
He was sometimes scorned by jazz purists who considered him a "variety singer". This regular of the hit parades knew it and was perfectly fine with it.
"My main contribution to music has been to introduce rhythm into the vocal register", said this artist who, however, did not always give in to the easy way. There was only one music that did not inspire him much: rap.
In 2009, he released a "Very best of" album, which included such hits as "Boogie Down" and "Moonlighting", the theme song for the series "Clair de Lune" with Bruce Willis.
The father of one child, Al Jarreau led a quiet life, not liking to talk about himself anyway.
He continued to perform until the end, only announcing his retirement last week due to exhaustion.