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Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2008

Al Jarreau’s Perpetual Christmas

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Each April, singer Al Jarreau begins using a familiar greeting he knows will take him through the end of the year.

"I love to say 'Merry Christmas' to the lady at the bank and the folks at the grocery store," says Jarreau, 68. "When you're in the music business, that's about when you start thinking about Christmas anyway, because soon you will be practicing if you're in a choir or recording if you're a professional. And then it will be Halloween and then it will be Thanksgiving and then Christmas will really be here."

"Merry Christmas" was how the Milwaukee native greeted me when we connected for an interview this fall, and it will be the greeting he'll share repeatedly during his Dec. 11 Northern Lights concert at Potawatomi Bingo Casino. The show is part of an 11-date holiday tour that begins in New Jersey and ends in Martinique in support of Christmas, Jarreau's first-ever holiday album, which was released Oct. 14.

"I'm a Christmas freak and friends still call [my wife] and I Mr. and Mrs. Claus," Jarreau says.

Choosing the final track list for the CD proved to be a challenge, given the wealth of holiday songs available. Jarreau relied on backup musicians Chris Walker, Joe Turano and Larry Williams not only for their recommendations, but also their jazzy arrangements of tunes like "Carol of the Bells," "Gloria in Excelsis" and Vince Guaraldi's "Christmastime is Here," from A Charlie Brown Christmas.

"Your band members are the closest people to you musically in your life," Jarreau says. "These guys have a clear idea what will work for me and understand the reverence and respect I have for the season."

Needless to say, music plays an important part in the singer's holiday obsession, an appreciation for which he credits Pearl and Emile Jarreau, his mother and father. Pearl played piano in a Milwaukee Seventh-Day Adventist church where Emile was a minister until disagreements with the church caused him to leave and become a welder at A.O. Smith. Nonetheless, the exposure gave Jarreau a musical foundation that continued to grow as he attended Henry L. Palmer Elementary School.

"The choir from Lincoln High School would put on a half-hour show of holiday music each year in our tiny auditorium," Jarreau recalls. "I knew then that when I went to Lincoln that I would be part of that choir."

That is indeed what happened to Jarreau, who discovered that elementary-school concerts weren't the only ones on the schedule. Each season, the 80-person choir would walk to several homes for the elderly on Milwaukee's East Side and put on holiday performances, concerts that left an indelible impression on the multiple-Grammy-winning artist.

"We'd be performing and we'd see the tears streaming down the faces of the residents as they relived their own Christmas memories," Jarreau says. "That was some heavy shit. You couldn't go through that and not be changed."

Jarreau credits Lincoln music instructors Bob Bedhun and Ron DeVillers for enhancing his love of music. In fact, he still uses a DeVillers arrangement of "Something's Coming" from West Side Story in his performances. But it's holiday memories of growing up in Milwaukee that colors Jarreau's preferences this time of year. As it did then, Christmas still means a lot to the jazz artist.

"I used to stand at the living room window of our home on Reservoir Avenue with my brother Marshall, looking through the starched white curtains that seemed to reach to the sky, waiting for it to snow because, you know, Santa needed snow," he says. "We didn't believe in Santa anymore, but we still waited for the snow."

That's a trait Jarreau refers to as the willing suspension of disbelief, something critical for making Christmas special, and for reinforcing the message the holiday brings for the musician.

"When people ask me, I say, 'Yes, you are your brother's keeper, and if E.T. and God are looking down on us, they're judging us by how well we take care of each other,'" Jarreau says. "The goodness of individuals is laid out on a continuum of our relationships with each other. That's the most important gig there is and, in the end, that's how we'll be judged."

And, Jarreau adds, that may be the most important Christmas message of all.

Al Jarreau plays an 8 p.m. concert at the Potawatomi Bingo Casino on Thursday, Dec. 11.