Al Jarreau, a versatile vocalist who sold millions of records and won a string of Grammys for his work in pop and R&B as well as his first love, jazz, died on Sunday in Los Angeles. He was 76.
His death was announced by his manager, Joe Gordon, who said that Mr. Jarreau had been hospitalized for exhaustion two weeks ago. On the advice of his doctors, he had canceled his tour dates and retired from touring.
Mr. Jarreau did not begin a full-time musical career until he was nearly 30, but within a few years he had begun attracting notice for a vocal style that was both instantly appealing and highly unusual. Critics were particularly taken by his improvisational dexterity, in particular his virtuosic ability to produce an array of vocalizations ranging from delicious nonsense to clicks and growls to quasi-instrumental sounds.
Although he made his initial mark in the jazz world, Mr. Jarreau’s style, and his audience, crossed stylistic barriers. His music incorporated elements of pop, soul, gospel, Latin and other genres. It was a mark of his eclecticism that he won six Grammys across three different categories: jazz, pop and R&B. He was also among the performers on a Grammy-winning children’s album, “In Harmony: A Sesame Street Record.”
If Mr. Jarreau’s highly accessible, intensely personal style defied easy classification, that very accessibility — and, perhaps, the mere fact of his considerable commercial success — left some jazz purists skeptical.
Reviewing a concert by Mr. Jarreau at the Savoy in New York in 1981, Stephen Holden of The New York Times encapsulated what many saw as both the pros and the cons of Mr. Jarreau’s singular style:
“Al Jarreau may be the most technically gifted singer working in jazz-fusion today,” Mr. Holden wrote. Of the evening’s performance, however, he continued: “Mr. Jarreau’s concert lacked the emotional range of great jazz. He is such a prodigious talent that the absence of even the slightest blues inflections kept his music from cutting deeply.”
But critics’ reservations never deterred Mr. Jarreau, who prided himself, as he told The Los Angeles Times in 1986, on his “jazz attitude,” which he defined as “the idea of being open to each and every moment as a chance to create something different.”
“I try to be receptive,” he added, “and to be listening, and to not be afraid to try something new.”
Alwin Lopez Jarreau was born in Milwaukee on March 12, 1940, into a musical family. His father, a minister, was a fine singer; his mother played the piano in church. Young Al began singing at 4, harmonizing with his siblings. As a youth he sang in church, as well as with street-corner harmony groups and local jazz bands.
Mr. Jarreau earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Ripon College in Wisconsin in 1962, and a master’s in vocational rehabilitation from the University of Iowa in 1964. Afterward he moved to San Francisco, where he worked as a rehabilitation counselor for people with disabilities.
But Mr. Jarreau found he could not resist the pull of jazz and before long was singing in local nightclubs. By the late ’60s, he had quit his day job and embarked on a nightclub career, first on the West Coast and eventually in New York.
He reached a national audience with the album “We Got By,” released by Warner Bros. in 1975 to critical praise and commercial success.
Though advertised as his debut, it was actually his second album. A decade earlier, Mr. Jarreau had quietly recorded an album, later released on the Bainbridge label under the title “1965.” Though Mr. Jarreau took legal action, without success, to block its belated release in 1982, it is esteemed by jazz connoisseurs today.
Appearances on “Saturday Night Live” and other television shows raised his profile, as did extensive touring. In 1981 he had his biggest hit with the song “We’re in This Love Together,” which reached No. 15 on the Billboard pop singles chart.