Kurt Dietrich releases biography of Al Jarreau ’62

An authorized biography of jazz/pop vocalist Al Jarreau ’62 will be released today by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. The author of Never Givin’ Up: The Life and Music of Al Jarreau is Kurt Dietrich, professor emeritus of music.

Dietrich will read from the book and discuss his research in a public presentation at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 13, in Lane Library on the Ripon College campus.

Jarreau is the only person in history to win Grammy Awards in three different categories: jazz, pop and R&B. He recorded more than two dozen albums over three decades and was renowned for his ability to sing many styles, including scat singing and taking on the character of guitar and percussion, all with his versatile and soulful voice. He acted on Broadway in the hit musical “Grease” and appeared on the television programs “New York Undercover” and “Touched by an Angel.”

With both Jarreau and Dietrich being closely affiliated with Ripon College, Dietrich had met Jarreau four times on Jarreau’s trips back to Ripon College and his native city of Milwaukee. After Jarreau died in 2017, Dietrich realized a biography of the singer was needed. “He was an important musical figure,” Dietrich says. “The musical part was really interesting to me, of course, but it kind of drove the story in ways I wasn’t necessarily expecting when I was starting out.”

Dietrich says Jarreau could have had a great career as a singer in any one of the categories he mastered, but he chose to be diverse. “The music business changes all the time,” Dietrich says. “More important than that, he didn’t want to keep doing the same things all the time.”

However, some in the business didn’t approve of his crossover styles, and “that made his career more challenging than it would have been otherwise,” Dietrich says. “But he wanted to make those choices. Most of his fans stuck with him through thick and thin. He could have sung the phone book and they would have bought it.”

Dietrich says the book is written in a general style for the public rather than a scholarly format. “I want Al Jarreau’s fans to read this book. I think people reading this story will find that they can’t help really liking this guy and thinking he was a good human being. His friends often describe him as being really spiritual. He was a person people really liked and admired.”

To do research for the biography, Dietrich worked closely with Jarreau’s previous managers and his elder sister, Rose Marie Freeman. They connected him with numerous musicians who had worked with Jarreau as well as family members.

Because most of the research was done during the pandemic, almost all of the interviews were done over the phone. Dietrich and Freeman came to speak in long phone calls at least once a month. The book includes a chapter on Jarreau’s time at Ripon College, including his participation in the vocal group The Indigos with which he and fellow Ripon College students performed around the region.

Jarreau majored in psychology at Ripon, and Dietrich says an interesting aspect of Jarreau’s career was that when he first moved to California he worked as a rehabilitation counselor for the state of California. He did musical performances on the side until his singing career took off. “He was really under the radar and didn’t sign his first record contract until he was 35 years old. That was almost unheard of even then, much less today,” Dietrich says. “But his lifeblood was touring. He was an arresting figure in live performance.”

On July 31, The Milwaukee Common Council approved renaming a northside park the Alwin Lopez (Al) Jarreau Park in honor of the Milwaukee native.

Dietrich taught at Ripon for 39 years. He graduated from Lawrence University, received his master’s degree from Northwestern University and his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. At Ripon, he directed the Symphonic Wind Ensemble and Jazz Ensemble, taught brass instruments and a variety of courses.

He was a trombonist with Matrix, an Appleton-based jazz fusion group that performed at the Monterey and Newport jazz festivals in the 1970s and has released five recordings.
He is the author of the book Wisconsin Riffs: Jazz Profiles from the Heartland (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2018).

Never Givin’ Up: The Life and Music of Al Jarreau may be ordered from the Wisconsin Historical Society Press or amazon.com.

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