SAN FRANCISCO — Being added to the Playboy Jazz Festival roster at the Hollywood Bowl last year was a big step for Bobby McFerrin. As he recalls it. “Yeah it was Chick. and Herbie, and Dizzy you know. Stanley Clarke was there, and Buddy Rich. And Bobby McFerrin from San Francisco.”
McFerrin has been living in San Francisco for about a year and a half. He was born in New York City, the son of two opera singers (He has claimed that he got his singing ability through osmosis). His family moved to southern California when he was eight, and Bobby went on to become a pianist. After high school. Bobby spent time in several bands and several schools, and traveled to exotic spots like Springfield, lllinois and Naples, Florida. Bobby sang in some of his top-40 bands, but it was never more than background parts, adding a third part where it was needed. He played organ in an ice follies show before taking a solo piano bar gig in Salt Lake City in 1977. Bobby was 27, and it was then that he began his scat singing career. “People complimented me on it. and they thought I could scat very well. I guess that kept me going. I had images of being a great balladeer perhaps at one point, but now I hardly sing any ballads. In the course of an evening I may sing three or four, and I’ll do some sambas and straight ahead things. And a cappella things, which I enjoy most of all. That’s my forte, for sure.”
From Salt Lake City, McFerrin moved to New Orleans where he joined another band. This time McFerrin’s role wasn‘t that of pianist, but of singer, and he gained much from the experience. “All these cats had equally as good an ear as I had, and certainly more musical knowledge than I had. Playing with them I had to really lift
myself up, and it was a great education for me. And I always feel the need for that, you know, playing with people I can look up to, people who can pull me up, people who can draw things out of me.
After moving to San Francisco in 1979, McFerrin met jazz singer Jon Hendricks, and was soon invited to tour with him. Through Hendricks’ gigs in New York, Bobby’s name spread through the city’s jazz community, and he has performed there with the likes of Cedar Walton, Idris Muhammad, and Warren Bernhardt. He is scheduled to sing with Count Basie’s band, and is on the roster for this year’s Newport Jazz Festival. On the west coast, McFerrin has worked with pianists Mark Little, Smith Dobson, and Ed Kelly, and he appears on Pharoah Sanders’ Journey To The One album. McFerrin is a frequent attraction in Bay Area jazz clubs, and there is talk of an appearance at this year’s Berkeley jazz Festival. Such an appearance would mean deserved recognition for the vocalist. and a treat for the audience, too.
McFerrin’s instrument is a voice that styles songs with a warm, well-tuned, and spontaneous touch, and yet what people remember most about him is his scat singing and sound effects. Listening to McFerrin you i hear a complete band coming out of the man’s mouth, from drums to acoustic bass to trumpet. The singer explains, “I don’t even think about that when I’m doing sound effects. It’s not that I’m thinking, ‘0kay, now is a good time to do a trumpet sound.’ I just do a sound and then people come to me and say. I like the trombone sound that you get. How do you do it?’ And that’s not usually the way I think about it at all.”
Comparisons with Al Jarreau have been inescapable. But although McFerrin admires Jarreau and has even performed on the same stage with him, he claims not to own a ingle Jarreau album. Bobby says he has been influenced more so by instrumentalists and by “everyday natural kinds of sounds” than by vocalists. He also rejects being categorized as solely a bebop singer. “I guess I’m more into fusion, meaning fusing all different kinds of music. I’m just part of this fusion era, and I guess that describes the kind of things I want to do, because it combines so many different elements. Bebop, rock funk, soul, and folk — I love all those kinds of music. And I love avant garde things.
“I want to be an instrument for improvising. you know spontaneous music,” he continues. “I’ve got all kinds of projects. I’d like to work with a band without a piano player, just bass and drums. I like duo things. I’d like to do things with another vocalist, or just a horn player — do counterpoint. It’s more challenging, because there aren’t so many elements that you can rely on. You have to really rely on yourself as much as you can. That’s what I like. I like challenging myself, not only in music, but in other areas. I’d like to be as strong as I possibly can in all areas of just living.”