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Grammy-winner's Style Defies Easy Definition

May 09, 1987|ALLAN JALON | Times Staff Writer

About 150 Cal State Fullerton students who came for the talk by a Grammy Award-winning singer instead got a kind of variety show featuring a scene from Soviet-U.S. arms talks, a lecture by an acting teacher, a careening European sports car and a Tony Bennett imitation.

In every case, they were being entertained by Bobby McFerrin, who won the 1987 Grammy for male jazz vocalist of the year but doesn't think of his free-form vocal improvisations as jazz and defies anybody to define them.

Amid the clowning around Thursday afternoon in the lecture hall at the Fullerton campus, McFerrin gave examples of the solo, wordless, a cappella style that has become his trademark.

On campus for an evening performance that was partly accompanied by student jazz bands, McFerrin advised the many musical aspirants in the lunch-hour crowd to seek their artistic identity without regard to critical, commercial or--at first--even personal judgment.

"The most important thing I learned when I started was not to judge how I sounded," said McFerrin, 37, who won the Grammy for his work during the year, which included the album, " 'Round Midnight," and the sound track for the "Levi's 501 Blues" commercial. "At first, I was intimidated by my own voice. I didn't like my own voice."

Straddling a chair, wearing sneakers and--what else?--501 blue jeans, McFerrin sang nearly as much as he talked to illustrate his points about the uses of the human voice. It is an instrument, he told the students, whose power extends far beyond the purely aesthetic. "When a person plays or sings, that is God singing through them," he said. "We are the architects of heaven . . . we sell goodness. Music has tremendous force. We should send singers and dancers to the arms talks with Reagan."

Then he stood. With voice dropping low in mock seriousness, he acted out a scene in which a politician is confronted by an artist seeking arms reductions: "Well, Mr. Secretary," the artist asks, "What are you going to do about those missiles?"

The singer, whose lean body seemed like a tightly coiled spring of energy even during rare moments at rest, described himself as a late vocal bloomer who only found his style at 27, after two years of "living like a hermit" and not listening to any other performers.

Still, he had advantages. A trained pianist and clarinetist, he is the son of Robert McFerrin, a singer with the Metropolitan Opera who dubbed singing parts for Sidney Poitier in the movie "Porgy and Bess." His mother, Sara, teaches choral singing at Fullerton College. As a child, McFerrin said, he used to improvise tunes about the family refrigerator. He also used to hide under the family piano while his father practiced. He didn't want to become a singer, he said, in answer to one of the many wide-ranging questions from the students. "I wanted to do something else; everybody else was singing."

Many of the students inquired about McFerrin's style of singing unplanned note patterns, accompanied by the rhythmic drumming of his hands against his chest. "I always thought it was very interesting to have one person singing," he answered. "To be on stage without any dependency (on other performers), that was a challenge--and to sing so there is nothing the audience is missing."

"I'll tell you why I sing without words," he told one questioner, adjusting the round tortoise-shell glasses that add to his casual, yet precise appearance. "Because I think words are very inadequate. If I sing, 'Baby, I love you,' that's one song. You all know what I mean. But if I do this . . . , " he said, lapsing into an improvised string of notes, "then that's 100 songs. It means something different to everyone who hears it."

Despite his formal musical training--he said he was a music major at California State University, Sacramento, but did not graduate--McFerrin said he adheres to no formal musical concepts when performing. When he walks on stage, he said, it is without thinking ahead of time what musical shapes he will make. During Thursday's rap session, his stream of musical consciousness sounded like Jamaican reggae one moment, Bach the next, and, suddenly, traditional jazz.

It's as easy as singing in the shower, he said. "Sure it is," a skeptical student shouted from a back row, "if you're one of those people who get in the shower and inhale perfectly on pitch."

McFerrin, who has a family and lives in San Francisco, had an uncomfortable moment when he mentioned that he is forming an a cappella vocal group called Voicestra. A high pure note--clearly intended as a singer's sign of interest--rang out, and a girl in a stylish pair of sunglasses waved her arms at McFerrin. "How do I join?" she asked.

McFerrin paused. Carefully, he explained that he wanted to use Bay Area musicians and already had hired many of the singers. But the tension of unanswered ambition behind the girl's silvery note lingered, even as he took other questions.

The session came to an end for McFerrin after an hour. But for the girl, who bounded up and began peppering him with questions, it was the glimpse of a beginning.

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