Many think of McFerrin as a vocalist who can create incredible effects with his voice, appearing solo and with jazz groups since the seventies. Non jazz fans may remember him as the man who wrote and performed the monster hit, "Don’t Worry, Be Happy" in 1988's Simple Pleasures CD.
His career expanded in the late eighties to include conducting classical music. After studying with the likes of Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa, he made his conducting debut in 1990 on his 40th birthday with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. He has gone from there to conduct and perform with great orchestras worldwide and was named creative director of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in 1994.
While adding classical music to his repertoire, he continues heavy into jazz, solo or on the road with jazz stars, such as Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. As well, he works with his unique Voicestra, his a capella vocal band. All this keeps him on the road some eight months a year. In a recent telephone interview, Bobby talked about how his career evolved and how he juggles all the different areas of his busy performing schedule.
He was born in 1950 to parents who were both renowned singers, his father, Robert Sr., performing with the Metropolitan Opera. His family moved from New York to Southern California in 1958, and his father branched out into Hollywood studio work. He was, for example, the singing voice of Sydney Poitier in "Porgy and Bess." Sarah, his mother, began teaching voice at Fullerton College.
"My parents never pushed me into singing," he says. "I took an early interest in music on my own." He first learned the clarinet but teeth braces forced a switch to piano when he was 12. As a teenager, he formed the Bobby Mack Quartet in high school.
In the early seventies, he aspired to be a composer and taught music at Cal State Sacramento. The year 1977 was a turning point for him. Jazz singing caught his interest, and he decided to see what he could do as a vocalist singing with the Astra Project in New York. Later he began touring with the legendary singer Jon Hendricks, expert in turning well known jazz instrumentals into vocals, emulating famous improvisations by players on various instruments. Following, he toured with Wynton Marsalis and Wayne Shorter.
Around 1983, after hearing the completely improvised solo concerts of pianist Keith Jarrett, he decided that he would take an improvisational approach. He says that he knew immediately that this is what he wanted to do "create aural canvases for his audience," as he puts it. With his four-octave range and ability to bring together two or three seemingly simultaneous vocal lines, he was an immediate success. McFerrin, himself, thinks of his vocal chords as a painter’s tool: "To me, my voice is a color pallette to paint pictures with."
Throughout the eighties, he toured giving solo improvisational concerts. As well as creating great jazz, Bobby has a comedian’s sense of timing and loves to play with audiences, urging them to participate. Bringing music to children is one of his favorite tasks. "With the kids you don’t have to urge them to participate," he says. "They’re completely spontaneous and make up crazy, crazy songs with me."
It’s almost non-stop for Bobby in the next six months. Late January, he will tour Japan with an orchestra, and then go on to Korea for solo concerts. In February and March he will have eight appearances with his Voicestra, a group of 12 singers. Each becomes an instrument in the sections of the orchestra, improvising the music. "We don’t have anything planned beforehand," he explains. "Someone will sing a phrase of poetry, for example, and the group goes from there." April will kick-off an extensive nine-date tour with two jazz greats, pianist Corea and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Again, improvisation is the key: "One of us will start off playing a phrase, and the others pick it up and jump in. I might end up as a bass trading fours with Jack."
He will interrupt his schedule and travel to New York, April 2, for a Carnegie Hall concert with famed cellist Yo Yo Ma. "When I’m featured in an orchestra, I usually take a cello part as in a Vivaldi piece," he says. "And occasionally I’ll be the flute in a Faure composition.
He winds up late spring again in Carnegie Hall with something called "Instant Opera." Only Bobby could sing all the parts in an operatic epic which he probably will.
Whichever musical category, this versatile genius has been an unqualified success, winning 10 Grammy Awards over the years. When asked about upcoming plans, his answer was rather surprising. "In the future," he says, " I plan to concentrate on solo jazz concerts I’ll dig one hole for awhile. Whatever, singing is my heart and soul."