Utne Reader visionary [Originally published as Bobby McFerrin in the January-February 1995 issue of Utne Reader]
In 1989, Bobby McFerrin should have been feeling on top of his game. A decade’s worth of brilliant exploration of his nearly four-octave voice, from jazz improvisation to clever pop to almost unbelievably versatile novelty work (including a one-man capsule version of The Wizard of Oz) had culminated in his fourth album and a sweep of the ’89 Grammy awards: best male pop vocalist, record of the year, and best song (“Don’t Worry, Be Happy”). But for McFerrin, the thrill was gone.
“I was on autopilot,” he recalls. “Trapped in myself. I would walk out on a concert stage and feel absolutely no fear.”
That might not seem like the worst thing that could happen to a performer, but McFerrin has long been one of the great risk takers of American music, generating electricity by standing on stage with nothing but his voice, his wits, and a love for his audience. Hoping to get the spark back, McFerrin took a break from solo concerts—scoring for TV, storytelling, guest conducting with classical ensembles, recording with jazz and classical artists (Chick Corea, Yo-Yo Ma).
Such versatility is a family legacy. Son of the baritone Robert McFerrin—the first African-American to be a permanent member of the Metropolitan Opera—the New York-born Bobby labored as a keyboardist on the lounge circuit until, one night in 1977, “I heard an inner voice that told me I should sing,” as he told an interviewer. Several years of performing with the great scat singer Jon Hendricks launched him; a triumph at the 1981 Kool Jazz Festival made him a solo star, and in 1983 he decided to let his accompanying ensemble go to “stand butt-naked on the stage,” as he puts it, laughing.
Today McFerrin lives in the Twin Cities and works with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra as a musical ambassador to the community at large, and eagerly anticipates an upcoming East Coast solo tour that seems designed to revive his stage fright.
“I’ll do an entire evening of nothing but improvisation,” he says. With nothing planned or formatted beforehand, McFerrin figures he will be able to do better than ever what he has always loved most: “making a community in the concert hall. I'll have the audience give me ideas for improvisations. I’ll riff off the squeak of a chair. We are all entertained so much these days,” he continues, “and I know that audiences want to be entertainers too, some way. I want to leave them with the sense that the performance couldn’t have happened without them.”
McFerrin is convinced that a single evening of mutual pleasure can do a lot. “We keep looking at the big social and political problems,” he says. “But when you're walking down the street and someone simply smiles at you—what a tremendous difference that makes.
“To shine my own light—that’s my quest. As for music, well, it’s just the scent of the rose.”