He was nominated for nine Grammys, won one, was featured on the cover of a handful of jazz magazines, and was recognized as Jazz Journalists Association's male singer of the year seven times. For the Music Department's biggest concert of the year, Jazz vocalist Kurt Elling will perform as the Kickinson-Kayden fund quest artist in Skinner Hall on Saturday, Oct. 1 at 8 p.m. According to Director of Religious and Spiritual Life Samuel Speers, "His music is his theology."
Born in Chicago, Elling, 43, first became interested in music at a very young age, not least of all because of his father's background as a Kapellmeister (music-maker) in a Lutheran church. During his youth, Elling sang in choirs and played the violin, French horn, piano and drums.
Elling was an undergraduate at Gustavus Adolphus College, a private liberal arts institution affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the United States. A history major and religion minor, Elling sang in an a cappella choir that performed works from a variety of composers, allowing him to refine his technical skills. He first became interested in jazz while a student at Gustavus Adolphus, in light of his exposure to artists like Dave Brubeck, Dexter Gordon, Herbie Hancock and Ella Fitzgerald.
After graduating in 1989, Elling enrolled at the University of Chicago Divinity School, where he studied for a Master's Degree in philosophy of religion. Speers, a graduate and former employee of the Divinity School, peripherally knew Elling during the latter's tenure as a student. The creativity and strength of character that has defined Elling as a musician also defined him as a divinity student, Speers explained. Elling became more and more serious about his prospects as a professional musician while he was still a divinity student, and he ultimately had to make a decision about continuing to train as a theologian or changing paths to become a musician. Elling chose the latter option and left the Divinity School just one credit short of graduating.
But Speers insists that Elling remains a theologian in his musical pursuits. That desire to explore the depths of the human spirit is central to both theology and art. Accordingly, Speers argues that Elling does not differentiate between "sacred" and "secular" music, since all music, for Elling, is infused with profound expressions of spirituality. In an interview with Fear No Art Chicago, Elling explained, "The music served the life of the spirit and the spirit informed the life of the music. I think the two are interchangeable for me."
Associate Professor of Music and Chair of the Music Department Kathryn Libin pointed out in an emailed statement that jazz is becoming an increasingly important part of the music curriculum. Student interest in jazz, moreover, seems to grow year after year as more students join the jazz ensemble and jazz combos.
Libin believes that there is nothing more inspiring for students of jazz than to hear accomplished jazz artists perform right in front of them: "We want students to experience the intensity and passion and engagement of these musicians, and to want to go try this for themselves, and to become savvy and committed audience members," Libin wrote.
This year jazz students will be particularly lucky because they will have the chance to take a master class with Elling, hosted by Vassar's Director of Jazz and Wind Ensembles James Osborn. The class, which will be held a few hours before Elling's Oct. 1 performance, should give students further insights into how they can grow as musicians. "The personal connection between the students and a great artist at a master class can provide years of inspiration for all that are present," explained Osborn, adding, "Students can take away performance-enhancing tips, career ideas and other musical and non-musical thoughts from these classes."
Speers, Libin and Osborn all predict that Elling's performance will resonate strongly with all those who attend. As Speers pointed out, Elling is a perfect fit for Vassar because of his daring. He takes risks, challenges his audiences and himself, and in so doing achieves a level of artistic integrity that Vassar students will surely admire.
But the Vassar community may also identify with Elling because of his acuity to politics and current events and the way he incorporates that awareness into his music. Speers recalls a scat that Elling once performed during the Gulf War, in which he put to music the words of a New York Times op-ed piece by Maureen Dowd. This is consistent, Speers believes, with Elling's remarkable ability to give musical voice to great poets and writersÂâ€”to see the inherent musicality of their own workÂÂâ€”as well as his ability to connect with audiences in profoundly original ways. And indeed, there should be no doubt that Elling will connect profoundly with his audience on Oct. 1.