It seems only appropriate that Kurt Elling is performing an artists’ benefit when he comes to Houston Thursday. A Grammy-nominated singer and die-hard Jack Kerouac fan, the 30-year-old jazz singer is outspoken, to say the least, about the importance of funding for education in the arts.
“How many choirboys go out and start shooting people up?” asks the Chicago native. “Look at the kids in the Harlem Boys Choir. Those kids are going to grow up and they’re going to be totally civilized. How can you have a fully cultured person, a fully moral person, a fully educated person if [he or she doesn’t] have a deep experience [with] music or literature? Those are the best things that human beings have to offer, and we’re choosing not to give them to our kids. What kind of sense does that make? It’s just so shortsighted. It’s just ridiculous.”
Such comments are typical of Elling, the son of a church musician whose exposure to great singers began with Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald. Later, while attending college in Minnesota, he was turned on to jazz via albums by Dave Brubeck, Dexter Gordon and Herbie Hancock. Soon after, he began singing in small combos and stage bands.
After graduation, Elling moved back home to pursue graduate studies at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School. While the Windy City’s active music scene proved to be exactly what Elling the Musician needed, it had a detrimental effect on Elling the Student. With one credit to go toward his degree, he quit school to pursue singing full time.
“When I came back to Chicago,” Elling recalls, “I sat in all over the place and picked up a steady gig where I could be horrible in a place that nobody came to. You don’t start out good, but you still got to play, right? Over a certain period of time, I started having less and less fun in graduate school, and more and more fun in clubs. The more I stayed out late, the less I studied [and] the worse my situation got. The balance just got tipped in the opposite direction, and I knew I was ready to leave and do this other thing.”
“This other thing,” it seems, turned out to be the right thing. In 1995, three years after dropping out of grad school, Elling released his major-label debut, the Grammy-nominated Close Your Eyes. Critical acclaim, jazz festivals, international tours, appearances on TV and at Carnegie Hall — all followed in short order. Within a year, Elling had gone from obscure Chicago nightclub denizen to international star.
It only takes one listen to Close Your Eyes to understand why. With a powerful delivery and solid range, Elling is a proficient crooner and traditional scatter, making him part of the next generation of vocalese-style singers. It’s a form — popularized by the likes of Eddie Jefferson, King Pleasure and Jon Hendricks — where lyrics are sung over previously recorded instrumental jazz solos.
Stylistically, Elling owes much to Hendricks, not to mention Mark Murphy, a pre-pop Al Jarreau and Bobby McFerrin. But for all of Elling’s vocal talents, the thing that separates him from other young and talented male singers is his mastery of the “jazz rant,” a wild, cutting-edge mix of melodic improvisation and extemporaneous monologues.
“There are plenty of rappers and poets who can improvise what they do,” Elling says. “But they’re usually not jazz singers, and they don’t usually do it over jazz changes and try to swing at the same time. I like to surprise myself as often as I can in as many ways as I can. It’s like being a writer of fiction or a writer of sound, and you’re sort of doing your first draft in front of people.”
Elling says ideas for his rants can come from most any source, be it a lyrical snippet, a catchy phrase, an image, a dream or an everyday occurrence. Sometimes it will involve a couple of different ideas that Elling attempts to fuse somewhere in the middle. In conversation with the singer, it becomes eminently clear that he has no shortage of things to say.
“What are all these people upset about, man?” Elling quips about other, angrier singers. “They’re living in the hippest country on the planet, where you can pretty much do whatever you want.”
Despite his strong opinions, Elling doesn’t see the stage as a place for overt political proselytizing. But he does believe his music can make a positive difference, even without overt messages.
“When I listen to Bobby McFerrin on a good night, it’s just so stunning,” he says. “We get to vicariously take part in that. It’s like, ‘Bobby McFerrin is a human being. I’m a human being. Human beings rock. We can do whatever we feel like.’ It’s a stirring moment. That’s part of the nobility of experiencing great music. You are ennobled. That’s why people get turned on to Beethoven. That’s why they feel Bach is so ingenious. It’s a thrill to hear it. It’s the human mind engaged. It’s awesome. When people come out to see our concerts, I hope they see four cats on-stage digging each other. How many times do you see that?”
Not often enough.