Going Up to Jerusalem with Kurt Elling

In recent years, my greatest fantasy would have been to spend the day talking music with my favorite singer in the world, Kurt Elling, while taking him to my favorite spot in the world, the underground tunnel that runs along the western wall of the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem. Hey, guess what I did this week?
What do I mean when I say that he’s my favorite singer? Ever since I was a wee one, I’ve spent more of my mental energy listening to music than anything else. Maybe it hasn’t been a great career move, but it’s been my greatest passion. So when I say ‘my favorite singer’, I could modify that with the other couple of currently active vocalists I find really interesting, or with some greats from the past. But I’m not speaking off the cuff when I say that I think he’s the most interesting, accomplished vocalist around, and the best male jazz singer ever.

Kurt Elling has recorded nine albums since 1995. That I know all of them by heart is a given. That I’ve done my best to search out every guest spot that he’s ever recorded, every interview he’s given, is also understood from the git-go. That’s what I do with my favorite artists. And if he says that Mark Murphy, a relatively unknown beatnik singer, is his musical mentor, you can bet your booties I’ve digested as many of his 40 albums as I could find (only 14, and you can believe I’m embarrassed by that.)

Our wholly holey Holy Land has recently been greased–I’m sorry, I meant ‘graced’– with a host of stadium shows to which I’ve rushed to not buy tickets: McCartney, Leonard Cohen, Dylan, Paul Simon. I’m afraid to enter a musical Jurassic Park. I saw them when they were young and vital. Let legends lie. Give me active, young, vibrant artists.

So imagine my excitement when I heard that Kurt Elling was coming to Israel for two shows. In a really cool jazz club which happens to be on the ground floor of the building where I work in Tel Aviv. So I wrote Kurt’s management, asking for an interview. And I offered by the by, with my incalculable chutzpa, to take him out for an excursion, mentioning that it’s a very small country, and you can get pretty far in a half day’s outing.

How could he refuse, right? There were some last-minute email negotiations. Kurt and the band wanted to see Tel Aviv, where they were staying. Tel Aviv is a great, cool, vibrant city, the economic and cultural center of Israel. Nicknamed The Big Orange (as opposed to The Big Apple), it’s #3 on Lonely Planet’s Top Cities for 2011:

The total flipside of Jerusalem, a modern Sin City on the sea rather than an ancient Holy City on a hill. Hedonism is the one religion that unites its inhabitants. There are more bars than synagogues, God is a DJ and everyone’s body is a temple…a truly diverse 21st-century Mediterranean hub.

So of course I pushed to take them to Jerusalem.

Because it’s the hub of the universe, and because it’s where where I first fell in love. First with the city, then with my wife. I pride myself on knowing it pretty well, and it’s a darn difficult city for natives to navigate, let alone tourists. Standing outside the hotel beside the rented van, I had 20 seconds to convince my favorite singer and his band to let me take them to The Old rather than to The New. “It’s the home of the three great monotheistic religions. Where heaven and earth meet. I want to take you to the place where God set his foot down on this planet.”

“Okay,” said Kurt. “Let’s go to Jerusalem.”

I’d just met the guys – Kurt, his pianist and collaborator Laurence Hobgood, guitarist John McLean, bassist Harish Raghavan, drummer Ulysses Owens, and road manager Bryan Farina. But with my own inimitable charm, I tried to convince them right from the start that they were being hijacked by a crackpot. “Know what we just did?” I asked as we settled into the 8-seat van and our driver set out for Jerusalem. The band members exchange glances. “We just re-enacted Psalm 122.” Raised eyebrows.

“I rejoiced when they said unto me, ‘Let us go unto the house of the Lord.’
Our feet are standing within thy gates, O Jerusalem.”

More glances. “That’s what just happened. I laid on you a ‘Hey, let’s go up to Jerusalem, and that in and of itself is cause for joy. Quick cut— in half an hour you’ll be standing in the Old City.”

Kurt’s getting just a little worried now about the lunatic in whose hands he’s placed his band and his daughter’s father. He asks me about myself, who I am, how I got to Israel, what I do in life. So I told him a bit about me, about how I was a graduate of Woodstock and a refugee from Kent State. I even sang him a little of an imbecilic autobiographical song I wrote called ‘Talking Jues Blews‘. From behind his shades, he seemed to get that I’m not really dangerous, just over-enthusiastic.

Going Up to Jerusalem

“We’ve just crossed the coastal plain. This is Sha’ar Hagai, the beginning of the Judean Hills. Jerusalem sits up at the top. It’s about 45 miles from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. From the coast to the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth, our eastern border with Jordan, is about 70 miles. That’s the whole width of the country. See those shells of old armored trucks? When the British pulled out of the area in 1948, Israel declared independence and six Arab armies immediately attacked. The population of Israel was 600,000, the Arab countries maybe 100 million. Jerusalem was under siege, and convoys were sent up into the hills with supplies. It was a suicide mission. These trucks are the memorial.

“I’m sorry, am I talking too much?” “No, no, please, go ahead.”

I love Jerusalem. I love its history, its crazy present, its uniqueness. I love that your accountant lives on the street where young David ran away from grouchy old King Saul. I love that you need to listen to the news report about US shuttle diplomacy to know when there are going to be traffic jams.

Singing Jazz

History is all good and fine, but in the van I have Kurt as a captive (if willing and congenial) partner for some music talk, an occasion I can’t resist.

JM: What were your initial influences as a singer?

KE: I grew up in church choirs. My father was the kapellmeister, so I learned whatever they put in front of us – Carmina Burana, The Messiah, The Requiem. I was fortunate enough to be involved with music in a deep way without thinking of it as a vocation or as a responsibility or anything I was forced to do.

JM: You didn’t have to practice. That’s one advantage to becoming a vocalist.

KE: Well, you can’t sing Carmina Burana by accident, but I got my basic training in a group setting. I’d listen to whatever pop music was on the radio, but I never really thought about it beyond “what does she want to hear when I pick her up in the Volkswagen?”

Then in college I was singing more Mozart, some Italians, Edvard Grieg. Then also some hipper stuff, Tony Bennett, Sinatra. On my family trips we’d listen to “Music of Your Life” stations, Perry Como, the Andrew Sisters, Bing Crosby. I always found that charming, so I developed a 2nd or 3rd hand nostalgia for that material, and at least a passing youthful acquaintance with a ‘swinging’ feeling. So that when cats were playing Brubeck, Herbie Hancock, or Grover Washington, Jr, it was kind of a disparate experience, but they all seemed to come from the same cloud.

Eventually I started taking Ella Fitzgerald more seriously. I wanted to learn in a deeper and more serious way what those recordings were all about. But then I got the chance to sit in as the “Stage Band” singer at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota. That’s when jazz wasn’t yet a family word. Then we got some great professional guys from the Tonight Show coming through. A couple of them heard me and said, ‘Hey, man, you really got a sound. Are you thinking about doing this?’ ‘Well, it’s fun.’ ‘You should go down that road.’

JM: So you were informed at this point by imitating Ella?

KE: I already had issues of gender separation, key signature, we weren’t doing her charts. I hadn’t yet discovered Joe Williams or Pops [Louis Armstrong], let alone Jon Hendricks. Then someone said ‘Let’s go up to Minneapolis, check this singer Mark Murphy.’ It was my first time at a club like this, just thrilling, very emotional. I remember distinctly he did ‘Never Let Me Go’, at the end he goes back to the bridge [sings]. That just completely laid me out, really made me say ‘Now I want to check this out’.

We were driving straight up to Jerusalem, because I had to get the Kurt and the band back by mid-afternoon for a sound check.

But I’m going to take a conversational detour ahead here to talk about the poverty-stricken tradition of male jazz singers. In his book “The Jazz Singers,” prolific and perceptive critic Scott Yanow lists the 30 greatest jazz singers, only 11 of whom are men: Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Cab Calloway, Jimmy Rushing, Nat King Cole, Eddie Jefferson, Joe Williams, Mel Tormé, Jon Hendricks, Mark Murphy and Kurt Elling. I think he’s being overly generous to us members of the male persuasion, that vocally weaker sex, but I won’t quibble. I do think that the consensus opinion of jazz fans would agree with me in saying that except for Louis Armstrong and now Kurt Elling, there is no one on that list who rivals the great female jazz singers in artistic stature: Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington. Even in the second tier–fine, distinctive, admirable singers (Carmen McRae, Betty Carter, Anita O’Day, Nancy Wilson)–it’s all Sadie Hawkins.

Way back in the late 1920s Louis ‘Pops’ Armstrong virtually invented jazz, from swinging the tune to bending melodies to scat singing. He has remained a towering presence since. Modern jazz began in the late 1940s, and modern jazz singing with it. Jazz vocals in the 1950s and 1960s were mostly swinging renditions of standards, Pops’ collaborations with Ella Fitzgerald constituting the peak of that genre. Even the great female vocalists of the 1950s were not really adventurers. Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington and, to tell the truth, even Ella sang standards with impeccable taste and charm, but not one expanded the borders of music like pre-Bird Pops or Bird himself, or from the 1950s like a Miles or Monk or Mingus or Coltrane or Bill Evans, or later Wayne Shorter. In the 50 years since the Beatles hit the fans, there’s been only marginal jazz singing going on, although there has been somewhat of a renaissance in the past decade or two, some of it light and commercial, some of it quite challenging and serious and seriously groundbreaking (Luciana Souza, Esperanza Spalding, Kurt Elling).


As we near the city of Jerusalem from the west, the conversation turns back to the non-musical. I explain about David and Solomon, 1000 BCE, the First Temple, on the same site where we’re headed. 931, the Northern and Southern Kingdoms split. 586, the Northern Kingdom is exiled, 10 tribes going lost. 536, stragglers return; 516, a small 2nd Temple is rebuilt. The Greeks, Hellenism, Maccabees, Romans. Herod rebuilds the 2nd Temple. Am I boring you guys? No, no, please, go ahead. Jesus is born, crucified. 70 AD the Temple is destroyed. Temple mount lies in waste till Moslems build 2 mosques in 700 AD.

We round a bend in the road, and our eyes rest upon Jerusalem, in the distance, nestled at the crest of the Judean Hills. The glory that is Jerusalem. The meeting place of heaven and earth. The center of the universe. The home of our God. The silence in the van reverberates.

1880, I continue, Jews start to return to Jerusalem, neighborhoods are first built outside the walls of the old city. I show them all this on a map. 1948, the War of Independence. The Jewish Quarter of the Old City is captured and evacuated. A border between Jordan and Israel runs through the city, Jews in the western city, Arabs in the east, including the Old City. 1967, miraculous Israeli military victory, city reunited. Today, 600,000 Jews mostly in West Jerusalem; 150,000 Arabs in East Jerusalem.

The Old City

We enter the Old City of Jerusalem through the Jaffa Gate and walk down through the Arab market (the souq). Narrow, colorful alleyways, lined with tourist shops; less pungent, less frenetic than in years past, but cleaner, more sanitized, amiable.

We wend our way down the bazaar road, a mere 10 minute walk here in the city where history is so compacted, to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. According to some traditions, it contains the sites where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.

When guiding tourists, I always try to clarify the distinctions between the strata of myth (Abraham and Isaac), legend (the Exodus), speculative history (Kings David and Solomon, First Temple) and verifiable history (Second Temple). But I was sorely unprepared to provide even a minimal background to the church. I later learn that the marble slab people were kissing that we were wondering about was the tomb where Jesus’s body was said to have been laid out.

We walk up through the Armenian Quarter, up over the roofs of the Jewish Quarter to a lookout over the Temple Mount. The entire Old City is about 1 kilometer square (1/3 mile), of which the Temple Mount occupies less than one quarter, in the southeast corner, about the size of 20 football fields. The Kotel, the Wailing Wall, is the exposed Western retaining wall of the Temple Mount. The walls of the Temple Mount originally rose some 10 storeys above ground level, but the Crusaders built a series of arcs to raise the level of the city to almost the height of the wall. Below was one giant underground garbage dump. The guys seem suitably awed. I’ve stopped asking if they’re bored….

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This is a an excerpt from Jeff Meshel’s much longer article and interview with Kurt Elling from their outing on May 23, 2011.

In addition to the rich travelogue about Kurt and the band’s guided tour of Jerusalem — with photos! — Meshel and Elling talk extensively about how Kurt became jazz singer, the art of jazz singing, jazz singers from Louis Armstrong to Esperanza Spalding, and recording The Gate. Meshel also reviews the show that night at Zappa Club Tel Aviv.

You can find the entire article and interview on Jeff Mechel’s World.

Bonus: For an in-depth comparison of Kurt’s achievement versus Mark Murphy’s, according to Jeff Meshel, check out his Song of The Week 101: Kurt Elling, “Li’l Darlin'”. It includes audio clips of “Lil’l Darlin'” to compare and contrast by the Count Basie Orchestra, Lambert Hendricks & Ross, The Real Group, Mark Murphy, and Kurt Elling.