Jazz vocal star Kurt Elling headlines the White House!

Guess who’s singing at dinner?
Tuesday night, when President and Mrs. Obama welcome the prime minister of India to their first State Dinner, poll-topping Chicago vocalist Kurt Elling will take the stage to provide the entertainment. He’ll be joined by his longtime pianist and musical director, Laurence Hobgood, performing with an orchestra directed by Marvin Hamlisch (whose own list of awards would make a nice little family portrait – Emmy, Oscar, and Tony).

Although he has been living in New York for the last year and a half, most listeners and critics still do consider Elling – recently named Male Vocalist of the Year in the Downbeat Readers Poll (ahead of Tony Bennett) – to be a “Chicago vocalist.” There’s good reason. He made his reputation with nearly a decade’s worth of weekly showcases at the Green Mill, the setting for his fourth album. Before that, he learned the ropes with such Chicago mentors as Ed Petersen and Von Freeman. Even as Elling has polished his much lauded vocal style, he retains the hometown grit and daring that make Chicago’s jazz scene unique.

Chicago is also where the singer first met then-Congressman Obama — in the course of a real-estate deal. I know, I know, you hear “Chicago,” real estate,” and “Obama” in the same sentence, you get a little worried. But this was nothing sleazy: when the Obamas moved to the Chicago house they now own, they sold their Hyde Park condominium to Elling and his wife.

Official State Dinners, as you may have already read, are impossibly baroque events featuring silverware by the pound and glassware by the yard. On the other hand, well-traveled jazz musicians like Elling and Hobgood are famous for their cool, unflappable approach to both the highs and the lows they encounter on the road. So is this a case in point? Is even a White House gig “just a gig”?

I reached Elling briefly Monday night, en route to his sound check at the South Lawn of the White House. He had just enough time to confirm the facts before saying, “I have to go now and do what the Secret Service guys are telling me to do.”

I think that sentence alone lifts this one out of “just a gig” territory.

By Neil Tesser, for the Chicago Jazz Music Examiner.com, November 23, 2009