Kurt Elling: Being Fully in the Moment

Watching and listening to Kurt Elling on the “Jazz Singers” session in PBS’s “Legends of Jazz.” I remembered what Cecil Taylor said of his life’s vocation: “This music is about magic and capturing spirits.” And Duke Ellington explored its religious dimensions. Although I’m an atheist, I can respond spiritedly to religious spirituality in music—from Verdi’s “Requiem” to black gospel singing. Formerly a graduate student at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, Kurt Elling notes that “Jazz had the Spirit from its birth. Gospel music is in its genes.” Also, although he recognizes that “there is a general lack of mystery in our culture to begin with, part of the beauty of the experience of art is in its mystery—particularly when it comes to poetry and music.”
I sensed the pull of mystery in John Coltrane’s ceaseless spiritual searching for connections to the cosmos in his later music. And Elling, in his singular vocalese, as in his lyrics to Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme—Resolution” in his Man in the Air Blue Note CD, connects to Coltrane’s yearning to capture spirits. But Elling, deeply versed in poetry and philosophy, also digs Frank Sinatra, who I doubt read much of Rilke or studied theology. “People think of me,” Elling told Jim Newsom in Virginia’s Portfolio Weekly, “as outré, bizarre, yet Frank is one of the guys that I spent a lot of time checking out and learning from.”

Moreover, Elling, when the spirit moves him, is a “hot jazz” singer. On that “Legends of Jazz” set, host Ramsey Lewis opened by asking him to get into one of jazz’s enduring and contentious mysteries—what is jazz singing? Said Elling: “The easiest answer would be to say that jazz singing is like pornography, in that you know it when you hear it.” (Elling might have credited the original source of that line—the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, cutting through the fog of legalese in an actual pornography case before the Supreme Court.) Then, on “Legends of Jazz” Elling and Al Jarreau exploded with incandescently swinging, two-menon-a-trapeze variations on Paul Desmond’s “Take Five.” I don’t know if Justice Stewart knew the song, but he certainly would have know what jazz singing is if he’d heard that performance.

In a November 8, 2004 lecture at the University of Missouri, Elling—a man of enough parts to be a faculty unto himself—provided a lucidly concise timeline of the spirit of religion in jazz: “Both of John Coltrane’s grandfather’s were ministers. Jon Hendricks’ father was a minister. Ramsey Lewis’ father was a minister… Cannonball Adderley said that the move ‘to recapture the audience and re-establish the hot jazz expression… abandoned by the bop and cool styles… reached back to the most communicative music in the past—church music.’”

When the considerably publicized largely white forms of West Coast jazz were being commercially successful, I was at a rehearsal of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers as they were working on their roots in the church music of their youth in Horace Silver’s “The Preacher.” “This,” said one of the players, “is something those white guys out there can’t even copy.” In that lecture two years ago, Elling said it all in one sentence: “One could argue that Horace Silver is, himself, a ‘church.’”

One of the mosaic of characteristics that compose Kurt Elling is that he is an intellectual who, through the spontaneous combustion of jazz, can set himself on fire. Describing how the ignition begins, he once said: “I hear something musically. And if I say, ‘Wow, what is that about?’ then it’s an exploration. Little micro-chromosomes of a lyric might start to assemble just from repeated listening. Often, it’s not until I’m maybe halfway through that I know what it’s really about. It’s an ecstatic, Eureka sort of experience.”

What he describes is linked in my mind to Oscar Peterson’s unmatched, so far, account of what every lasting jazz musician—regardless of age, style, or income—strives for. In his A Jazz Odyssey: The Life of Oscar Peterson (Continuum), the prodigious pianist, also an intellectual, puts the magic of jazz into words: “Creating an uninhibited, off-the-cuff musical composition in front of a large audience is a daredevil enterprise, one that draws on everything about you, not just your musical talent. It requires you to collect all your senses, your emotions, physical strength, and mental power, and focus them totally into the performance.” Or, as Kurt Elling puts it, “What you’re doing is being fully in the moment.” Oscar Peterson continues: “And if that is scary, it is also uniquely exciting; once it’s bitten you, you never get rid of it. Nor do you want to; for you come to believe that if you get it all right, you will be capable of virtually anything. That’s what drives me, and I know it will always do so.”

It drives Kurt Elling. And the other dimension of this experience which drives jazz musicians—and vicariously, those of us who are drawn into this sunburst of endless possibility—is the fun of it. The joy of jazz. I’m glad that duet between Kurt Elling and Al Jarreau will be available for posterity because in a world lurching into what may be catastrophic nuclear warfare fueled by grotesquely distorted misreadings of fundamentalist religious beliefs, it will be valuable, and maybe regenerating, for survivors to know there was once such fun and joy in the world.