Kurt Elling found his calling in jazz

Kurt Elling, whom many consider the best male jazz singer in the world, blazed a peculiar path to his career.
Elling, who will perform April 6 at Miller Center for the Arts on the campus of Reading Area Community College as part of the Berks Jazz Fest, didn't grow up in what might be considered a typical jazzman's household.

His was an acutely musical family, but his parents' record collection skewed toward Bach and Mozart, not Ellington and Armstrong.

As a child, Elling mostly heard sacred music as his father was a Kapellmeister at a Lutheran church in Chicago.

“Most of the time we spent making music together was for liturgical reasons,” Elling 45, says during a telephone interview. “And it was really a strong and emotionally powerful musical environment because of that. My dad was very pious in the best possible way and was devoted to using music to move people and to remind them of inspiring things and to lift them up.”

Elling, 45, who in 2008 moved from Chicago to New York City, where he lives with his wife and 7-year-old daughter, seemed destined to follow his father into a religious-oriented life.

He majored in history and minored in religion at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota and then enrolled in the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Elling, however, started listening to jazz while a student in Minnesota. By the time he got to the University of Chicago, he was singing jazz well into the night at clubs in the Windy City and then getting up in the morning to wrestle with the works of philosophers like Martin Heidegger during the day.

He spent three years at the divinity school and then dropped out to pursue a career as a jazz singer. He says it was the musicians he met during his nighttime excursions who pointed the way toward a career in music.

“Ultimately, it was the jazz musicians I was encountering — their response to what I was up to,” he says. “I found encouragement and a kind of receptivity and warmth and welcome. And an encouragement, really. Specifically, musicians on the Chicago scene with much, much, much greater seniority than I had put their hand on my shoulder and said explicitly that I belonged with them.”

Elling, whose album “Dedicated to You” won the 2009 Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album, might have found his calling, but it didn't pay the bills at that point.

He supplemented his income by working various jobs, including bartending, hauling furniture and singing at weddings. He lived in a room that cost $100 a month and drove a $300 car that frequently left him stranded.

“It wasn't really until I was kind of stripped bare and had nothing else that I was able to devote myself fully to what I really wanted, which is a version of what I am now,” Elling says.

His talent, built around his powerful baritone with a four-octave range, won out.

He found his longtime collaborator, pianist Laurence Hobgood, in the early 1990s, released his debut album, “Close Your Eyes,” in 1995 and has never looked back.

Though he's won just the one Grammy, he has been nominated 10 other times. He performs 150 to 200 shows a year and his albums are always adventurous and fully realized.

A master of vocalese, a technique in which a singer makes up lyrics that are sung over a jazz instrumentalist's solo, Elling released “Man in the Air” in 2003. He added lyrics to songs by, among others, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny. It may sound like heresy to some, but the reality is a brilliant album bursting with imagination and creativity.

On “Dedicated to You” (2009) Elling and Hobgood pay tribute to a revered 1963 album by Coltrane and singer Johnny Hartman. Somehow they find the heart of the album without trying to imitate it.

In 2011 he released “The Gate,” which was produced by Don Was, best known for his work with the Rolling Stones. Elling covers songs like “Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles, “Steppin' Out” by Joe Jackson and “Golden Lady” by Stevie Wonder in his own inimitable style.

Though Elling sometimes flirts with other musical genres in search of inspiration (check out his version of the Guess Who's “Undun” on his album “Nightmoves” (2007), he always is a jazz singer.

“I revel in the title of jazz singer,” he says. “It's an honorific. It's something I'm trying to earn and I'm trying to honor the great singers who have preceded me and the great instrumentalists who have preceded me. I love the music and the people who gave their lives to this music. I feel humbled to be included in that family.”