Kurt Elling: From Church Choirs to Chicago Clubs

Jazz vocalist Kurt Elling cut his teeth in the clubs of Chicago, but his love of music began in infancy and was fostered by a childhood singing in choirs.
“Since the mid-1990s, no singer in jazz has been as daring, dynamic or interesting as Kurt Elling,” a 2009 review in the Washington Post reads. “The onetime theology student from Chicago has found a fresh musical territory by channelling, in equal parts, Frank Sinatra, bebop hipster Mark Murphy and an all-night poetry slam.”

But it was at his father’s feet that the future Grammy-award winning musician would first encounter music. “My father was a church musician,” Elling tells Limelight. “That meant that I had immediate exposure – or maybe in utero exposure – to Bach and to Brahms and to the great Lutheran hymns. I don’t even remember a time not singing. He led the choirs as well so I would sit with the different members and try to reiterate their parts. I remember we would do several of the Bach motets regularly, or every other year, with the seasons and I would sing soprano for quite a long time and then alto and then tenor and I couldn’t wait to get to the basement, where the roots are, and sing the bass part.”

Elling’s choral career extended into his high school years – he sung Brahms’ requiem with the local volunteer choir and symphony orchestra, as well as Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. “And then I was in college and singing Mozart and Duruflé and crazy Norwegian composers and plainsong,” he says. “I had a very diverse experience as an a cappella chorister and that of course is excellent training for a voice and excellent training for singing in tune and having a good technique.”

Elling also dabbled in other musical instruments, but these were for the most part “brief flirtations,” he explains. “I never could really get a sound out of a violin. The piano is as daunting an instrument as ever, for me, as it has been for young people throughout the ages. I can play enough to read a chart down, that kind of a thing, but I wouldn’t play in front of anybody. French horn was a little infatuation for a moment, but the voice was always really the thing.”

It wasn’t until university that Elling began listening to jazz more and going out to clubs. “That really turned my head around,” he explains.

It was in Chicago – to which Elling returned to study for a Masters degree at the University of Chicago Divinity School – that the singer received his calling. “What really changed the scene for me was returning to Chicago to go to graduate school and going out at night to sit in clubs and having the embrace of the musicians on the Chicago scene almost as though they had been waiting for me,” he says. “It means a lot to a young man – when you’re looking for yourself and you’re trying to find your way – to have older people whose work you admire and whose spirit you feel strongly about invite you to join them.”

While Elling’s classical background gave him a solid vocal foundation, there was plenty to learn for an aspiring jazz singer, including microphone technique, how to lead a band, how to choose repertoire, and – of course – improvisation. “Though I had strong instincts, I hadn’t really – in spite of all those years of investigating counterpoint as a performer – I hadn’t looked at it as a composer, which is how you have to start thinking of it as an improvising artist,” he says.

Elling didn’t pursue formal lessons, learning on the job instead. “I did have a handful of times when I was having trouble with technique, moving from one to the other, and then I would investigate somebody’s ideas,” he says. “But most of the things that I’ve done I’ve done from investigating them on the stand, listening really hard, trying to imitate and crashing and failing every once in a while.”

Elling ultimately dropped out of the Masters course in 1992, in what he described in an interview once as Saturday night winning out over Sunday morning. “It wasn’t really my gift,” he says. “I was there to kind of get a map of the history of thought as much as I could – I’ve always felt that my education early on was inadequate to what I wanted to understand and that I’ve been catching up every since. At the same time, I wasn’t really built intellectually to be a professional academic, it wasn’t so much my interest to do so and it wasn’t my aptitude.”

Elling’s experiences at university were contrasted with singing in the clubs. “I was really embraced by the Chicago musicians so definitively in a way that I was clearly not going to be by the academic world,” he says. “It was the day after Von Freeman had embraced me and told me to take a bunch more choruses and keep blowing and sing another one and sing another and the crowd was so happy – I go into university the next day and the professor calls me into his office and he says [here Elling affects a stuffy professor voice], ‘Mr Elling, I have read your paper several times and I have come to the conclusion that you don’t know what you’re talking about.’ So I showed myself the door at that point.”

Three years later, Elling was signed to the Blue Note label, with whom he recorded for a decade. Success came quickly for Elling, and he admits to not being really prepared in some ways. “I was another one of these young studs coming out with a lot more verve,” he says. “I had a natural gift to some degree with my voice but it certainly wasn’t developed as an instrument of precision when it came to improvisational things and there was just a lot to be learned – how to put a set together, how not to freak out when Mr Big shows up in the audience. Everything. How to maintain your sanity on too many airplane rides!”

The fact that he has achieved such success has been something of a surprise, Elling says. “It’s perfectly implausible that I would come from such a square and sheltered environment and find myself with the pleasure of touring the world and being identified as a jazz musician and interacting with people like Herbie Hancock and Branford Marsalis and Bill Charlap and Bob Mintzer on a regular basis – I’ve become friends with so many people whose abilities clearly outstrip my own. The whole thing has been one big ride that has been surprising, astonishing, rewarding, gratifying and exhausting.”

Elling’s latest album, The Questions, sees the vocalist collaborating again with saxophonist and bandleader Branford Marsalis, following on from their Grammy-nominated 2016 album Upward Spiral. The partnership doesn’t just offer “excellent company,” he says. “I think we share certain ideals that are based upon the people whose music we love, the great heroes of jazz – we certainly do both like to play really loudly. There’s a lot to share.”

The album – which opens with a stark, haunting arrangement of Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall and includes Lonely Town from Leonard Bernstein’s musical On the Town – sees Elling probe bigger questions and ideas, rendered all the more urgent, for Elling, by the contemporary political climate. “I’ve tried to address and confront much more fully the circumstances that we’re all having to face at this point,” he says. “The obvious political insanity – focussed but certainly not by any means boundaried by Washington DC – the insanity of the rise once again of fascism, the hatred of immigrants, the fear that has arisen in light of the last 20 years, the assault of the technosphere on the biosphere, the incredible warnings that we’re reading every day about what’s in progress by way of the demolition of our environment.”

Elling also ponders more personal, universal questions: “Where to find love, what happens to me if I’m fortunate enough to be old, and the likely dissolution of my body as it happens, how can I be the best parent that I can be, what does it mean to be here at this point.”

“I’ve tried to really be patriotic: there’s a lot to protest at this point – I’m not a protest singer; there’s a lot to be angry about at this point – but it’s impossible to write good music, strictly speaking, from just anger,” Elling says.

Instead Elling points to the words of Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet: “Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue.”

“That seems to make sense for me, it’s more of an invitation to more of the people rather than a directive,” he says. “I can’t change the world in a huge way – I’m a jazz singer – but I’ve got to do my part. I think I’m a patriot, I’m a citizen of the world, I’m a humanist, and I’m a jazz singer, and that means I have a responsibility to my listeners, to myself and to my children to do what I can to call attention to the plight that we’re in.”