Kurt Elling on the Grammys, confidence, the jazz lifestyle, his next album, and more

I’ve seen Kurt Elling perform countless times—seriously, so often I’ve lost track of the number—but I’d never interviewed him until Thursday, Feb. 16, two days before his performance at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis.
On Saturday, Feb. 11, he was featured on public radio’s “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” (in the segment called “Not My Job”). On Sunday he attended the Grammys. On Tuesday, Valentine’s Day, he performed a program called “Passion World” at Chicago’s Symphony Center. (I saw the first performance of “Passion World” in May 2010 in the Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center.)

I reached him by phone at his home in New York City, where he was spending a few days before coming to Minneapolis.

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PLE: I understand you did “Passion World” in Chicago on Tuesday. I was at the first performance in New York, with Richard Galliano.

Kurt Elling: We did kind of an updated version. We added a couple of compositions, and we were fortunate to have Anat Cohen and Regina Carter with us this time.

Was this the first time you performed with them?

No, Regina and I toured together with the Monterey Festival All-Stars, and Anat and I were on the same Jazz Cruise just now. She sat in with my band a couple of times there. She’s just a joy. Both of them are such lovely people, and such great musicians. [The Chicago concert] was a real pleasure for everybody. I think it was an ideal situation for Valentine’s Day.

Did you enjoy the Jazz Cruise?

I had a good time.

Had you done this before?

No, that was the first time. It was so much fun to have that much hang time with Benny Golson and John Pizzarelli and Anat and the Clayton Brothers. There were so many great cats to hang out with.

Did you have fun at the Grammys?

I had a great time. I’ve been fortunate because I’ve been able to go several times, and I was a volunteer before, and I’ve got so many friends to see that I don’t otherwise get to connect with. And the Grammys have updated the Pre-telecast so remarkably since I was first involved that you really have a sense of an occasion as opposed to feeling like second or third class citizens, as it used to. They do the full red carpet treatment and you feel like it’s a real occasion. So it’s worth doing.

You were wearing a tux.

It’s what you wear. Unless you’re Lady Gaga.

Do you have a favorite Grammys moment from this year?

I was really excited about—what’s the cat’s name?—Bruno Mars. It wasn’t the most original thing I’d ever seen—it was clearly so James Brown, so Elvis and so throwback—but it was really fun. I wanted to get up and dance. I thought it was killing. He was a real showman, he sang in tune, it was clearly him singing, he was having fun, and his band was having fun. I thought it was great.

Elling was at the Grammys because his most recent album, “The Gate,” was nominated for Best Jazz Vocal Album. The award went to drummer Terri Lyne Carrington’s “The Mosaic Project,” a collaboration by several female jazz artists including vocalists.

Do you have anything to say about the outcome of the Best Jazz Vocal Album Grammy?

[Laughs.] Well, I’m really happy for Terri, she’s a great musician, and she’s definitely paid so many dues over the years, and I respect what she brings to the table. She’s a real innovator and this Grammy is an important victory for her career—as a writer, producer, musician and as a friend.

And now the NEA is continuing the Jazz Masters program, which is another good thing.

Oh, I’m really happy about that. When we talk about awards, that’s the kind of thing people like me need to see in place so there is another thing to shoot for.

Obviously, making music is its own reward. Being able to connect with people through music, having a track record of craftsmanship, and making things that you believe in available to the world—that all stands up on its own. But you want to have some things to shoot for and say, “Man, I would really like that someday, if I could be part of that level, or recognized in that way.” You want to have something arrive when you’ve paid the dues and you’ve had a life in the music. Some kind of notion that people heard it. Something you can point to that says, “Yeah, all right, that makes sense.”

So I’m very happy. And I’m obviously happy for the people who are in there, and I could sure make suggestions for people who should be included. Mark Murphy should be at the top of the list to have that award given to him, and it should happen at the earliest possibility.

Anybody can make suggestions for the NEA Jazz Masters Award.

I’ve said it plenty of times, and I’ve put it in writing. [Everything short of] mounting a full campaign myself.

Changing the subject, it sounded like you had a good time on “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me.”

[“Wait Wait” host] Peter Sagal is a friend, and it was lovely of him to have me on. I will say that it was very kindly edited. He interviewed me for another ten minutes beyond that, and not every question he asked me gave a window to the funniest possible answer.

I didn’t realize the shows were edited.

Absolutely. I would say the show is a good half-hour to forty minutes longer than it appears on radio. It is recorded live, but they cut the parts that don’t work, and they’re very good at it, so it comes off as a seamless experience.

Live records are like that, too. It’s all played live, and there are no fixes, exactly, but you always edit things down for time, and you move things around for coherence. Listening to something without being present is different from being there in the flesh.

Speaking of live recordings, do you have plans to do more of those?

Sure I do. I wish we could have recorded the concert in Chicago this week. With Anat and Regina there, it added so much new experience to it, and I know that it sounded great in the house. If it were up to me, I’d be putting out two or three recordings a year like that. But it’s not up to me. There are fees that have to be paid to the house, to the union, and then as far as distribution is concerned, the label would want me touring behind those recordings. I don’t have any problem with that, but it’s a lot more difficult for me to work out—for several reasons—than I wish was the case.

Do you record your own performances? Do you bring along a little Zoom?

I can on many occasions, but I can’t do something like that in a union house. I can’t do it at Orchestra Hall or Carnegie Hall. There are several locations where we have special situations and I’m simply prohibited. I understand why, but at the same time it’s a two-edged sword, and things that should probably be made available to a wider audience can’t be.

During “Wait Wait,” Sagal played a sound bite from Ke$ha’s hit song “We R Who We R,” and Elling commented on the “throbbing, salacious money-making beat that is so prominent in successful music these days.” So, naturally, I asked…

Do you have any plans to add any throbbing, salacious, money-making beats to your own music?

[Laughs.] Uh…umm…you know, I’m just going down my road. I don’t specifically have a dance mix in mind. So…no. Money-making? I don’t see that happening. Salacious? I suppose every once in a while the salacious thing is not a bad thing. It’s kind of monochromatic if that’s all you do. Throbbing? Maybe.

Also during “Wait Wait,” Elling told this story about the time when he was in divinity school at the University of Chicago, studying by day and sitting in at jazz clubs by night:

I’d come out of nowhere and do my little thing, and all these cats would just—”Hey! You sound great!” and “What’s your name?” and “Come back next week!” And these old cats would put their arms around my shoulder and say, “You’re with us!”

Over and over again, this happened to me in Chicago. It happened to me in Minneapolis. It happened to me in New York. These beautiful, established artists would really surround me and remind me and pull me in.

Never happened to me in divinity school. Never one [in a German accent] “Oh, young man! You’re with us! Come over here!” Never happened.

I loved the “You’re with us!” story. Was it just a story, or was it really the sort of thing that figured into your decision to be a jazz singer?

It was one hundred percent true. I really feel like I owe my life in the music to [saxophonists] Von Freeman, Eddie Johnson, and Ed Peterson.

Even in college [at Gustavus Adolphus in Saint Peter, MN] there was a trombone player in the “Tonight Show” band who came to do a clinic—just like I do now, you do a clinic and then you do a performance with the big band. It was my first jazz gig, and he was backstage with me, we were listening to the band, and I remember very distinctly that he said, “Hey, man, have you thought about doing this?” And I was like, “No, I haven’t, I’m a history major. Should I?”

And he quite clearly said, straight up, “Look, man, there are thousands of people who wish they could play trumpet professionally, and thousands of people who wish they could play trombone professionally, and drums, and whatever. Just between you and me, and I wouldn’t be able to say this to anybody who’s on the stage right now, but you should think about this.”

That happened to me over and over and over again. And I really owe it to the musicians for putting that in front of me over and over again. I never would have thought that I could be a professional jazz musician. It just wouldn’t have entered my mind. And I’m humbled by it, and I’m grateful for it, and I will forever be indebted to those cats.

Are things turning out the way you imagined they would when you decided to be a jazz singer?

You know, I’ve got enough miles under my belt to know that whatever you envision in your mind, even if it comes true, will only keep a shape in the most general way. Yes, I’m a professional jazz singer, and here I am, but the specifics of what that feels like, looks like, and sounds like are different. You can never predict what the specific shape of your life is going to be, and you won’t really know its general shape until, God willing, you’re advanced in years and you have the time and the opportunity to look back in a coherent way and see what your life was about.

I don’t mean to be evasive. I’m really, really happy with my life. At the same time, it does look different, in reality.

You’re not just someone with a regular gig. You’re a highly lauded jazz singer who travels the world. You’re always winning polls and getting awards. You have worked really hard, and you have achieved a lot. Did you think it would turn out this way?

It’s kind of you to say. I think you have to be confident when you’re young—and before anything has happened, before you’ve really proven it to yourself or anyone else—you have to be confident that you can do such a thing.

I remember early on reading about Charlie Chaplin—I don’t know whether it was a memoir or an autobiography—and it stood out to me that he said, “Even when I was living in the street, and I was a child, and nobody knew who I was, and I had coal on my face, and I was starving, I knew I was the greatest actor in the world.” That’s the kind of thing that you have to have if anything’s going to happen. I think that the confidence I had, whether it was justified or not, was the confidence that I needed.

Did you have that confidence early in life?

I didn’t know that it was going to come out as a jazz musician, but I certainly had a strong premonition that something marvelous was going to happen, and that it would be costly, and that I would want to dedicate my life to it. I might not have known what that was, but I did have a suspicion it was going to be something that played to my level of comfort in front of an audience. And I just hadn’t figured out what that outlet was going to be.

I’m extremely grateful that it worked out the way it has, and I’m very dedicated to the proposition of justifying the attention that people have paid me so kindly.

Are you actually comfortable in front of an audience?

Increasingly so. Early on, I rubbed some critics and some members of the audience the wrong way because I was not really a hundred percent comfortable in my own skin in front of an audience. I was signed to Blue Note at a really early moment in my development as an artist and as a presenter. It’s really only now that I feel I’m finally getting a handle on how to present myself.

How are you doing that differently now?

Again, I can refer to people I’ve paid attention to in the past. Cary Grant was asked, “How did you stop being Archibald Leach and start being Cary Grant?” And he said, “Well, it was very simple. I had a vision of who Cary Grant was, and I pretended to be him until I became him.” I think that’s a very astute encapsulation of what it takes in terms of a stage persona for somebody like me.

There are legacy people who were born into jazz music and who had it in their genes because they grew up around jazz people and they had the examples. The examples that I had were recordings—and when I say recordings, I mean live recordings of people like Joe Williams and Jon Hendricks and people doing their thing. Coming to them a bit later in adolescence, I was able to see how they operated. But those guys were and are many years my senior, so they were molded in another era of performance, with a little bit more polish.

The way that they spoke—the way that Jon Hendricks speaks to an audience—comes from a different era. I love and respect his showmanship, and the way he has of connecting with an audience, versus the … what would you call it, and who would I compare that to? [Pauses.] Bobby McFerrin. He’s so much more natural on the stage, and so comfortable in his mastery of communication, but it’s a radically different style from the thing that Jon is comfortable doing.

I’ve heard—and I could be mistaken—that Bobby McFerrin dislikes being interviewed.

Well, he’s a genius, and he can do and not do whatever he wants, as far as I’m concerned. But I wouldn’t have expected that.

Interviews can be a real drag, in several ways and for several different reasons. Not every interview is nicely conversational, and not every interviewer is natural, experienced, knowledgeable, and prepared to ask interesting questions and get into it and really have an exchange. As in any situation in life, there are professionals and there are pretenders. So there’s that level.

Then there’s the level of sometimes when you are having a conversation, you can reveal more of yourself than you feel comfortable doing. And there’s also the whole Pontificating Sam element that I am uncomfortable with, where, okay, it’s an interview and it makes sense that you want my opinion on things, but—really? Is it really up to me to declare this value versus that value? That this is good and that is not good? I’m the authority? So you hear yourself posturing, and you think, “I would never have this conversation at a party or with a person, and here I am pronouncing ex cathedra My Grand Opinion.” So there’s that aspect of it.

There are all kinds of subtleties. And then you have those people for whom talking is such a removal from their craft and from what they want to present to the world. They’re musicians because the best and most eloquent way they can speak to the world is through music. “I relate to the world through music. Why do you want me to do that any other way?”

So there are several reasons why that might be the case. I suspect that in Bobby McFerrin’s case, whatever he’s got going is utterly sincere. In my own case, I feel like it’s part of my professional responsibility to come across if I can. The times when it’s a drag for me are when people clearly have not done any research, they haven’t heard the record, and then they’re like, “How did you begin?” How did I begin? Oh, God, can you just look on the website for that? It’s all there! That’s the only time I’m really annoyed by it, is when it’s so redundant. Then you’re not a professional, and you haven’t done me the courtesy of anything, and you just want me to be a content provider and you don’t even care what my answer is.

In 2011, you performed 138 shows in 74 cities in 24 countries. This year, you’re already booked for the Netherlands and New Zealand and South Africa. How do you manage the travel, and being away from home? You have a wife and a daughter— I saw her as a baby at Birdland. How do you manage that?

It’s a lifestyle. How do you manage anything? First of all, I have an extremely understanding and supportive wife who is absolutely the glue that holds it all together and the pillar that sustains me. I can’t believe how fortunate and blessed I am to have the right partner in life. And because of her, my daughter is learning how strong her mother is, how smart her mother is, and what a great example she is—how resourceful she is. There’s an upside in every situation; you just have to look for it and focus on it.

At the same time, she’s learning from her father what it means to be dedicated to an art form and craftsmanship, and dedicated to music and everything that means, from the amount of time I spend practicing to the amount of time I spend away from home delivering what I’ve learned to people. And she also is learning the joy of what it feels like for me to give a concert and come home from a successful tour, and the exhaustion. These are all really valuable things.

Now, it certainly is emotionally difficult, and it can be a trial, but there’s no road in life that doesn’t involve pain and exasperation and emotional turmoil. These are all things that we have to learn as human beings to get beyond, regardless of the road that we go down. If I were at home, I would be exasperating, and I would be a frustrated person in other ways. As it is now, I’m frustrated occasionally because of schedules or because I’m away when something important is happening.

But because what I’m doing is centered on music, and centered on music I believe in, and I have the support of my family, then I’m a happy guy. I really just try to focus on gratitude and on being faithful to what I’ve been given.

Do you have any frequent traveler tips?

Always have a couple of discs you can give to the person checking you in so you can bribe them not to charge you overweight. As soon as possible, get a road manager like Bryan Farina, who is my guy, and if I have my way, I will never leave home without him.

Bless him. He makes sure I know where I’m supposed to go. He busts people’s chops when he needs to. He does the sound for us. He makes sure the settlements are right at the end of the night. I just don’t know how I ever did anything without him.

How long has Bryan worked for you?

Maybe three years now? You know, Laurence [Hobgood] and I did it for all the years leading up to Bryan. It certainly can be done, and I’m grateful to Laurence for all the years when he and I worked on, like, “Okay, when’s the flight now?” “When do we have to what?” “Oh my God, can you take some of that low-mid out of the monitor?” or whatever with people we just met. And we were very fortunate most of the time. We were able to keep our sound checks under an hour and we still walked away with a reasonably good sound.

But now I know for a fact that when I step on stage, I’m taken care of, and people are going to get that sonic experience, and I know that when I come off the stage, my man’s going to be right there. That’s huge. That takes so much stress out of it for me.

You’ve performed with a lot of different people—Richard Galliano, Nancy King, Regina and Anat, Ernie Watts, John Pizzarelli, and you’ll be going out this year with Charlie Hunter. Is there anybody you want to perform with and it hasn’t yet happened?

The big answer to that is I’ll be happy to hang out with Wayne Shorter anytime, anyplace, anywhere. I finally got to perform with him and Herbie [Hancock] last summer at the Hollywood Bowl [at the August 17, 2011 “Joni’s Jazz” concert]. I got to hit with Herbie and I got to hit with Wayne, and it was a real thrill for me, and I think they had a good time as well. But the only way to have a deeper connection is…it’s the same reason I put together Four Brothers several years ago, so that we’d have contact time and I could get to hear stories and it wouldn’t just be me fawning.

I loved the Four Brothers project and wish I could have seen it.

I wish we could revive it. Now, that one I do have board tapes of, and I wish that I could get that out, but it may have to wait.

You and Laurence are working on your next new recording, for release in August or September. Can you tell us something about it?

For some time, now that I’m living in New York, I’ve wanted to do something for New York. I’ve done so many things for Chicago—theater pieces, individual settings of pieces of poetry to music that were Chicago-centric, and the New Year’s Eve thing for the Millennium—so many occasions, and I’ve enjoyed them all. And now I wanted to do something for New York. But I did not want to go to the usual suspects— your Cole Porters, for instance, that so many people have done so many times, and so brilliantly.

As a way to follow up on “The Gate,” I’m going to be taking on music associated with the Brill Building, because it has such a long history. It’s not just Carole King and Burt Bacharach and such. Duke Ellington had his publishing office out of there. And we have Hoagy Carmichael and Irving Berlin. And you could draw a legitimate line to Billy Joel because so many of his songs respond to golden-era Brill Building songs.

So I think there’s enough breadth there to make the kind of statement that “The Gate” was going toward. At the same time, there’s a throughway of history, and it is a clearly New York moment—an inclusive New York moment, which is the kind I like. And a vast archive. So that’s the direction it looks like we’re headed.

Will you work again with Don Was?

Don has gotten so busy now with Blue Note that I’m afraid he’s not going to be able to do this time. I was hoping that was going to happen, but I think it will be somebody else. I’m not sure who that’s going to be, but Laurence and I are already working on arrangements. So it might be a fait accompli at that point and we just do it ourselves.

One more “Wait Wait” question: At one point, you said that “jazz is the ultimate syncretic art form.” What did you mean by that?

Any music that jazz encounters, it absorbs and transforms. It takes it into itself and transfigures that art form. It’s true when jazz musicians go after classical music, Afro-Cuban music, Brazilian music. It’s what jazz does. It encounters unforeheard propositions, and it absorbs and transforms those sounds into something new and amazing. It’s unlike any other traditional form of music that only wants to play by its own set of rules.