Kurt Elling Talks About the Art of Jazz Singing, and Influences — from Sinatra to Kerouac

The genesis of Kurt Elling's “1619 Broadway – The Brill Building Project,” his Grammy-nominated 2012 CD, isn't complicated.
“I've been living in New York for a while, and I tend to pass that building on my way to my manager's office,” the critically acclaimed singer, once a mainstay of the Chicago jazz scene and a Manhattan resident since 2008, said by telephone from a tour stop in Luxembourg. “That put it on my mind.”

Soon, Elling's familiarity with the address, and its history as a celebrated haven for working songwriters from the '30s through the '60s, led to a viable album concept.

“People were trying to make hit records there, and sometimes they got lucky,” Elling said. “As it happens, some were writing very high-quality music that also was very popular. I knew that out of all those thousands of compositions, there had to be 10 I could adapt. I went with the stuff that I could connect with emotionally.”

Elling demonstrated an emotional connection with the “1619 Broadway” material when he played the Clearwater Jazz Holiday last fall.

The bluesy “I'm Satisfied” was a scatting tour de force, with the four-octave singer throwing in double-time passages, jumping octaves, and hitting unexpected high notes. A funk/fusion arrangement of the Lieber-Stoller classic “On Broadway” was bolstered by guitarist John McLean's acid-edged solo, while Doc Pomus's “Lonely Avenue” opened with Elling backed solely by bassist Clark Sommers, and had the instrumentalists supplying harmony vocals.

Also impressive were opener “Come Fly With Me” and the Bacharach-David favorite “A House is Not a Home.” For the encore, Elling and pianist Laurence Hobgood took the stage alone for a heartfelt, hymn-like version of Paul Simon's “American Tune,” with the pianist supplying gospel-blues textures.

Elling's emotional intensity, his gift for enlivening lyrics in often dramatic fashion, is essential to the attention he's received as a consummate jazz vocalist and scat singer, a perennial winner of awards in jazz magazine polls.

His ability to express himself through the use of his voice developed organically. The Chicago native, the son of a Lutheran church musician, as a child in Rockford, Illinois played piano, violin, French horn and drums, and sang sacred music in various choirs.

“I feel like I've always had an emotional connection to music because of my growing up with it,” he said. “It was always second nature to resort to music and to communicate through music. I had a lot to learn about jazz, though, a lot of technical things to learn.”

Elling didn't develop a passion for jazz until attending college in Minnesota, about 60 miles away from the Twin Cities area, and he made his first serious forays into singing jazz publicly when he was a student at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

After initially being inspired by the likes of Dave Brubeck, Herbie Hancock, Ella Fitzgerald, among others, he began informally studying the tone, techniques and phrasing of such singers as Mark Murphy, Jon Hendricks, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.

“Sinatra had that emotional quality,” he said. “That has to be there. If you don't resonate emotionally as a singer, you're in trouble. Tony Bennett leads with his heart, for sure. That's what makes him so endearing.”

Elling also connected with Chicago musicians, at famed Windy City jazz club the Green Mill and elsewhere.

“I didn't think of music as a vocation until I was hanging out with jazz musicians on the scene in Chicago and having them shepherd me into the mix,” Elling said. “It's to those players that I owe a debt of gratitude for their having given me my vocation.”

Elling's conception of singing and improvising also was heavily influenced by instrumentalists, including such Chicago “tough tenors” as saxophonists Dexter Gordon, Johnny Griffin, Von Freeman and Gene Ammons.

He found additional inspiration for his art in the work of “On the Road” author Jack Kerouac, who, coincidentally, spent his last days in a home located less than five miles from the stage where Elling is performing on Friday.

“I got interested in Kerouac through Mark Murphy – his 'Bop for Kerouac' record,” Elling said. “Then I went to read all the books and found that that was rewarding. I like the early stuff, when he's still wide eyed with wonder, and when he's much more innocent. In his early works, he's a very sweet writer and soulful. By the time he was in Florida, he was pretty defeated, by alcoholism and sadness.

“He was in love with the jazz idiom and he had a sometimes mistaken impression of what improvisation was about, but certain of his tendencies were strongly influenced by jazz. The myth holds that when he sat down to write it would come out in great long blowing (improvising) sessions.”

Recently, Elling's 200-dates-a-year schedule has featured work with large ensembles, including several orchestras and big bands in Europe.

“It plays to my stage bigness, the performance aspect of it,” he said. “In a way, I can be a little overblown for the small group stuff.”

He's yet to make any decisions regarding the follow-up to last year's “1619 Broadway.”

“I lead with my feeling about what's appropriate for what to do next. So far, I haven't really had time to think about it.”