The Jazz Genius of Kurt Elling

Vocalist Kurt Elling was in St. Louis recently to perform at Jazz at the Bistro. Arguably, he is one of the top jazz singers in the world today. He was born in Chicago and raised in Rockford, Ill., where his father was the Choir Director of a Lutheran Church. Elling said that he spent most of his school years hanging out in choir rooms. He also played violin, piano, French horn and drums. He apparently treasured these years singing in a classical style.
Following high school, he went to Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, where he majored in history and minored in religion while singing in a choir that sang a cappella. He toured Europe with this choir. During this period, he began an interest in jazz. When Elling went to graduate school at the University of Chicago Divinity School, he began work on a master’s degree in the philosophy of religion. During this time, he started sitting-in at clubs and gradually began to acquire a reputation. This work eventually led to a weekly gig. In a 2000 interview with Steve James, “By day, I was reading Kant and Schleiermacher, trying to get a handle on that,” Elling says, “and at night, I was sitting-in in clubs, and, of course, you can’t do both and be effective. Eventually, Saturday night won out over Sunday morning.” He quit school in January 1992, one unit short of graduation.

Elling worked at menial jobs and sang in wedding bands to keep food on the table, but spent most of the time honing his craft. Vocalist Mark Murphy’s vocalese work intrigued Elling, as did the poetry of Jack Kerouac, found on Murphy’s seminal 1981 Bop for Kerouac album. He was influenced by the concentrated emotion found in Chet Baker’s trumpet and vocals. Elling began to improvise lyrics and scat sing. His performances are famous for what he calls “rants,” where he makes up lyrics on the spot. Elling and his pianist Lawrence Hobgood made a demo recording that got them eventually signed by Blue Note Records in 1995. He was on his way.

Kurt Elling has been nominated for nine Grammy Awards, winning one for his Concord album Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman. He has won the Downbeat Magazine Critics poll 12 times, and reader’s poll six times in the Male Vocalist of the Year Category. Some of his other awards include the Jazz Journalists Association Male Vocalist of the Year Award (seven times) and the Nightlife Award for Outstanding Jazz Vocalist in a Major Engagement (2010).

In my opinion, Kurt Elling has no peers today, and quite possibly in jazz history (and I have seen all or the great ones in performance since 1959). He writes interesting and original vocalese lyrics to classic jazz solos (some as long as 10 minutes). He is a superb scat singer and improviser with an original style, and he has the ability to bring out the meaning of lyrics in new and different ways. I have seen him perform six times; each show was different, each show was probably the best jazz performance of a given year for me. His visit to Jazz at the Bistro in November was no exception. While his performances seem very relaxed, watch him when others are soloing as he clenches and unclenches his jaws. He performed over 200 shows in 2011; how he can perform at that intensity night after night is beyond me.

There is another side of Kurt Elling that I have been privileged to see. I drive the artists who perform at jazz at the Bistro to their school performances and clinics. A couple of weeks ago, I drove Elling and his pianist Laurence Hobgood to Kirkwood high School, where they gave a clinic to the jazz choir. After performing a couple of songs, they began demonstrating the basis for jazz improvisation. They talked about vocalese and scat singing using “Moody’s Mood for Love” as an example. The choir then sang with Elling and Hobgood. Once they did that, I found that Elling is an excellent teacher. He talked about their intonation, which was very good. He then showed them how to achieve a much hipper jazz sound by having the group snap their fingers in unison in time with Hobgood’s piano playing. He then asked them to try to slow Hobgood down by snapping their fingers more slowly. The students could not slow Hobgood’s playing down, but they found themselves snapping their fingers slightly behind the beat, creating a more jazz-like sound and starting to swing (a difficult thing to describe, but you know it when you hear it). Elling then illustrated what swing was by walking across the room and showing the kids how he looked when he walked on the beat and how he looked when he walked slightly behind the beat. The kids saw it instantly.

Inevitably, when any professional does a school clinic on any subject, they get questions from the students about how they got to where they are. Whether the profession is science or music, for example, we always emphasize the long hours, the practice and the sacrifice it takes to achieve a truly professional status. Elling added a couple of very blunt pieces of advice that I have never heard anyone, including myself, use in talking to students. The first is that when you decide what you want to do, find the smartest person in the room and do what they do. (Most students will shun the smartest person in the room.) The second piece of advice was to make sure you have a long career by not doing dangerous things that could kill or maim you or put you in jail.

Kurt Elling is one of the reasons why I reject so many singers’ CD sent to me for Jazz Unlimited. There is no reason why anyone claiming to be a jazz singer should be singing standards like Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra did them in the 1950s and 1960s, but that is what is on the vast majority of vocal recordings sent to me as promos. I don’t play them. I play the music of that era with the original recordings, not the imitations. Kurt Elling will return to St. Louis in a year or two. Don’t miss his next engagement.