The Jazz Singer Off Road: Kurt Elling

Jazz singers have always traveled. To make a living as a jazz singer has always meant hitting the road. Bessie Smith did it and literally died on the road after an automobile accident. Billie Holiday did it; even more so after her cabaret card was revoked by the City of New York following a drug arrest. Louis Armstrong did it relentlessly to the end of his life, though he managed to die at home.
Kurt Elling takes the jazz singer's travel truism to a longitudinal and latitudinal extreme. Where most jazz singers tour, Elling traverses the globe. His latest album, Passion World, just out on Concord Jazz, maps Elling's peripatetic restlessness via songs from more than a half-dozen foreign countries (France, Germany, Cuba, Brazil, Scotland, Ireland (as in U2), Iceland (as in Björk). Each song expresses an essence of passion; more than a few in a foreign tongue. None are jazz songs, but Elling is a jazz singer, so his peregrinations are improvisationally discursive, if not primarily swinging here. Which is cool. Swing is not Elling's objective this time around.

What struck me, listening to these songs, was a sense of longing that really sounded like homesickness. Does this jazz singer have a family back home, I found myself wondering? And then I realized, yes! Kurt Elling's daughter was in my daughters' school a few years ago; in my daughter Sara's grade. I never actually bumped into Elling in the hallways, nor had I really expected to. I mean, the guy is a jazz singer.

As I am writing this, the school year is about to end. In twenty minutes I will pick my daughters, Sara and Lea, up for the last time as fourth and sixth graders. I actually like pick-up and drop-off; I will miss it, until September. I also like jazz singers, of every variety. For both of these reasons, I'd decided that I wanted to speak with Kurt Elling. And so, a few weeks ago, I invited him to breakfast.

He accepted my invitation, even though he was in Australia. Upon his return, we met near the school one morning, just after drop-off, in fact. He arrived appropriately breathless, in garrulous, gravelly voice. “Man, I went around the world last week,” he growled, and dropped down into a chair, looking awfully dapper for 9:00 AM. “I finished a gig in Glasgow, packed up, drove an hour-and-a-half to Edinburgh, checked into the hotel for three hours, plane at 6:00 AM to London, three hour layover, then fourteen-and a-half hour flight to Bangkok, three hour layover, and then eight-and-a-half hour flight to Melbourne. Got up the next morning and did a rehearsal with the orchestra.”

“Is it really necessary,” I asked, “to travel that much?”

Elling put down his coffee. “I don't know. Does it pay the bills? Yes, it definitely pays the bills — thank god. It is brutal. And I'm getting old. It's a young man's game, doing that road stuff. But I'm used to it. The one and only bad thing is being away from my daughter and my wife. Everything else — I got a good crew, I got music I believe in, I go to places and I feel I've got friends; they're happy to see me.”

Elling smiled. “I have a profoundly supportive and understanding wife. She was a ballet dancer when I met her. We just celebrated the 25th anniversary of our first meeting in Chicago. She was on the road with the touring company of Phantom of the Opera, as a dancer. She was all classical ballet and then stumbled into this gig and it bankrolled her for a while. She has always understood the road. She helped me pack for my first European tour. Now we really miss each other but she's creative and resilient, she's everything that I need to go away. She knows I'm her man and I know that she's got the fort. It's more a matter of my daughter having the lessons that she's having…which are mixed. Yeah, Dad's gone, but she sees me sacrificing for things I believe in. And she sees the ways audiences react. I'm not away because I can't be home and be with her. I'm away because this is my vocation.”

Was his daughter still at my kids' public school?

“No,” Elling replied with a wistful grin. “We loved the place but the classes were just too damn big. She's in a private school now. And very happy.”

A week later, Elling looked very happy himself, serenading a packed house on a Friday night at Birdland here in New York with his wife in the audience. “I've been doing these songs forever,” he had told me, of the well-traveled polyglot on display on his new CD. “You go to France enough times, you want to at least pretend to speak the language and sing 'La Vie En Rose.' So I started there. Then I always had a little German in my back pocket, from going to college in Minnesota and singing the Bach motets as a kid, so it made sense to pull out a little 'Liebeslieder.' I learned 'Loch Tay Boat Song' back in college when I spent a year studying at Edinburgh University.

His Friday night audience certainly was receptive. “First I give them the stuff they came for,” Elling had told me. “Then I give them the stuff they didn't know they came for.”

Elling's pending new projects are plentiful and his imagination limitless, though he claims to need prodding. “Deadlines and fear are a big element of my creative process,” he maintains. “But I can't just do it by rote. I always try to outdo myself.

“I'm writing with a friend here in town,” he announced toward the end of breakfast. “It's a jazz musical for radio that will be broadcast on the BBC in the Spring. My lyrics. It's based on the life story of Joe E. Lewis, the singer who got his throat slashed by the mob in Chicago during Prohibition and survived to become a successful comic. I know Sinatra already did that as a movie (The Joker Is Wild), and got an Academy Award for singing 'All the Way.' I don't want this to be just another 'jazz is in the past' piece. I want it to ask: Well, what happens to the artist when the avenue of expression is stolen, lost. Do you survive? How? Where do you take it?

“I've been working on this for a while,” he sighed. “I'm hoping it will be a fully staged Broadway kind of musical eventually. I'm trying to find producers, I'm trying to find backers. Because that would be one way for me to stay home, work in New York, expand my creative palette, and see my daughter and take her to school every day. I'm trying real hard, man. I am trying.”