The Road to Jazz Success

“Jazz musicians are improvisers, meaning that each jazz musician is thinking like a composer—only in real time, in collaboration with other musicians, in front of an audience,” says 2010 Grammy winner Kurt Elling ’89. The goal each night is to try to create beauty through combinations of notes one has never played before—and potentially no one has ever played before.”
Ironically, Elling didn’t plan on becoming a jazz singer. He graduated from Gustavus with a history major and religion minor and went on to graduate school in Chicago. While in Chicago, his birthplace, he found his niche, his calling, in music. Improvised, personal, soul-stirring jazz music. Elling is a performer, a composer, and a powerful stage presence, whose jazz emanates from every aspect of his personality.

Thinking back upon his life thus far, the 42-year-old Elling doesn’t recall a time when he wasn’t singing. “I am told I was making up parts and harmonies to the hymns in church, but this is probably apocryphal information. But music was always a joy to me, and I did it because it was natural and made me happy,” he says. At Gustavus, Elling was involved in several music ensembles including the Gustavus Choir, the Chamber Singers, and the Stage Band (as a vocalist).

Seeing Elling perform as a Gustavus student was a memorable experience. “I knew that he could sing, but I will never forget his entrance to the Bjorling stage the first time that he sang with the (then) Gustavus Stage Band and Director Mark Lammers,” says Al Behrends ’77, director of fine arts programs and communication services at Gustavus. “He was on the program to sing “Honeysuckle Rose” with the band and I thought, ‘This could be interesting.’ As I said, I knew he could sing, but jazz is different than the Gustavus Choir program.

“Any concern quickly disappeared as he began to sing. He had the voice, he had the stage presence, and he took both and enthralled the audience with that one song. This kid could sing jazz. And I mean, really sing jazz. I’m glad that I was in the audience for that first performance. It’s a moment that I will never forget,” says Behrends.

There’s no right way to get somewhere, and Elling’s path was not always straightforward. While at Gustavus, Elling investigated a number of fields of inquiry; taking an independent study of Hegel with then-Chaplain Richard Elvee, completing a senior thesis on Teddy Roosevelt, spending a year abroad in Edinburgh, Scotland. But somehow, jazz was always a part of the mix. “I remember living down the hall from [current Senior Associate Director of Admission] Alan Meier my first year. He was always playing Dexter Gordon, Herbie Hancock, Dave Brubeck, people like that. It was just at the time that I was beginning to actively listen to things,” he says. “I owe him for that.”

Gustavus was also a place where Elling started exploring his own singing possibilities. “Cats were kind, and audiences were always excited by my caterwauling. Very few singers on the scene . . . were attempting anything like scatting, so I was bringing a more unique and crowd-pleasing thing to the stand.”

Although his jazz interest was budding for years, Elling cites performing with Karl Johnson in Chicago as the beginning of his career. “He took me under his wing and showed me in conversation and on the stand what it might mean to be a professional jazz musician.”

Elling credits his unique experiences with shaping his distinctive style. “I wish I had more of that music school information,” he says. “I’ll spend my life trying to catch up there. On the other hand, if I had gone there, and not to a good liberal arts college and not gone on [to graduate school], I doubt that I would be able to bring to bear the wider philosophical and literary awareness I have into the mix.

“Many times, students ask me where I get the ideas I do. Well, it’s from having had a reasonably diverse and interesting intellectual career,” says the nine-time Grammy Award nominee. “I read a good deal, and try to stay current in the broader conversation. Also, one has to be curious about everything.”

With countless career performances, how could Elling ever choose his most memorable? His top picks to date: “Tony Bennett came out to hear me in London at a small club and sat right in the front row. We talked for two hours after. He was very enthusiastic and generous,” Elling recalls. “I have general memories about being at the Green Mill in Chicago and having lines out the door and down the block waiting to get in. That’s a nice feeling. I was very happy the President and Mrs. Obama invited me to sing at the White House last fall. They are such lovely people.”

After earning the 2010 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album for his latest CD, Dedicated to You, and performing at venues including the White House, Elling remains humble. He commends his family and friends for being supportive and excited for his success. “People have been very generous and enthusiastic on my behalf. Many individuals have been pulling for me for years now, and were excited for me. It has been a sweet time.”

So to those aspiring jazz singers out there, Elling has some advice: “Sing all the time. Develop your instrument—your voice—over time through practice and performance. Join a good choir and perform as much classical repertoire as you can. Keep your eyes and ears open to what the instrumentalists do—both on and off the stand. Learn by watching respectfully first and try to get a sense of what a given situation is really asking for.

“As with any art form, I feel strongly that people do not ‘choose’ to be artists. They are chosen to be—they have no choice. If this is so for any person, then that person will do whatever work it takes, engage whatever discipline, and overcome any obstacles in life to become what they are called to be. Above all, that person will believe in the work, will accept the difficulties, and will be rewarded by the creation of whatever they are called to make. To be a professional is to have already crossed the finish line; it is to have already won.”

And Elling’s advice for all students and current Gusties? “Find something that you love and seek to give your everything to that love. If one dedicates oneself out of a pure motive then one will find the answer to all particular questions in satisfaction of purpose.”