What I Love: Where Nice Evenings Are Recalled By Kurt Elling

The note-bending, soul-patch-sporting, Grammy-winning jazz singer Kurt Elling lives with his wife, Jennifer, and their daughter, Luiza, in a two-bedroom rental on the Upper West Side. The window in the eat-in kitchen offers a view of glorious sunsets (much photographed by the family); there are gracious prewar touches like molding; and the closet space, by New York standards, is abundant.
But more important, neighbors up and down the block take it upon themselves to keep an eye on Ms. Elling and Luiza when the baritone of the house is on the road. That's where you'll find him often now, promoting his new CD, “Passion World.”

“Then when I come back, people say, 'Hey, man, where you been this time?' said Mr. Elling, 47. “It's very gemütlich.”

The singer and sometime composer/lyricist was born in Chicago and is a Second City guy through and through. Thus, it was a big deal when he decided to give New York a try for a year, in 2008. Here he is still.

“I'm a jazz musician, and I really wanted to not miss an opportunity to have the full connection to jazz,” said Mr. Elling, a one-time divinity student whose connection to jazz sometimes seems of another era. (His default mode of address is “man,” even when addressing friends of 9-year-old Luiza, and “cat” seems to be his highest form of praise, especially when paired with “cool.”) “The musicians in Chicago gave me my vocation, but New York calls to a jazz musician, for sure. You want to test your mettle.”

His wife, a dancer turned artist, quickly got out a map and stuck a pin in the center of the Upper West Side, he said. “Jennifer was great about it. She said, 'We're going to live here, because you're going to be on the road so much, and it's got to be comfortable.' ”

Of course, moving to Manhattan involved a period of adjustment. The Ellings knew they could never afford the kind of space they had in the apartment they still own in Hyde Park, a 2,300-square-foot condominium they bought in 2005 from a couple who were moving, Barack and Michelle Obama.

“Just at the time Barack was elected to the U.S. Senate, Jennifer was pregnant, and we needed an apartment with laundry facilities in the unit,” said Mr. Elling, who, coincidentally, had performed at several benefits for Mr. Obama during his campaign for the state senate in the 1990s. “I hadn't put one and one together, but he and Michelle were within a block of where we were living, and it was a lovely apartment. As soon as I realized it was theirs, I said, 'I'm doing that!'”

Mr. Obama himself handed over the keys, gave the couple a plant as a housewarming gift and admitted that the oven wasn't all it should be and that another appliance was a bit temperamental. “He told me, 'You need to unplug it and plug it in again.' It was a challenge moving out of something with that much acreage and into a typical New York-size apartment,” said Mr. Elling, who performed at the first state dinner of the Obama presidency.

When the Ellings arrived in New York, they lived for a year in a tiny studio on West End Avenue and 105th before heading a few dozen blocks south to a one-bedroom rental in a building that hadn't been renovated in decades. “Meanwhile, we were hanging out on the stoop of a neighbor's place,” he said. “You get to know people that way. And because my wife is gorgeous and charming and my daughter is brilliant, they found out about this building down the street, where we now have a place.”

Wall space was, perhaps, an even bigger consideration than floor space; the Ellings are collectors of contemporary art. While resigned to leaving many pieces in storage or, as Mr. Elling put it, having them “hosted” by family friends, the couple are surrounded by as many canvases and photographs as the apartment can accommodate. “We wanted to have room for at least some of the things that inspire us and have stories behind them,” Mr. Elling said.

Particular favorites include sculptures by James Powditch, an Australian artist who often works with found objects and construction materials; collages by the Chicago artist John Fraser, who did the cover art on one of Mr. Elling's albums; a mixed-media piece by Tierney Malone, a Houston artist, that evokes an album cover and includes a reference to an Elling composition; and a Steve Schapiro photograph of Frank Sinatra that is not in broad circulation. “Isn't that lovely?” Mr. Elling said admiringly. “He looks so friendly, like he's having a nice evening.”

Testament to many of Mr. Elling's own nice evenings is the crammed closet shelf that holds beer glasses from Amsterdam, Munich, Oslo, Helsinki and myriad other cities around the world. “They conjure up memories, conversations I've had with people in bars,” he said, picking up one such souvenir from Israel. “I was there with these or those guys.”

The glasses are considerably more accessible than Mr. Elling's cache of awards. His 2010 Grammy for “Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman,” the plaques and tributes from the magazines DownBeat and Jazz Journal, the microphone from the club Blue Note Milano and a photo of him with the Obamas at the White House are all on a shelf high above the kitchen sink. “You have to put it someplace,” he said.

The furniture was chosen more for practicality than anything else. The living room sectional is the precise shade of gray of the family's recently deceased cat, which was survived by a multicolored tortoiseshell that answers to Nisha. The simple round black dining table was chosen, Ms. Elling said, “because it promotes conversation and no one is left out.” Guests sit on curved backless benches rather than chairs, she added, “so that nothing blocks the view of the artwork.”

Mr. Elling hopes to one day buy a place in New York. “But still, I'm a jazz musician,” he said. “Man, the down payments are rough.”

He added: “My daughter says, 'Daddy, when your ship comes in, can we have a roof deck?' And I say, 'Yeah, when my ship comes in, we can have a roof deck.' And then she asks, 'When your ship comes in, can we have a backyard?' And I say, 'Well, I don't know if we can have a roof deck and a backyard.'”