What Makes a Jazz Singer

Since debuting on Blue Note in 1995, Kurt Elling has earned a reputation as one of the preeminent jazz singers of our time. Now based in New York City, Elling details his ascent, responds to his detractors, and sets out to define the slippery parameters of vocal jazz.


Kurt Elling probably wouldn’t be the first to say it, but he’s been on some fiendishly impressive sort of roll. “I can feel, especially in the past year and a half or so, that I’m finding a new spot,” he allows, no trace of bravado in his tone, one recent winter evening on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “And it’s making the music better. I’m finding a new spot as a human being, and I’m happy about that.”

We’re at Bistro Citron, a few blocks from the apartment where Elling now lives with his wife, Jennifer, and their 5-year-old daughter, Luiza. He has in fact just come from one of Luiza’s school performances down the street. A Chicago native, he moved with his family to New York City several years ago, to test out a longtime “what if” and flesh out, as he puts it “a map inside my head.” It’s probably an accident of timing, but his tenure in the Big Apple has overlapped with an extremely blessed stretch of his career.


Last year, Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman finally earned Elling his first Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album. (He had been nominated for each of his previous eight.) In the 2010 ]azzTimes Readers’ Poll, he was pronounced Best Male Vocalist for the sixth time; he earned the same honor in last issue’s inaugural Expanded Critics’ Poll. In that other big mainstream jazz magazine, critics voted him Male Vocalist of the Year for the 11th year in a row. Looking back to late 2009, there was his performance at the first State dinner hosted by Barack and Michelle Obama, with whom he has been acquainted for a while. (Six years ago he bought their condo on the south side of Chicago. “His book sales were taking off,” Elling says of the president, a state senator at the time, “and he was ready to have a mansion. And I was ready for laundry in-unit.”)

So by seemingly every metric that matters in his world, Elling is clearly on top. But don’t talk to him about preeminence, because he’s taking the long view. “I’m still only 43,” he says. “When I’m 70 — and this is what I’m shooting for — then I’m the man. By that point I’ve paid all the dues I’m going to pay, and I’ll have a body of work behind me. So I can be patient. And in the meantime, there is this project. I believe in this project right now.”

This project right now is The Gate, his luminous new Concord Jazz release, made with the versatile producer Don Was. A collection of standards and deep cuts spanning a wide berth of genre-jazz and pop, prog-rock and R&B — the album sustains a single emotional chord, reflective and bittersweet. It’s a splendid representation of Elling’s art at its leanest, its most expressively distilled. And it’s a distinctly mature statement, both for him and for Laurence Hobgood, his pianist and creative partner of more than 15 years. “What I think we captured with this record,” observes Was, “is that Laurence and Kurt have hit this plane where there’s no affectation; there’s no trying to be clever or cerebral. This is music that’s coming from the heart. It’s infused with the truth of the song as they see it. These guys are treading some very new ground in subtle ways.”


“What we’re trying to go for is an honest reflection of how I’m hearing stuff,” Elling says, as a bowl of garlicky escargot arrives at the table. “I think it’s a gentler record, and yet I hope it’s no less innovative, in its way. Because you don’t have to shoot off fireworks to prove that you’ve got technique, or history, or a vision, or any of those things. That’s all youthful stuff, and when you burn stuff away that you don’t need anymore, you can just sing. And you are a jazz singer, you just are, at a certain point.”

The issue of what makes a jazz singer has fascinated Elling for a while, and he takes this moment to riff on the subject, and on a recent column of mine in this magazine. (“What Is Jazz Singing, Anyway?,” from the December 2010 issue.) ”What is a jazz singer?” he responds, rhetorically. “I think it can be pretty well defined.” And what follows is a thumbnail definition, which he presents as thoughtfully, with as much of a sense of pace, as one of his onstage forays into spoken word. Transcribing it later, I can’t help but register the pauses between each phrase, which effectively turn the sentence into free verse:

A jazz singer is
somebody who devotes their life
an art form
that demands
a spirit — at least, a spirit — of improvisation
and risk taking

Then he resumes a conversational cadence, as if he’s just passed an “End Speed Zone” sign on the highway. “And for that to happen, one has to go deep into music,” he adds.

“So you’re an improviser. But if you’re a jazz improviser, you also study, in a very deep way, the history of great jazz artists. Firstly and primarily singers, but not exclusively. And you have an opinion about what made Betty Carter great. And you have an opinion about what made Joe Williams unique. And you have an opinion about Mel Torme one way or another. And you love it, and you spend time thinking about it.” Another pause, this one brief. “So you’ve got somebody who studies music itself. Somebody who studies jazz singers. Somebody who studies Wayne Shorter, and Herbie, and Bird. If you’re a jazz person, you love jazz.” Deep breath now. “Somebody who studies themselves. Because you can’t really be a vessel of deep meaning unless you’re asking to have deep meaning revealed to you. And to be an embodiment of something more than you.”


Elling has pursued that elevated calling from the beginning of his career, choosing to complement standard-songbook readings with extemporaneous digressions, vocalese excursions, philosophical musings and flashes of post-Beatnik poetics. His artistic brashness and roving intelligence set him apart from the jazz-vocal herd, landing him a contract with Blue Note Records in 1995, when he was all of 27 and known only to the Chicago scene. The precipitous effect on his profile was, as he puts it now, “intense.” He recalls seeing seven or eight critics in the house for his first New York engagement, at Birdland. “A couple of guys brought their early laptops,” he chuckled, “and they were looking up, and writing, and looking up, and writing.”

And not everyone was immediately a fan. (Nor is everyone a fan today.) Some critics, including a few of the more prominent in the game, seized on an impression of pretension in his performance style. Gary Giddins, who refrained from writing about Elling in the Village Voice, articulated the common complaint during an interview for the website Jerry Jazz Musician in 2004. “I can see that Kurt Elling is a talented guy who sings in pitch and has a commanding voice and different ideas,” he said, “but I can’t stomach that stuff. I don’t know if I can even explain why, which is why I never reviewed it. There is a self-conscious hipness about it that shuts me out, and that is my number one criterion — to have the performer bring me in to a place where I can empathize with him.”

Elling is patient with the criticism, or at least professes to be, citing the imperative of artistic growth. “I know that I made a bad impression on people because I was just trying really hard,” he says. “I wasn’t full of myself but I was full of” — he pauses, searching for the right phrase — “the zeal of the convert. At that time there were some singers out who were basically coloring in the lines.” Partly he saw his efforts as a corrective. “I was young when I got signed,” he says, “and inexperienced, and was trying to go for a thing that really, in many cases, my reach exceeded my grasp. I had a very self-protective demeanor, a self-protective sort of shell that I needed to overcome as a stage persona.”

His explanation recalls a pivotal refrain from one of the standards he recorded a decade ago, for the exquisite ballads album Flirting With Twilight: “Don’t blame it on my heart/Blame it on my youth.” Elling’s heart was in the right place. Later in the evening, over dinner at the sushi palace Japonais, he jumps up from his chair to demonstrate the reflexive posture of an immature jazz vocalist: shoulders slightly scrunched, right hand clutching an imaginary microphone, left hand literally shielding his heart. That defensive stance can come across as mannerism, I suggest. “It could be called mannered; it could be called just too much,” Elling replies. “Or, ‘Wow, that guy’s really irritating.’ Or, ‘I don’t know what it is about him, I just don’t believe him.’ Or, ‘Wow, what an asshole that guy comes off like.’ You know. I mean, fair enough. I can only hope that, in time, I grow into myself. Because that’s a genuine impediment. If it’s an impediment for a critic, it’s probably an impediment for X percentage of audience members. And if my goal is to be a transparent communicator, then I have to grow beyond whatever protective element I’m putting up.”

At a different point in our conversation, he once again invokes the notion of becoming a more complete person. “I tell my students now, it takes a long time to become yourself as a human being,” says Elling, who occasionally teaches privately. “Let alone as an artist. Let alone as a jazz artist. And to really have all the parts come together.” By way of further illustration, he paraphrases an idea of the German-born writer Hermann Hesse — the sort of literary-philosophical reference that stirs the admiration of his admirers and the disdain of his detractors.

“Every person’s life is a journey toward himself, the attempt at a journey, the intimation of a path. No person has ever completely been himself but each one strives to become so, some gropingly, others more lucidly, according to his abilities. “ — Hermann Hesse, Demian, 1919 (Stanley Appelbaum translation)

“And Hermann Hesse said it: ‘You’ll search for truth among the planets and never find a truer voice than that voice which is calling it out to you — calling you to at least become a human.” — Kurt Elling, “Tanya Jean,” The Messenger, 1997 (Dexter Gordon improvisation)


Raised in Rockford, Ill., outside Chicago, Elling was long ensconced in deep musical traditions that had nothing to do with jazz. He grew up “in orthodox Lutheran churchly surroundings,” as he once said, in an address delivered at the University of Missouri. “My own grandfather married into a family that raised up as many as six ministers a generation. He was himself ordained and rode horseback as a missionary to what was then the Canadian frontier. His son, my father, has been a church musician and choral conductor throughout his life. From my earliest memories, I retain a sense of the innate power of lyric and music to Iift the roof of a church and inspire ecstatic states.”

EIling’s father died last October. “He taught me incredibly important things about how music and the movement of the spirit are one thing,” Elling says. “And he taught me to sing.” Choral music was his foundation, and so the future jazz singer cut his teeth on Bach Motets, Handel’s Messiah and other staples of the classical vocal canon, developing an understanding of counterpoint and a terrific ear. After he graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College, in Saint Peter, Minn. — history major, religion minor — he entered Divinity School at the University of Chicago. Jazz was not part of the plan, but the more Elling dug into the scene, the more it began to seem like the true calling.

One of his haunts was the Green Mill, uptown, and specifically a Monday-night gig led by the veteran tenor saxophonist Ed Petersen. “He had an ear for what we were doing,” recalls Hobgood, the pianist in the band, of Elling, who was soon sitting in every week. There’s anecdotal evidence that some of Elling’s most celebrated traits as a jazz singer — his pinpoint intonation and unerring time, his strong but malleable sense of phrasing — were already more or less intact.

What was missing at the time, beyond maturity, was a full grasp of the tradition. “When we were first playing,” Hobgood recalls, “he hadn’t heard Wayne Shorter, and I played him the black V.S.O.P. recording. ‘Dolores Dream,’ on Close Your Eyes, comes from that. I don’t know many singers who you could play that album for and get that response. He’s had an extraordinary musical palette since I’ve known him.”

The older musicians heard it too. “Something about what I brought to the scene at that time, the cats just welcomed it,” Elling says, gratitude still evident in his voice. “They gave me my life. Von Freeman and Eddie Johnson and Ed Petersen and Willie Pickens. Eddie de Haas. George Hughes, who got to go out with Sarah Vaughan for a couple years. Except for Ed Petersen, they were all guys who had seen the heyday, had lived through it. And I was at a time in my life where to have some older guys kind of put their arm around you and say, ‘Hey man, you’re with us’ — well, that’s as heavy as it gets.”

It’s no accident that on his 1995 Blue Note debut, Close Your Eyes, Elling prominently featured both Petersen and Freeman, or that he cleared space on subsequent albums for Johnson, percussionist Kahil El’Zabar and even Jon Hendricks, the magisterial elder of vocalese. Some years ago Elling also spearheaded an all-star touring group called Four Brothers, featuring Hendricks and Mark Murphy — his other towering influence as a jazz vocalist — along with Kevin Mahogany, a peer. The social aspect of jazz practice is crucially important to him, which is one reason why Live in Chicago, recorded at the Green Mill in 1999, is a quintessential Kurt Elling document. (Note especially “The Rent Parry,” featuring Freeman, Petersen and Johnson, framed by one of Elling’s lyrical extemporizations.)

“The reason you do the music, and this is where the sincerity comes in, is because you’ve fallen in love with the music,” Elling says. “And you invest yourself in a tradition, and you invest yourself in playing a role in a family, in a certain kind of a way.” Relocating to New York, he says, has expanded the circle for him, even though he’s on the road about 200 nights out of the year. He’s been making it out to hear more singers. He does his best to keep up with the busy New York schedule of drummer Paul Motian. His daughter plays with Brad Mehldau’s younger daughter, who attends the same school.

After leaving Bar Citron but before landing at Japonais, we stop in at Jazz Standard for part of a set by Patricia Barber, another Chicago singer with a penchant for intellectual provocation. (In 2009 she released her own Live-at-the-Green-Mill album, Monday Night. She still holds court there weekly.) Sipping a Scotch, Elling listens intensely, leaning forward in his chair and whispering the occasional spot-on observation. Then it’s off to dinner, and then a parting of ways. A week later he leaves a courtesy voicemail. “By the way, I did turn the cab instead of going home, and I made it over to Roy Haynes at Dizzy’s Club,” he says. “And man, I’m telling you: incredible. I bow to him and his incredible energy. He propelled the band all night long.”


Of course Elling, more than many jazz singers, knows about bands. In a sense, “Kurt Elling” is the name of a band that includes Elling and Hobgood and a rhythm section. (At the moment it’s Harish Raghavan on bass and Ulysses Owens on drums. John McLean often joins on guitar.) “For the first few years, Kurt and I were going out just the two of us, picking up bassists and drummers, because there wasn’t enough money to bring our own band,” Hobgood says. “In New York that was a delight. In some other areas of the country it was really, really rough.”

In terms of longevity and creative exchange, the Elling-Hobgood pairing really has no precise precedent in jazz. Don Was, who has also produced the Rolling Stones, compares it to the relationship between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, which seems extravagant but apt. (When I ask Elling for Hobgood’s phone number, he rattles one off and then corrects himself. “No, wait,” he says. “That’s my phone number.”) “Amazing mental chemistry” is how Hobgood characterizes the working process between them. “It’s always been very easy and efficient for Kurt and I to co-evolve something, because we got comfortable with a common language early on. And at the same time that it was establishing itself, we were getting used to each other’s way of thinking.”

Elling puts it a slightly different way, with an emphasis on symbiosis. “Laurence has a compositional sense on an orchestral level that is essential to the success of what I’ve been able to do so far,” he says. “On a given gig, if in the middle of a tune I think of something. lightbulb-styIe, that we’re going to do next, he’s playing and I’ll say, ‘Hey man, let’s go into this, and while we do it I’m going to read this thing you’ve never heard, but it’s going to be about these emotions, this situation. Give me spring leaves budding, and then a joke at the end.’ He’ll be comping or something, and he’ll put it into the matrix, big brain-style, and we’re off. So what I bring to the table is, I bring a strong idea that’s focused pretty directly. I bring a kind of poetic sensibility that gives him a well-defined palette. And then after that, we refine each other’s ideas.”

There’s endless evidence of their synergy all over Elling’s discography. “Nature Boy,” from The Messenger. “Freddie’s Yen for Jen,” from This Time It’s Love. “Minuano,” from Man in the Air. Most of the sensitive horn arrangements on Flirting With Twilight. And the glorious entirety of Dedicated to You, which was recorded live at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall, featuring Hobgood’s writing for the Ethel string quartet. And yes, much of The Gate, which all parties involved describe as an organic sort of album; so organic, in fact, that it turned out quite different than its initial spark seemed to suggest it would. “When we were planning it,” Elling says of the album, “what I was trying to hear was stuff that John Scofield would do. Or, like, Charlie Hunter. I thought this was going to be a lot more like a boogaIoo record. More of a joyful, dance-around-the-room kind of a thing.” There had been plans to record a vocaIese take on a Jan Garbarek solo from “Late Night Willie,” a track on the 1974 Keith Jarrett album Personal Mountains. (Permission proved elusive.) And there was a version of Scofield’s tune “Jeep on 35,” with lyrics by a British singer named Nina Clark. (That one just didn’t click somehow.)

What made the cut was a vocal appropriation of “Samurai Hee Haw,” from the 1985 Marc Johnson album Bass Desires; here it becomes “Samurai Cowboy,” rooted in a hum of vocal overdubs and handclap percussion. There’s a Stevie Wonder classic, “Golden Lady,” its verses set in a silvery 7/8 meter. There’s a straight cover of “Come Running to Me” from the 1977 Herbie Hancock album Sunlight, with EIling’s soothing baritone replacing the original’s vocoder rasp. There’s the Earth, Wind & Fire staple “After the Love Has Gone,” slowed to a desolate crawl. “Norwegian Wood,” by the Beatles, becomes a study in accretion, building and cresting as it goes. “We put a lot of time into choosing songs,” says Was. “A year. Maybe more. It really had to do with finding things that Kurt could put himself into, that he could relate to. He’s taking a Stanislavsky approach to these songs. He’s finding the inner motivation, and every note is ringing true.”

And yet the songs were at least partly shaped by the interactions of the musicians, including Hobgood, McLean and bassist John Patitucci. Among the album’s transcendent moments is the floating opening track, a King Crimson tune called “Matte Kudasai,” which essentially coalesced in the studio. The most swinging track, by a generous margin, is Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out,” which has been Elling’s live opener for a while. As for the most magically evocative, it might well be a tie between two ballads: Miles Davis’ “Blue in Green,” with lyrics by Al Jarreau, sung in a whispery bur penetrating falsetto; and “Nighttown, Lady Bright,” a Don Grolnick tune with new original lyrics, which concludes with a reading of an evocative passage from Duke Ellington’s autobiography. Among the words uttered in that reading are these: “Night Life seems to have been born with all of its people in it, the people who had never been babies, but were born grown, completely independent.”

Hearing it now brings me back to Elling’s thoughts on becoming fully human. And it recalls another part of our conversation, about an artist’s urge toward self-assessment. “You can never tell where you really are in the soup until you’re X years old,” he says. “And then you can really see the shape of your life. If you’re fortunate you can hold that in your hands a little bit before you pass on. So I don’t know if I have enough perspective, though I’m further along than I was 17 years ago.”

There’s a knowing chuckle before his next line. “I’m just trying to do my thing.”