Without Jazz, I’d Be Dead

Sometimes it’s hard to know what to say to someone who helped you survive a serious illness. Especially if that person is a well-known stranger.
In 2008, I was diagnosed with lymphoma. At the time I was immersed in Nightmoves, a brilliant 2007 record by the Grammy-winning jazz singer Kurt Elling. Nightmoves is a record that gains depth the older it gets and the more you listen to it.

The music of Elling, a 44-year-old poet and former divinity student from Chicago, is equal parts swing, poetry, gospel, ballads, pop, and bebop, yet Nightmoves is not a farrago of styles. It is a coherent mystical journey through love and the night, a suite of songs that one enters like a warm tub on a cold winter night.

It tells a story. It will still be listened to long after we’re all gone.

Recently I got a chance to meet Elling in person. I wanted to tell him about how his music had helped me deal with my cancer diagnosis, how it had both given me peace in case things went badly and I had to prepare for death and also filled me with joy about life.

One moment I will never forget: I was home walking for the doctor to call with the results of the tests they had given me to determine if it was cancer or not. The call came, and I got the news: it was indeed what I feared. I hung up the phone and shut myself in my room to let out a good cry.

I wasn’t devastated or hysterical; in fact I had been feeling lousy for so long that I was relieved that they had figured out what was wrong. But sometimes, even just as a biological imperative, you have to uncork your emotions. I turned on the stereo and turned up the song that was in the player — “Minuano,” a song Pat Metheny wrote and that Elling covered and added lyrics to:

Day comes slowly – absorbing the darknesses softly.
Night leaves gently – her beauty is spent, and she rises.
I step into the lightness – I hear you.
You’re calling me out of my sadness.
Your flowering wonders are calling me home.
Darkness lingers – but always surrenders to loving.
Darkest midnight – is swallowed in oceans of laughter.
I follow into lightness – I hear you.
You’re calling me out of my sadness.
Your flowering wonders are calling me home.

I wept that day not only out of sorrow, but also joy. Because I had come to the realization, even before I was diagnosed, that love is indeed stronger than death.

This wasn’t the kind of thank-you-Jesus tap dance done by the fundamentalists preachers, but a calm Catholic acceptance of what I had and have come to believe is the luminous reality of the Christian claim.

The universe is designed so that we will come into existence and then go out. In order to understand and experience love, to be what George Weigel calls “an icon of the interior life of God,” we must transform ourselves through kenosis, the emptying of the self in love for someone else.

We must experience sorrow. And our souls were created for eternal life.

I met Elling at 4:30 in the afternoon at Blue Alley, a venerable little jazz club in Georgetown. He looked like he had just woken up, which is normal at that time of day for a jazz musician. Elling was busy arranging the small stage to accommodate the Klüvers big band, a 17-piece unit from Denmark that he is touring with. Elling is a deeply intelligent and articulate man, yet wholly unpretentious.

“How ya doin’ man?” he says, offering a handshake.

I didn’t want to take too much of Elling’s time, and tried to zero in on my major obsessions in a short amount of time.

The first is that jazz needs to more fully embrace pop music.

In the golden era of jazz, musicians and singers would routinely embrace the top 40 and make the songs their own. Coleman Hawkins turned “Body and Soul” into a masterpiece, as John Coltrane did years later with “My Favorite Things.”

Elling has been fearless in taking on popular music, and he’s the only jazz musician I know of who manages to do it not as an ill-fitting cover — Paul Anka doing Nirvana slathered in big band cheese — but as a genuinely new and daring interpretation.

When Elling played “Norwegian Wood” at the Kennedy Center last year it got a lukewarm reception from the jazzheads in the audience, but more of them need to get used to engaging with the revolution that came with the Beatles. Otherwise we’re going to be stuck with Tony Bennett the rest of our lives.

On Elling’s most recent album, the wonderful The Gate, he does an ace version of Stevie Wonder’s “Golden Lady.” The standards will always be there, and Elling does them brilliantly (as he proves on the Grammy-winning album Dedicated to You), but we are more than a decade in to the 21st century.

It’s time for the Today show to give Tony Bennett a rest and have Elling on (note: Elling does not endorse this view of Tony Bennett; it is wholly and solely my own).

When asked about this, Elling answered diplomatically, saying that there was great music being made in all kinds of places. He reminded me that jazz greats Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock were still writing songs.

I realized that I was asking the wrong guy this question. More than any other modern jazz musician Elling has incorporated modern songs into the canon, and doing it brilliantly. It isn’t him who needs convincing.

I then asked about Elling’s beliefs. His father was a Lutheran minister and musician — is Elling still a Christian? No. But the answer he gave was erudite and intelligent — you could hear the divinity student.

Elling said, quoting Rilke, that he preferred to “live the questions” rather than adhere to any dogmatism, although he has great respect for “the Ecclesia.”

I was going to note the Chestertonian paradox of dogmatism, especially the dogmatism of Catholic Christianity, allowing us far more freedom and open questions than post-modernism’s amorphous openness (which is a form of constriction), but decided not to. I had just met the guy and didn’t want to turn it into a Witherspoon symposium.

I then told Elling about a spiritual experience I had at one of his shows. He was doing a version of the classic “My Foolish Heart,” but mixed the tradition lyrics with passages from St. John of the Cross. It was a transporting performance, a meditation on the dark night of the soul and the theology of the body, and I was almost lifted out of my seat.

Did Elling ever have transcendent moments on stage?

Yes, he replied — every moment.

He explained his belief that we are already “living in the eternal” — that things that we are doing here in this life are a part of the timeless. “What we have here in this moment is really already eternal,” he says. “Whether we experience it or not is a matter of our own spirit self-discipline, our self-awareness, our outlook on life. But if the eternal is truly eternal then it is already happening…I kind of take for granted that I am having a transcendent experience on stage every time.”

We talk for a few more minutes, but I don’t want to overstay. It was coming up on soundcheck time and Elling has to start corralling the other band members. I left for dinner before that night’s show — which was brilliant by the way — and leaving the club I realized I had forgotten to thank him for helping me live through cancer. But then I was glad I had forgotten.

Who wants to dwell on that if we’re already living in the eternal?

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Mark Judge also wrote The Gospel of Kurt Elling for Christianity Today in 2006.