59: Kurt Elling, singer
Kurt Elling has been one of the most influential, respected and popular jazz singers on the scene for 2 decades. As the New York Times puts it, “Elling is the standout male vocalist of our time.” The Washington Post agrees: “Since the mid-1990s, no singer in jazz has been as daring, dynamic or interesting as Kurt Elling. With his soaring vocal flights, his edgy lyrics and sense of being on a musical mission, he has come to embody the creative spirit in jazz.”
Nonetheless, underneath all the praise, Kurt is still keenly aware of, as he puts it, “the work I haven’t done yet.”
He’s a Midwestern boy at heart. Kurt grew up outside of Chicago in a very religious household where music and religion were both extremely present and often went hand in hand. While in graduate school at the University of Chicago Divinity School, he began sitting in at local clubs around Chicago, and eventually he committed himself to the music. Early on, his ability to connect high concept with a down-home approach made Kurt stand out.
I remember going to see Kurt with his band shortly after he broke onto the scene in the mid 90s. The music was modern, but also totally connected to a tradition of jazz singing that clearly included Jon Hendricks and Mark Murphy. In our conversation, Kurt talks about his personal relationship with both Hendricks and Murphy, how they encouraged him and what he learned from them (both musically and personally).
Kurt is an entertainer, a showman, and a bandleader. But he’s also a writer, and he brings a literary approach to lyric writing. He has an awareness of the history of the music he sings and of the ideas he sings about. On stage he walks a fine line between a high concept and a down home feeling.
As a fellow Midwesterner, I was always proud to know that he emerged out of the Chicago scene. As a fellow Midwestern transplant to New York, I was always curious how he found the transition to be and why he made it.
We met up recently backstage at Birdland in New York, a club he’s played regularly ever since he first came onto the national scene 20 years ago.
Here he also talks openly and candidly about his process, what motivates him, what Chicago offered him and why he left.
This is really a beautiful conversation and I’m so pleased to share it with you here.
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