In the words of the legendary clarinetist/bandleader/composer Artie Shaw, “Kurt Elling is arguably the most interesting and innovative jazz singer to come along in years. He puts his personal imprint on each song. That’s what it takes to be a jazz star.” Indeed, with four acclaimed albums out on Blue Note Records, as well as three Grammy Award nominations to his credit, Elling seems in position to become one of the most talked about artists of the twenty-first century. While most of his peers prefer to stay within the confines of traditional jazz, Elling likes to take risks, creating a wild, innovative prose, self-described as “rants” or “poetry on the fly.” Although he prides himself on his ability to write and sing vocalese—words and phrases for existing jazz pieces and improvisations— and has won over critics consistently since his 1995 debut Close Your Eyes, Elling says that the respect earned from his fellow musicians has brought him the greatest satisfaction. “The thing that’s made me proudest,” Elling told Larry Blumenfeld in Down Beat, “is the reaction I get from other musicians when I depart from tradition. ‘You’re blowing, swinging, ‘ they say, ‘Just like us.’”
Born on November 2, 1967, in Chicago, Illinois, Elling, the son of a church musician, enjoyed a childhood filled with music. From a young age, Elling sang regularly at church and studied both the violin and French horn. Mostly influenced by classical as well as pop music throughout his formative years, Elling later discovered jazz while studying history and religion at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. It was as a student that he finally began to listen to music actively rather than passively. “A friend of mine down the hall was a big jazz fan, and he started hipping me to Dexter Gordon, Dave Brubeck and Herbie Hancock,” Elling recalled in an interview with Craig Jolley of All About Jazz online. “It seemed like a natural thing to start singing that music. I turned to Ella [Fitzgerald] right away because with her scat-singing, she went beyond the usual boring pattern of singer-horn solo-singer.” Taken with his new discovery, Elling proceeded to join student combos, as well as the college’s jazz orchestra.
However, Elling at that time viewed jazz as more of a joyful hobby than a prospective career. Therefore, upon completing his undergraduate studies in 1989, he returned to Illinois to begin graduate work at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School where his love for the jazz idiom further blossomed. Here he studied philosophy and ethics, intending to one day become a professor of religion, but ended up spending more time sitting in jazz clubs and reading poetry than concentrating on academics. This lack of interest in his schoolwork led to three years of trying to complete a one-year master’s program. He is still just one credit short of earning his degree. “I realized that my fun and the joy of my life was happening a lot more in clubs with jazz musicians than it was in the classroom with
Born on November 2, 1967, in Chicago, IL; married dancer Jennifer Carney, 1996. Education: Graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, 1989; attended the University of Chicago’s Divinity School.
Discovered jazz as a college student; played gigs around Chicago, early 1990s; became a regular at the Green Mill club’s Monday night jazz sessions; signed with Blue Note Records, released debut album Close Your Eyes, 1995; released The Messenger, 1997; released This Time It’s Love, 1998.
Awards: Down Beat Critics Poll Award, Male Vocalist of the Year, 2000.
Addresses: Record company —Blue Note Records, 304 Park Ave S, 3rd Floor, New York City, NY 10010, phone: (212) 253-3000, fax: (212) 253-3099, website: http://www.bluenote.com. Management —Open Door Management, 865 Via de la Paz, Ste. 365, Pacific Palisades, CA 90272, phone: (310) 459-2559, fax: (310) 454-7803, website: http://www.opendoormanagement.com. Website —Kurt Elling: http://www.kurtelling.com.
academic people,” the singer told Fred Jung of Jazz Weekly online. “I sort of figured out that I had a chance of doing this kind of thing and decided to take my shot at it and started to work in earnest toward becoming a jazz musician.”
Devoting himself entirely to music, Elling set about establishing himself as a jazz musician. In the early 1990s, he paid his dues playing gigs around Chicago, including performing at weddings to supplement his income from the clubs, making his own press kits, and hustling up work himself. Soon, Elling, falling under the spell of artists like veteran singer Mark Murphy and singer/trumpeter Chet Baker, arrived at a unique approach in an area of jazz where singing standards and songbooks remains the norm. And although many frowned upon his lyrical improvisations and reworkings of standard songs, the singer stuck by what felt natural to him as a performer. “Well, in jazz, the way it exists is for every performer to find his own voice and to speak what he really thinks and play the notes that he feels sounds good, and so it would be apathetical of the music for me to do anything other than what I really hear,” he explained to Jung. “I could probably make a lot more money playing what other people have already played and they’ve already done the work to make that popular, Frank Sinatra or Harry Connick or something like that. I think the truest respect that you can pay to the music of somebody who is a great artist like Frank Sinatra, or Betty Carter, or Jon Hendricks, is to try to figure out your own thing and to build on what they’ve done and to learn from them, but more importantly, to become yourself and to have your own thing to say and to be an artist in your own right.”
Eventually, Elling became a regular at the Green Mill club’s Monday night jazz sessions led by saxophonist Ed Peterson, who encouraged Elling to emphasize his lyric abilities. Taking this bit of advice to heart, the singer gravitated toward the pianist in Peterson’s band, Laurence Hobgood. His musical expertise, combined with a willingness to share his knowledge, proved a complement to Elling’s raw style. Hobgood then proceeded to introduce Elling to his partners in Trio New—bassist Eric Hochber and drummer Paul Wertico, also a member of Pat Metheny’s group—who agreed to accompany the singer on a regular basis. And when Elling felt ready to record a demo tape, Hobgood, acting as co-producer, helped considerably in shaping the project. “We started to work on some ideas that developed as we performed together,” Elling recalled, as quoted by Jolley.
With the help of friends and fellow musicians, Elling raised enough money to book studio time and record his first album. Afterward, he sent the tape to a friend’s manager just to get some feedback, but the manager failed to give him any input. Rather, he offered to represent Elling on the spot, and sent the singer’s album to several labels. Soon thereafter, Elling picked up the phone one day to find Blue Note president Bruce Lundvall on the other end raving about what he had heard. “He had just read an article about me in the Chicago Tribune a few days earlier,” said Elling. “So now he gets this tape, and the name is fresh in his mind. He pops it in on the way to the dentist, and three days later calls me from his car phone and says he wants to sign me.”
Several months after reaching an agreement with Elling, Blue Note released the singer’s debut, Close Your Eyes, in the spring of 1995. “We did everything here in Chicago,” Elling said. “Blue Note bought the album we made here: they changed nothing, not the concept, not the players.” Recorded with Hobgood, Hochber, and Wertico, along with acoustic bassist Rob Amster, saxophonists Von Freeman and Edward Peterson, and guitarist Dave Onderdonk, the album proved a fruitful endeavor for Blue Note. Elling won critical accolades for his daring, adventurous style, invitations to perform at Carnegie Hall and numerous jazz festivals, and, in 1996, a Grammy Award nomination for Best Jazz Vocal. That same year, he married dancer Jennifer Carney, held concerts in cities around the world—from New York City to Tel Aviv—and recorded his sophomore effort, The Messenger.
Released in 1997, The Messenger brought Elling a second Grammy nomination. In the spring of that year, he embarked upon a month-long club tour in New York, then entered the studio to record a third album. This time, he was joined by Hobgood, Amster, and drummer Michael Raymond, as well as guest drummer and associate producer Wertico, Onderdonk, saxophonists Brad Wheeler and Eddie Johnson, and fiddler Johnny Frigo. The result was This Time It’s Love in 1998, another Grammy-nominated performance. “Again,” wrote Zan Stewart of Down Beat, “the singer reveals his grand gift for vocalese lyrics, and he sings those words to recorded solos with fervor.”
A superb performer, Elling revealed his live energy on record with Live In Chicago, released in 2000. In August of that same year, Down Beat magazine, for its 48 Annual Critics Poll, named the 32-year-old singer Male Vocalist of the Year. His albums, stated Howard Reich, “have been vital to the evolving art of male jazz singing. The strange and sometimes hilarious sound effects, audaciously fast scat work and consistently ingenious vocalese passages that are Elling’s stock and trade have done more than announce the arrival of a major jazz singer.”
Close Your Eyes, Blue Note, 1995.
The Messenger, Blue Note, 1997.
This Time It’s Love, Blue Note, 1998.
Live In Chicago, Blue Note, 2000.
Billboard, November 15, 1997.
Boston Globe, May 2, 1997; March 31, 2000.
Down Beat, July 1995; September 1995; July 1997; May 1999; March 2000; April 2000; August 2000.
Los Angeles Times, February 15, 1996; May 27, 1997; August 22, 1997; August 15, 1999; April 8, 2000; August 13, 2000.
Village Voice, June 3, 1997.
Washington Post, November 13, 1998; March 17, 2000; March 23, 2000.
All About Jazz, http://www.allaboutjazz.com (December 13, 2000).
Blue Note Records, http://www.bluenote.com (December 13, 2000).
Jazz Weekly, http://www.jazzweekly.com (December 13, 2000).
“Kurt Elling,” http://www.kurtelling.com (December 13, 2000).
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