This interview was originally published in February 2000.
Chicago music scene
On my new recording [Kurt Elling Live in Chicago, Blue Note] I'm really proud to feature a lot of the musicians who have treated me well and who have taught me and who have been on the team with me from the get-go. Not only because of the debt of gratitude that I owe them, but also just because they're really beautiful musicians and deserve to be heard, and I'm fortunate enough to have a slightly more visible platform than other cats. It's a point of pride for me to try to come across for people who have already done so for me. I really believe in the Chicago scene, and I believe in the players who live there. I think it's diverse, hard hitting, affordable, thrilling, accessible, and everything you could want from a lively jazz scene.
Year 2000 celebration
I was the writer and director of the millennium show for the city of Chicago. It was like a very expanded version of my band with strings and a horn section. We had Von Freeman on with us and Orbert Davis. Buddy Guy played solo acoustic guitar. We had a blues band and an 85-voice gospel choir. People like Studs Terkel and Gwendolyn Brooks, the pillars of the cultural community there. I was very glad to get that gig and was very pleased to write the show. It seems like the city was pretty happy about itthe mayor and all the grown-ups.
It was an academic study: I didn't really consider a career in the ministry. I was reading the philosophy of religion: Schopenhauer, Hegel, and all them cats. Anything that affects you very deeply you're going to bring into what you compose and present to people in a jazz setting. And jazz is sort of the ultimate welcoming art form in terms of pulling other elements into it and allowing other elements to inform. Look at Duke Ellington: he goes abroad and writes the Far East Suite. I spent time in divinity school, and I'm throwing out references to St. John of the Cross. I'm not comparing myself with Duke, but it's all part of the same system.
I listened to singers to begin with. These days I don't really listen to that much singing, and it's probably to my detriment in a way because I know there are great singers out there. But I feel like the instrumentalists have the information. Singers have so far to go. Bobby McFerrin is about the only cat these days who's keeping up. That's sort of a shame because it's the jazz singer's job to be on top of it, to be a musician like everybody else. It's hard work, but that's the job. Plus I really fell in love with what Herbie [Hancock], Wayne Shorter, and Freddie Hubbard play. I mean Liebs [Dave Liebman]... the real cats. Listening to them is the first task. I like to work with different people. I'd like to work with Bobby McFerrin. He'd run circles around me, but I'd do it.
Singing an entire concert a cappella
It doesn't really interest me much. I rely too much on what other players bring to what I'm trying to do. It's an interactive sport for me. And I think people would get pretty bored if it was just me.