Kurt Elling: Don't Measure the Limbs
"That's a very intense musical environment and very, very rewarding if you're there with other gifted people. That really served to feed the blooming of my love for music and that communication throughout my growing up. It really taught me how to sing in a lot of ways, and trained my voice to do what was called for. Now the difference is I'm the composer, in the moment, in collaboration with these other musicians on stage. In a way, you need to be just as self-effacing, because everything that you do, you want it to be in the service of the communication of the music."
Elling got into jazz more when he went to college in Minnesota and heard stuff other students were listening to, like Dexter Gordon and Herbie Hancock. He later attended the University of Chicago for Divinity School.
"When I was in college, (jazz) really started to call to me. I started to sit in right away. Over time, I was completely drawn in. I went to graduate school for the philosophy of religion by day, and was sitting in, in clubs at night. Ultimately, the balances just balanced themselves in the direction of the music. I haven't really left the philosophical subject matter behind, as such. But I'm definitely using different tools to explore those themes and those ideas. It's infinitely more suitable, for me, than being an academic."
As he continued to listen, singer Mark Murphy became a big influence.
"Through Mark, I learned about Jon Hendricks and the whole Lambert, Hendricks & Ross thing. Through him I learned about Jack Kerouac. Through him I learned what it means to have digested the wealth of jazz singing information which has preceded one and distill that information into something that is so personal and individual a statement that it truly belongs to you and is an instantly recognizable sound, such as Mark has. That's the greatest gift he's shown me, that it is a viable option to be yourself as an artist and to have done all the homework it takes to have digested this wealth of information which has preceded you. That's what I continue to try to do."
Betty Carter, Joe Williams, Chet Baker, Sheila Jordan, Frank Sinatra, Al Jarreau, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett and Eddie Jefferson have all influenced Elling as he developed. So did musicians like Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter, but his hard-core influences came from Chicago. "I would say that among instrumentalists the people that have shown me how to be a jazz musician have been people I've been able to spend time with in Chicago. Von Freeman. Eddie Johnson. Ed Peterson. Cats who I've praised in my work. So many cats here on the scene."
"I've been very richly blessed to be able to meet and get into correspondence with some of the cats in New York and some of the original links in the chain. Benny Golson and I exchange notes every once in a while and I love that. Marian McPartland has been very generous with me. A lot of the cats who are on the scene now as working players, Essiet Essiet and Jeff Watts and Bob Mintzer and all the Yellowjackets cats. Charlie Haden. You get to meet people and have a positive interaction with people who are so gifted and have done the homework and who listen to you and say, 'All right, I'll give this kid a shot.' And they check it out and there's a certain amount of mutual respect. That's what you want. You want to be one of the cats and you want to pull it together in such a way that what you're playing is something that is good, solid, respectable work."
Life has been your art. You have set yourself to music. Your days are your sonnets.
Fast rise or not, it took a lot of hard work for Elling to get the wheels in motion. He stayed focused and wasn't afraid to roll up his sleeves and apply some elbow grease.
"It started when I came back to Chicago, to grad school. And then I really started to hit. You take every gig that you can take. You pound the pavement. You take your tape around. You watch people throw it away. You come back the next week and bother them again. There's a lot of battering-ram energy that you have to have, to just believe it so much that you brook no opposition. We did a similar thing in New York and in Los Angeles. We had it set up so we played 25 clubs in 30 days with 20 different rhythm sections. Just bombarded everyone we could bombard with the sound that we could make in order to get the process started. That was after we were signed, so we had the support of Blue Note on that.
"When you're starting out you don't have any choice. Nobody's heard of you. So you need to be heard. That means you need to invest some money and invest the focus and the energy capital in order to get something started. Inertia is really strong, man. As Gwendolyn Brooks said, 'It's much easier to stay at home, the nice beer ready.'"