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Kurt Elling: Don't Measure the Limbs

By Published: October 8, 2003

Life has been your art. You have set yourself to music. Your days are your sonnets.
—Oscar Wilde

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.'"

The fact that singers are currently in vogue and have a potentially bigger commercial market value—for example, John Pizzarelli sells more albums because he croons in addition to playing guitar—is not lost on Elling, but there are a lot of singers out there that haven't made it. There are many regional talents with good chops and style, but breaking into the national scene is a difficult venture, to say the least.

"I play the right instrument. Chicago is an affordable city with a strong scene. I hope to say that I'm over the initial hump of creating a viable touring circuit for myself. The Blue Note albums continue to help and, frankly, I work my ass off not only as an artist, but as a businessman. And you have to be extremely cagey about this stuff. I play the right instrument. I can't underestimate the importance of the fact that I'm a singer. Because that does translate in a way that a saxophone doesn't or a piano doesn't. It's a shame and it's sad, but it is a reality. I wish that the culture would allow itself to be enriched, but there are a host of issues that need to be addressed."

One way Elling hopes to get them addressed is through the Recording Academy, to which he was recently elected vice chairman. It is not a title he plans to put on his resume to collect dust. He plans to get active and promote jazz and other music that doesn't get the proper attention.

"I know that I'm going to learn a lot of things and be challenged in a lot of ways and meet a lot of people and have a lot of conversations. You've got to take that risk. You've got to say, 'Let's see what I can bring to this and what I can take away from this.' And have the thing that I've given be more than what I've taken away.

"The Recording Academy is going to begin to pay more attention to currently non-televised genres and under-served genres, if only because now I'm the vice chair and I'm going to make sure. That was part of my platform, to actually support American music in a visible, positive and truly constructive way. And there's dedication in the academy now for that to happen. We have a new president and we have a new chair and these are people with much more open minds. It's a very hopeful time, from that aspect. I can't promise you the moon, but I can promise that the ship will be turned with as much expediency as a ship of that size can be turned."

This movement is needed more today than ever, perhaps, given the world climate. Elling is not afraid to try and make a difference and help give people more musical choice. For example, he dreads things like the FCC's effort to allow more US media outlets to be controlled by fewer people, which many see as a threat to diversity of opinion at best; at worst, putting control of the dissemination of information into the hands of a tiny, and elite, group.

"The culture is filled with lies at this point. The political culture is just one lie after another. People get inured to that and they stop recognizing lies. And once they start doing it in one area, it's that much easier to jive them in another area; to say, 'this is valuable,' when in fact, it's a pile of crap. That's something that we have to be on the watch for and it's something where jazz musicians have always been on the right side of the fight. We're always about the truest statement that the artist can make, regardless of the outcome. It's a matter of human survival," he states.

Elling is not about forgetting the past, and not about ignoring the basics of music and what made it popular. He just feels that he needs to continue developing. His personal statement—and jazz is nothing if not a personal expression art form—does not lie in one bag.

"I think it's good Dianna Krall is out there hitting. I think it's good there are people who are going to play it straight and play it really well and just keep swinging happening in the public eye. Otherwise there wouldn't be a dialogue. I would only be having a dialogue with dead people. The audience needs to be able to see the great spectrum. There have always been people who have played it straighter. That's part of the jazz scene and it's valuable. It's important that it continue to be there and it doesn't surprise me that, that stuff is more popular than the stuff I do. It's always going to be the case."

So the ever-active Elling pushes on. And with several irons in the fire. He's written shows and has been working on things like a musical play and a movie screenplay. "The ideas are there. You see a door, you walk through it. You take the challenges that are presented right now. When you find the time, you'll get to the other challenges. You'll have that much more to say when you get to them."

"I got a big year. The record comes out July 22. I've got at least one year as vice chair of the Recording Academy right now and that means visiting all 12 chapters at least once this year and volunteering my service to them and supporting the chair. I've got this Four Brothers show coming up [with Mark Murphy, Kevin Mahogany, Elling and Jon Hendricks] that needs to be revised. We're going to have the cats come here to town and have some nice dinners and some good rehearsals. I look forward to that. It's not going to be as extensive as we thought because of the drop in tourism due to the 'war.' Tourism has really dropped off in Europe this summer. We had almost a full month of dates going and we're lucky to have salvaged the seven or eight that we've got.

"I'll be staying over there with my own band in between and after the Four Brothers thing is done. But we get to play Monterey (jazz festival) with Four Brothers and that'll be cool. I haven't played Monterey before and I'm jazzed about that. It's a busy year.'

Thankfully, this thoughtful and thought-provoking artist is allowed to have a busy year. Let fate give him many more.

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