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Meet Kurt Elling

Craig Jolley BY

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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 it—the mayor and all the grown-ups.

Divinity studies

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.

Inspirational musicians

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.

Sondheim concert

[At this point Jackie Cain and Roy Kral stop to chat on their way out of the restaurant. They're on the bill with Kurt for a concert of Sondheim's music. Roy mentions he and Jackie have to get to rehearsal early because they're doing the finale first. Kurt says he has to get there early because they're making him stand on his head for most of the show, and they have to make sure the platform is right. Roy apologizes for appearing in evening attire so early in the day, but he doesn't want to have to change clothes twice. He says he'll just sweat it out and end up looking like an accordion.] The Sondheim concert is a one-shot deal. I'm happy to be out here [Los Angeles]. Sondheim is a cool writer and everything, but I don't really do his tunes in my shows because they sort of belong in their own category. It's pretty tough to make a jazz thing out of most of his stuff. It's "jazzish," but it's not really what I do best.

Upcoming concerts

I have a web site so you can check all my dates there. I mean Canada, we're going back to Australia, we're going to Europe this summer. It's nice when people write in to my web site. I try to keep up, but I don't check it every day. When somebody writes a question that's real I try to get back to them. It's a nice forum.

Electronic instruments

We use them every once in a while. They're a tool, but they're not the end. There's so much resonance in the acoustic world that hasn't been completely tapped out. Acoustic sounds are really where it's at for me. I mean I'm a singer. What am I going to do, digitize my voice? If I'm going to be analog everyone else is going to be analog.


Ranting is my version of going off on something. Mark [Murphy] does little bits of it now and then. Sassy [Sarah Vaughan] certainly could do whatever she felt like doing with an improvised lyric and a melody at the same time. But I try to make it an event. It's my solo space. The band is playing changes, or we're playing free or what have you, and I'm creating a melody line and a lyric line at the same time. Sometimes I've got something that's got me fired up I know I'm going to do. Other times it just sort of jumps out. The drummer plays something—I hear it, and, "Oh yeah, that's where I'm going!" It sounds more complicated than it is.

Free music

I like challenging stuff. You know the AACM is based in Chicago. Since there's nobody looking over your shoulder you might get a record deal from things are looser in Chicago, and musicians are able to develop the way they want to. Stuff is real burly. The city feels that way, and it sounds that way. I feel it's more a function of location than anything else. It's the kind of thing that happened in Ed Peterson's band all the time. He'd say, "Yeah, man—let's just play free, and Kurt, you just go off on something, and we'll follow you." And these are cats that can really do it. It's not like anybody can just play free and have it sound right. It has its own logistical elements and parameters. It isn't just, play anything any time. It's musical interaction in a different way. I guess I'm spoiled because so many of the cats I know can do it really well.

Laurence Hobgood

My musical relationship with Laurence is a real gift to me, and I hope it is to him as well. We pick up where the other one leaves off. It's sort of a terrible twosome. He has an incredible, remarkable, significant, unbelievable grasp of the theoretical area of music, and I do whatever it is I do.

Upcoming project

We're going to do a show that is through composed [non-repeating music] with a plot. Laurence and I will split the music writing. I'll write the plot and whatever it is that happens and direct it and the whole thing. I don't know what it is yet, but I'm working on it. That's the thing I hope the next record is drawn from. Something we could take to the Joseph Papp Theatre, something like that, and have a little run. It might be a monologue thing that becomes interactive when the music hits. I always want the music to be the real thing. It's not going to be like a staged Broadway thing as much as it's going to be a jazz show with a story line and lighting. You know, hip lighting.

Jazz education

It's hard enough to be a player. I don't have regular students, but I do my classes and such every once in a while. That's a whole other vocation. It takes a lot of energy, man, that I don't have that much of. I like to work with people, but it's exhausting. Music is feeding. You're out there, and you can pass the ball around. What I'm doing with master classes is trying to pull shit out of people—just trying to get them to come along. Much more difficult task!

Wrap up

I'm grateful for your interest in what I do. I hope people like the record, and that I continue to have the opportunity to play for more people and grow as a musician and have different, cool opportunities to travel around. It's a good life.

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