Divine Direction

By Andrew Gilhooley / 411

Kurt Elling, Thursday’s guest at Monterey Live in downtown Monterey, is something of an anomaly among his peers.  Where most thirty-something year-old musicians on the world touring circuit seem to play in rock bands, Elling has forged his career in the world of jazz, earning global acclaim as well as countless awards including six Grammy nominations. 

Chicago native Elling claims to be unable to remember a time when he did not sing.  His father was a church musician, and all of the Elling children sang in the church choir and took music lessons. Elling studied violin and French horn.  However, he never had any intentions of making music his career.  “I did not know any professional musicians other than my father,” said Elling of his childhood. “I did not play the pipe organ and did not want to lead a choir, so I didn’t really consider singing professionally until many years later.”

Elling enrolled in Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minesota, where he majored in history and minored in religion.  There, he discovered jazz.  “Some cats down the hall were playing Dexter Gordon, Herbie Hancock, Dave Brubeck, people like that,” he said.  “It was just at the time that I was beginning to actively listen to things.  It happened that I was able to start sitting in with small groups right just as soon as I started listening intently.”  Elling found a supportive atmosphere at the local jazz clubs, where he began to develop his own style of scat singing.

After graduating from Gustavus Adolphus in 1989, Elling returned to Chicago to attend graduate school, studying Divinity at the University of Chicago.  However, it wasn’t long before he began to meet some of Chicago’s jazz musicians, including singer Mark Murphy, who combined singing with beat poetry, and saxophonists Von Freeman and Ed Petersen.  He began singing at Chicago jazz clubs including the Green Mill, and so strong were the audience reactions that Elling found music taking up more and more of his time.  He eventually left school in 1992 just one credit short of graduation to pursue singing as a full time career.

Shortly after Elling left school, Petersen gave him a piece of advice that would change his career – to develop the concept of scat singing a step further by improvising lyrics on stage, a style that Elling describes as “ranting.” Elling’s demo tape, featuring this singing style, was picked up by top jazz label Blue Note Records, and they were so impressed that they signed him. In 1995 he released his debut album, “Close Your Eyes.”  The album received rave reviews and exposed him to a worldwide audience.  Since his first release, Elling has released six more CDs. 

Thursday’s concert is sponsored by Monterey Jazz Festival and represents a rare chance to see Elling in an intimate concert setting. It marks the beginning of Elling’s year as Artist in Residence for the Festival.  During the coming year, Elling will be working with young people in Monterey County to promote jazz education in the community.

First published in "411", The Salinas Californian, April 13, 2006

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