An Interview with Kurt Elling
At The Crossroads
by Mark Ruffin
Honesty is a word Kurt Elling uses a lot when trying to describe his success. The 30 year-old singer feels that as his mid-five figures records sales have progressed with each release since his 1995 debut Close Your Eyes, so has his level of sincerity in the recorded performance. That’s part of the logic that deduced the decision in recording his fourth album live at the Chicago night club, the Green Mill. The recordings took place over five days in this past June and will be released in early 2000..
“When I write a lyric or sing a song, I’m bound to be as up front with what that song as I can be,” Elling says. “When I’m on stage, the song has a life of it’s own and it’s not for me to put any boundaries around it. That’s what honesty in performance means.”
Elling is also pretty candid in admitting his record sales aren’t what his record company, Blue Note Records, had hoped after three albums. That’s why Elling, his manager Bill Traut and Blue Note president Bruce Lundvall met in New York earlier this spring trying to figure out how to get a national audience to embrace the singer the way Chicago and the National Academy of Arts & Sciences (NARAS) have.
While he has yet to win, the organization that hands out the Grammy award has honored the singer with a nomination for each of his three albums and he continuously impress his hometown with a wide variety of worthy artistic endeavors. But Elling has yet to expand the kind of local fanaticism, including middle-aged groupies into a consistent national base.
“We were just brain-storming, because I am sort of at a cross-road,” Elling says of that meeting while sitting in his spacious Chicago Hyde Park apartment. “All these hare-brained and nutty ideas for my next record came out, including some fun projects. Lundvall said ‘we still haven’t made the nut with sales but nobody does what you do, so let’s just go again.
“At the end of the meeting, we all realized I’ve gotten recognition and a chance to perform all over the world doing what I believe in. Any (new record) that isn’t as real and honest as what we’ve made before is just going to be weird. I’m going to hate it, my people are going to hate it and scratch their heads, and it’ll be just like commerce, and I didn’t get into it for commerce. I got into it so I could do the job, so I could have a fulfilling creative life. Bread is cool. I’m not going to shun it. I’m going to work really hard to figure out some way to have my music effect enough people so a lot of people want to buy my music and have it in their lives.
“Commerce is cool,” he continued, ” but I really have something that I need to say and I have a group of people who I believe in who surround me. We just sort of all threw up our hand and said, well we’ve sold not as many records as we’ve want to, but they’re all been really great and everybody at this table have really loved every one of the projects, so lets just go again. I still believe that what we have can get over to a larger audience. The problem is not that we’re making stuff that’s out of people grasp, but that the kids that are coming up now haven’t had music in school. I can’t dumb down my thing, It would be wrong if I did, because if anything, I don’t know what the answer is. I believe that what we do can be felt viscerally, and that’s why I think that people who don’t have an acquaintance with jazz or don’t usually like jazz, cause it’s too esoteric or because it’s too challenging or because it feels too forbidden to them. I try to make everybody feel at home in my show. If you make them feel like they’re welcomed to be there and then you can give them a whole lot of information that they never thought up before and maybe they’ll dig it.
“I feel like This Time It’s Love” is the most honest record I’ve made,” the former University of Chicago divinity student continues mentioning his most recent album. “I dealt with the theme of love in a way that’s a lot more multi-phonic and multi-dimensional than most people deal with it.”
The reason for that honest is that Elling is basically still a newlywed. His wife of a two years is dancer and artist Jennifer Carney-Elling.
She is featured on the cover of the album and the songs and sonnets contain within are unabashed exclamations of love. Because many of the tunes feature the art of vocalese -putting wordy lyrics to the often very busy solos of jazz musicians- Elling’s prose throughout explores more depth to their relationship than most couples are willing to make public.
On a Freddie Hubbard solo that Elling re-titled Freddie’s Yen For Jen,” he sings “I dig her kisses, they’re never fictitious and always lubricious, kisses that’ll make you holler loudly that you’re glad enough to be a man.” On She’s Funny That Way, Elling comes close to sap with the line “and now raindrops are diamonds falling out of Jennifer’s pockets, every kiss is July Four rockets.”
In his living room surrounded by his wife’s artwork including paper sculptures, laminated collages and painted furniture, Elling blushes when admitting that he is totally smitten with her. He further admits to worrying about how to continue to tap what’s in his heart for his material while on the other hand keeping an increasingly curious public and the media at bay when concerning his privacy. It was a thought that filled his head mid-song during a small University of Chicago gathering.
“The famous theologian Marty Marty was there,” he remembers, “a t.v. broadcaster, the conductor of the Lyric Opera, just some very smart people, and we were in a small room like this and it really came home to me. I was doing the Lester Young solo on She’s Funny That Way and I was a little embarrassed because I was telling these people about my life.
“It’s strange because when I write a lyric or a song then I’m bound to be as up front with what that song wants to be as I can be. I can’t hold anything back and it wouldn’t be right. I would be unhappy with the lyric if I did. But when I’m not on stage, I’m trying to be wary of where that line is, because it’s a different line. If I’m singing something, then it has a life of its own and it’s not for me to put any boundaries around it in any case. But away from the stage, the world is a real strange place and every once in a while a newspaper will call and they will want to send a photographer to my house , no. this is my house I’m not going to be doing Entertainment Tonight kind of specials at my house. That’s an invasion of what it takes for me to feel at home, if everybody knows. I don’t know how much information people deserve. I feel like I’m so up front and I’m so honest in my work, that there’s plenty of information that’s available there. And whatever else that I don’t include in that is nobody’s business.”
Since the release of This Time It’s Love early last year, Elling has flexed his expanding artistic muscle with a number of high-profile concerts in Chicago in a variety of musical formats. His wife attended and was introduced at many of these affairs including the first jazz concert ever performed at that city’s Museum of Science & Industry last summer. Other performances included a Hyde Park Christmas concert with star trumpeter Nicholas Payton, and suburban audiences have seen Elling perform with a big band and with a string section.
His most ambitious projects have been the two shows he wrote and directed for the Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Traffic series. The first was a multimedia tribute to Allen Ginsberg featuring visual artist Ed Paschke reading poetry and a host of musicians. This past February he presented a program titled The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing co-starring the Tyego Dance Project featuring Jennifer Carney-Elling. She also dances with the Joel Hall Dancers and spent five years with the national touring company of Phantom Of The Opera.
” If you need room the only way to have a lot of room in a marriage is to have the other person also need a lot of space, otherwise they’re always tapping you on the shoulder,” Elling says through a laugh after being asked if acquiring a creative spouse was a priority. “I need to have someone else who can be similarly focused on their objective, so that we don’t get in each other’s hair.”
The couple met through a mutual friend at a now closed Hyde Park coffee shop that was owned by Jennifer’s mother. According to Elling, he was in “full jazz guy” mode- having a good time and playing the field. Though considered a sex symbol by some, including his manager, the singer says he is really a shy awkward guy when it comes to the opposite sex. He can just turn on the charm on stage, but even before he was married, he says he couldn’t keep sustained eye contact with flirtatious audience members afterwards.
“But this hook was in with Jennifer and it happened pretty fast,” Elling says. ” She just had a lot of self-respect and she wouldn’t let me push her around. Self-respect and creativity were the key things.”
Elling’s Los Angeles based manager admitted to some worry as to the speed of the relationship. When he heard they were to be married, all he could think of was the domineering wife of jazz legend Sonny Rollins.
“Lucille Rollins runs everything in his life like a dictator,” Traut, a veteran lawyer and former Chicagoan who has also handled acts as varied as the R&b group the Ohio Players and local jazz singer Judy Roberts. “That’s an old manager’s joke that you’re getting the wife to manage instead of the husband and I was worried if Jennifer would be one of those people that’s very difficult to manage along with a husband.
“But the instant I talked to her, I knew I would have no problem,” continued Traut. “By the time they got married, she had become an asset to me because she helps me explain things to him and Kurt is the world’s worse bookkeeper. He needed a wife”
It was after spending a week in Paris together that Elling popped the question. He thought she expected him to ask during their very romantic time in the City of Lights, but he waited till the following week at home “in the kitchen over tuna fish sandwiches.”
Surprisingly, Elling also points out, it was not his idea to record the song April In Paris on his ’97 album The Messenger. That was a request from Lundvall and his staff at Blue Note to add another standard to a highly original collection of songs. Both Elling and Traut praise Blue Note unwavering faith in the singer, citing among other unusual facts, that the first album was really the singer’s demo tape and that they’ve never been ordered to higher outside producers.
Among the reasons why the three men came to an agreement as to the concept of his next album are because live albums are relatively easy to do and it frees Elling up to contemplate his next move.
“We want to get Kurt relieved of the pressure of making another record for a while,” Traut explains. “It’s in our plans to get Kurt in a position where he can take the time to develop a one-man show that we can take off-Broadway. It is in our plans to have the whole country see Kurt Elling the way Chicago does. But instead of a Steppenwolf tribute to Allen Ginsberg or a show with his wife’s dance team, we want to develop a Kurt show that will have multimedia, lighting, stage effects and scenery doing all the things that Kurt does.”
“The thing about Steppenwolf is their reputation and connections,” concludes Elling. “Now that I’ve been a director, I feel like I’m getting my production chops together and my confidence. Now, I’m just trying to create situations for myself.”