Interview With Jazz Vocalist, Kurt Elling

This week in our Artist Interview series, we have the pleasure of talking to Kurt Elling. Kurt is a Jazz vocalist, composer, lyricist and vocalese performer. He has been nominated for ten Grammy Awards, winning Best Vocal Jazz Album for Dedicated to You (2009). He has an impressive discography of 12 solo albums and has performed on many albums by other Jazz greats like as Charlie Hunter, Fred Hersch and Branford Marsalis.

What is your earliest memory playing an instrument?

      I tried (or was made) to play the violin from early on. All of us were given music lessons. My oldest brother had cello. My next worked at the piano for some time. My sister tried the harp! (My folks weren’t wealthy at all. In fact, far from it. My dad was a school music instructor. But they splurged on that harp. Lyon & Healy.) I had my mother’s old violin from her childhood. But I hated practicing and never got a good sound out of the instrument – so scratchy and out of tune. And it hurt my fingers.

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

      I wanted to be a Chicago police officer on horseback – so I could ride a horse every day in Grant Park.

When did you fall in love with music?

      I think I was in love with music – specifically singing – before I ever knew what love was. Because my old man also led church choirs we often went along on Thursday nights to the adult rehearsals, and always sat up in the choir loft with them & sang along. I’m told I was making up alternate harmony parts to hymns all along. I used to think it was people from the time wanting to remember stuff that never really happened so that they could say, “I knew him when . . .” But now I know my own beautiful daughter makes up harmonies of her own all the time too – so I know it must be real.

Did you have important teachers along the way that helped shape your musical exploration, if so how did they help you?

      I’ve mentioned my father already twice. His example and knowledge of conducting is the most essential bedrock of my technique as a singer and a performer. Along the way I was fortunate to have several good choir conductors. In college, especially, there was a man named Karle Erickson who conducted in the tradition and style of F. Melius Christiansen.

Throughout my time in choirs, I was consistently reminded to sing with good technique, and precise diction. Singing in tune was necessary since so much of the music was unaccompanied. Physical motion in the production of sound was encouraged throughout in order to create and sustain the velocity and gestures inherent in the music we were singing. I have been fortunate to understand and value from very early on that singers actually embody music.

How has learning an instrument helped you in your life, besides obviously giving you a hugely successful career? In other words, what are some of the positive “side-effects” you see in your life because of music?

      I always feel better – emotionally, physically, mentally – having sung. I feel that I have positive and creative outlets for any experience I have. Music is a way to understand life and come to terms with the great unknown. It is a way to communicate and share the essential mystery of our short life here.  

Did you ever want to give up playing? How did you overcome that?

      I’d rather not give it up. My singing has given me my vocation, my livelihood, my identity and my way in the world.

What would your advice be to parents and/or students who are thinking about learning to play an instrument? And any advice on how to bring more singing and music into their lives at home?

      Any time spent in music as an exploration (and not a chore) is valuable time. Start anywhere, with any instrument you like or any instrument that is around and simply begin exploring. Follow what makes for more joy. Know that it takes loads of time to really start sounding good.

(People talk about how Mozart was a genius since he wrote his first symphony at age 7 or something. But that symphony wasn’t much to hear. It was derivative, simplistic and kind of silly. No orchestra ever plays it. What happened was that Mozart KEPT ON writing and playing and learning, so that when he turned 27 he already had 20 years of practice and musical exploration, of trial-and-error, under his belt. ONLY THEN he was really ready to start making music that was worth presenting to kings.)

And for all of our 3yr old readers, if you could turn yourself into an instrument, what would you be and why?

      I suppose I’d want to be a big old German contrabass – maybe the one Ray Brown used to play and that my friend John Clayton has now. Basses like that are each unique. They have such individual songs to sing, They are treasured and loved as individuals, and passed down from master to master. in Jazz, the bass is the backbone of the band, even though they don’t always get the most attention from audiences. They are the elegant gentlemen of swing.

We had such a great time talking to Kurt this week. We hope you enjoyed it too and please be sure to check out Kurt’s latest release, The Beautiful Day. It is a gorgeous collection of Holiday music that would make the perfect hostess gift for Thanksgiving next week! 

Kurt Elling