Kurt Elling: Philosophy and Liberation

The Grammy award winner talks to about jazz, chaos and, why musical training’s overrated

It is a bizarre symptom of the celebrity-culture which permeates Western society that artistry is becoming ever more marginalised. Whilst the UK Top 40 is rammed consistently down the throats of a not-too-resistant listenership, it is at once significantly easier and peculiarly more difficult to branch out, to discover those lesser-known musicians who, for whatever reason, are happy to (or, perhaps, forced to) stay on the sidelines. Whilst the advent of online distribution models means that, in theory, anyone can get hold of any record, new or old, the discovery of those slightly more obscure artists is shrouded in layer upon layer of mainstream-indie dichotomy; is alternative still alternative? Or has it become another facet of mainstream pop culture?

Case in point, Kurt Elling: a native Chicagoan who celebrated his 45th birthday days before our interview. A superstar in the Jazz world, but seldom a blip on the radar elsewhere. Having been nominated for ten Grammys, Kurt has been described by The New York Times as “the standout male vocalist of our time”, an accolade which, given his propensity to flit between octaves as if they were merely suggestions as to one’s vocal limits, is well-deserved. Kurt has been awarded Male Singer of the Year on eight occasions by the Jazz Journalists Association, topped the Jazz Times’ and Down Beat’s readers’ polls seven times each and won Critics Award from the latter publication a staggering thirteen times. Consecutively. With a Grammy to his name, and a four-octave vocal range to boot, one might expect a certain level of hubris from one so accomplished, but Elling is far from it, apologising profusely when our first call (over Skype, I’m not made of money) went awry amidst Microsoft’s ineptitude.

“I’m much more liberated, I’m not constrained by any rules that may or may not have been valid musically,”

The son of a Church choirmaster and High School band instructor, Kurt grew up with choirs. This classical influence has had a clear impact on his singing technique which, unusual for a Jazz musician, shifts easily from the improvisational frenzy of a long scat or vocalese piece to the clear, bright and supported register most commonly associated with the traditional, bel canto style of singing. Indeed, his real interest in Jazz came considerably later and, by the time he was in college, he was performing weekly spots in a local venue.

We began with a discussion about education, both musical and academic, and the role played by each in his success.

Kurt studied for a masters in Philosophy of Religion, dropping out with only a single credit to gain before graduation. As he puts it, “By day I was reading Kant and Schleiermacher, trying to get a handle on that, and at night I was sitting-in in clubs, and, of course, you can’t do both and be effective. Eventually, Saturday night won out over Sunday morning”. As a Philosophy student myself, I was keen to pursue this line of inquiry. We discussed the ways in which Elling’s philosophical training and his ideas about life that have come about as a result thereof have influenced his work: “For my money, it’s much more important to dwell in the questions than to dwell in the answers… I think that, philosophically, that’s a much more humble and appropriate way to go through life: not to continually be asserting your opinion, not to continually be trying to convert other people to your way of thinking.”

He doesn’t consider the time spent in graduate school wasted, despite it contributing heavily to the ostensible postponement of a musical career that could easily have started years earlier: “I’m happy that I went to graduate school: I’m happy for the friends I made, the work I did, and the development of my analytical and writing skills.” Certainly, Kurt’s academically-rich, highly-literate background is evidenced in his choice and composition of lyrics. On Nightmoves, his 2007 album, Elling sets to a minimalist accompaniment ‘The Waking’. a Theodore Roethke poem, drawing on the lyricism of the text to carry the piece. An unusual setting, certainly, but the bass ostinato which constitutes most of the accompaniment allows for some incredible displays of vocal flexibility, albeit never at the expense of the line which, as is characteristic of Kurt’s performance, is clean, unbroken and utterly sublime.

Despite the numerous accolades he’s received due to his practically flawless technical skill and compositional prowess, Kurt has never had formal musical training. He seems ambivalent as to the effect of this on his career, noting the pitfalls of a rigid training regimen whilst reflecting also on the fact that much musical theory will be forever out of his reach: “It’s a mixed bag, just like life itself: in some ways I’m much more liberated, I’m not constrained by rules that may or may not have been valid musically, and I’ve seen many cases where young people go to conservatories and the music becomes harder and harder for them to hear because they’re focused on the discipline itself.” On the topic of conservatoire education, he points out the tensions between the structure implemented by such an institution and the goals of the Jazz musician, saying that “Jazz is about individuation; it’s the task of making as personal as possible the musical statements that one broadcasts. If you go to conservatories, you’re by definition going into a system of regimented learning. That can—it doesn’t always, but it can—lead to a much less signature and much more corporate sound. You’ll sound like people who went to the school you went to.” Kurt seems to thrive in his freedom to create on his own terms, choosing material, players, lyrical influences and writing based entirely on personal preference, not as a response to a formal training: “That can be soul-crushing; deadlines and regulations and, god-forbid, a uniformed or foolish instructor sends the wrong signal and suddenly you don’t feel that the music within you is worth hearing, or worth performing, or worth working to perfect.”

Does he feel like he’s ‘made it’ yet? “When you’re young, you have an idea in your mind that is much more resonant of and replicative of things that you’ve seen in books, movies, in other people’s lives. That kind of image, even if it works out as mine has, when it comes to the particulars of it…you’ll be surprised. And that’s a good thing, there’s a lot more creativity in confronting chaos than there is in confronting any step-by-step, mathematically-assured plan.”

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