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Kurt Elling

Kurt Elling
Photo by Anna Webber
Background information
Born (1967-11-02) November 2, 1967
Origin Chicago, Illinois
United States
Genres Vocal jazz, vocalese
Occupation(s) Musician, composer
Instruments Vocals
Years active 1995–present
Labels Concord Jazz, Blue Note

Kurt Elling (born November 2, 1967) is an American jazz vocalist, composer, lyricist and vocalese performer. Born in Chicago, Illinois, and raised in Rockford, Elling first became interested in music through his father, who was Kapellmeister at a Lutheran church. Growing up, Elling sang in choirs and played various musical instruments, but was not exposed to jazz until he attended Gustavus Adolphus College. Elling enrolled in graduate school at the University of Chicago Divinity School, but left school one credit short of a master's degree to pursue a career as a jazz vocalist.

Elling began to perform around Chicago, scat singing and improvising his own lyrics. He recorded a demo in the early 1990s and was signed by Blue Note Records, releasing a total of six albums with the label. He has been nominated for ten Grammy Awards, winning Best Vocal Jazz Album for Dedicated to You (2009) on the Concord Jazz label. Elling often leads the Down Beat critics poll, and he was awarded the Prix Billie Holiday from the Académie du Jazz. Since 1995, Elling has collaborated with pianist, composer, and arranger Laurence Hobgood, leading a quartet that regularly tours the world.[1]


  • Early life 1
  • Career 2
    • Blue Note (1995–2005) 2.1
    • Concord (2006–present) 2.2
  • Collaborators 3
  • Personal life 4
  • Discography 5
    • Blue Note records 5.1
    • Concord records 5.2
    • Guest appearances 5.3
  • Awards and nominations 6
    • Grammy Awards 6.1
  • Publications 7
  • References 8
  • Further reading 9
  • External links 10

Early life

Kurt Elling was born in Chicago, Illinois on November 2, 1967, the son of Henry and Martha Elling. His interest in music started with his father, who was Kapellmeister at a Lutheran church.[2] Elling attended elementary school at St. Paul Lutheran School in Rockford,[3] and throughout his early years, he sang in choirs and played violin, French horn, piano, and drums. During his middle school years, Elling remembers watching Tony Bennett and the Woody Herman band on television and imagining what it would be like to sing with a band.[4] Growing up, Elling sang in the classical style, learning counterpoint from the motets of Johann Sebastian Bach.[5] At Rockford Lutheran High School, in Rockford,IL, Elling continued to sing in the choir: "When it was undeniably uncool and geeky and all that, to be in the choir, I did it anyway, because it was reliably beautiful, and it was rewarding, and it gave me gifts of experience and friendships." Even the experience of his first large crowd of over 40,000 people. Singing the National Anthem with the high school madrigal choir, "Joyful Sounds" under the direction of Joyce Kortz.[6]

Elling became known in Chicago from his weekly gigs at the Green Mill Jazz Club, where he first met pianist Laurence Hobgood through saxophonist Ed Petersen

Elling attended Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, where he majored in history and minored in religion. In college, Elling sang in the 70-voice Gustavus Choir, an a cappella choir that performed works from a variety of different composers, allowing him to hone his technical skills.[5] Elling also toured Europe with his college choir.[6] He first became interested in jazz at Gustavus Adolphus, listening to Dave Brubeck, Dexter Gordon, Herbie Hancock, and Ella Fitzgerald, among others.[7]

After graduating from Gustavus Adolphus in 1989, Elling enrolled in graduate school at the University of Chicago Divinity School where he studied for his master's degree in philosophy of religion.[4] Elling thought about continuing work in academia or working for the World Council of Churches when he graduated.[2] Elling began playing jazz gigs once a week during graduate school, with one of his first shows at Milt Trenier's, a basement club in Chicago (now defunct). Elling earned little money at these gigs, but Karl Johnson, the house pianist, was his mentor and teacher.[8] Elling recalls: "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."[9] Elling remained a graduate student until January 1992, when he left school one credit short of graduation.[10]

In Chicago, Elling held day jobs to survive, working as a bartender and even as a mover. Elling made extra income singing at weddings in addition to playing at clubs. At this time, he began singing in a scat style and improvising his own lyrics.[7] Elling began listening to the vocalese of jazz singer Mark Murphy, who exposed him to the poetry of Jack Kerouac. The minimalism and emotion of Chet Baker's music was also influential.


While living in Chicago in 1995, Elling decided he was ready to record. He had met pianist Laurence Hobgood through Ed Petersen, who played the Green Mill on Monday nights. Elling convinced Hobgood that he was ready to go into the studio, and they came out with nine solid songs. Following the advice of pianist Fred Simon, the cassette recording was sent to Bill Traut, a manager in Los Angeles, who eventually gave it to Bruce Lundvall of Blue Note Records.[11]

Blue Note (1995–2005)

Two months later, Elling was signed to Blue Note, and the songs on the demo became the Grammy nominated label debut, Close Your Eyes (1995).[12] The album features Edward Petersen and Von Freeman on tenor saxophone, Dave Onderdonk on guitar, Laurence Hobgood on piano, Eric Hochberg and Rob Amster on acoustic bass, and Paul Wertico on drums.

Close Your Eyes was followed several years later by The Messenger (1997),[13] with Elling releasing a total of six albums for the Blue Note label.

In 1999, Elling became a National Trustee for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and in 2003, he was elected vice-chair and served two terms.

Concord (2006–present)

Kurt Elling and bassist Rob Amster

In 2006, Elling performed on the television program Legends of Jazz, in the episode "The Jazz Singers". Elling sang "She's Funny That Way" and performed a duet with Al Jarreau on "Take Five". The recording was released on CD and DVD. In August of the same year, Elling signed a new record contract with Concord Jazz, and his first album with the label, Nightmoves, was released in 2007.

The follow-up, Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman (2009), is a tribute to the 1963 recording John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, widely recognized as one of the all-time finest jazz vocal albums.[14] The album arose out of a 2005 concert commissioned by the Chicago Jazz Festival, showcasing the Coltrane-Hartman material. Later, Elling and pianist Laurence Hobgood rearranged the music, culminating in a performance in the Allen Room at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York. The concert was recorded in January 2009 and the album was released in June.[10]

Elling is a baritone with a four-octave range, and a writer and performer of vocalese, the art of writing and performing words over improvised jazz solos. In 2007 and 2012, Circumstantial Productions published two editions of Lyrics: Kurt Elling, collections of Elling's vocalese lyrics, edited by Richard Connolly.


Elling has performed and recorded with Buddy Guy, Jon Hendricks, Charlie Hunter, Randy Bachman, Bob Mintzer, Rex Richardson, and Bob Sheppard.

Until November 2013, Elling's band included musical director Laurence Hobgood on piano, John McLean on guitar, Clark Sommers on bass, and drummer Kendrick Scott. In Howard Reich's November 6, 2013 column "My kind of Jazz" in the Chicago Tribune, it was reported that Elling and Hobgood would be going their separate ways. Hobgood linked to that article from his own website.

Personal life

In 1996, Elling married dancer Jennifer Carney.[15] Their daughter Luiza was born in 2005.[16] In the same year, the Ellings purchased a condominium from Barack Obama in Hyde Park, Chicago.[17] The Ellings moved to New York in 2008.


Pianist Laurence Hobgood

Blue Note records

Concord records

Guest appearances

  • Fantastic in the showcase of Ramsey Lewis " Legends of Jazz ", singing in duet with Al Jarreau. ( 2006 ) .

Awards and nominations

Elling has won the Down Beat Critics Poll thirteen times, from 2000–2012, and the Down Beat Readers Poll seven times and the JazzTimes Readers' Poll eight times, all in the Male Vocalist of the Year category. He has also received the Jazz Journalists Association Male Singer of the Year award eight times. In 2010 he was awarded the Edison/Jazz World award for The Gate. The Edison is the Dutch equivalent of a Grammy. In 2012 he was honored as the first Jazz Ambassador at the Silesian Jazz Festival in Poland, and he also won the German ECHO Jazz award and the Scottish Jazz Award – International category. In 2013 he was named International Jazz Artist of the Year in the Jazz FM Awards (UK).[18]

Grammy Awards

The Grammy Awards are awarded annually by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences of the United States. On January 31, 2010, Elling won his first Grammy Award in the category of Best Jazz Vocal Album for the album Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman on the Concord Jazz label.[19]

Year Recipient/Nominated work Award Result
1995 Close Your Eyes Best Jazz Vocal Performance Nominated
1997 The Messenger Best Jazz Vocal Performance Nominated
1998 This Time it's Love Best Jazz Vocal Performance Nominated
2000 Live in Chicago Best Jazz Vocal Album Nominated
2001 Flirting with Twilight Best Jazz Vocal Album Nominated
"Easy Living" Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying a Vocalist Nominated
2003 Man in the Air Best Jazz Vocal Album Nominated
2007 Nightmoves Best Jazz Vocal Album Nominated
2009 Dedicated to You Best Jazz Vocal Album Won
2012 The Gate Best Jazz Vocal Album Nominated
2013 1619 Broadway – The Brill Building Project Best Jazz Vocal Album Nominated


  • Elling, Kurt (November 1997). "Guerrilla Diaries". Jazziz Magazine. 
  • Elling, Kurt (2007). Richard Connolly, ed. Lyrics. Circumstantial Productions.  


  1. ^ "Kurt Elling Biography" (PDF) (Press release). Depth of Field Management. June 17, 2010. Retrieved 2010-06-27. 
  2. ^ a b Byrnes, Sholto (October 14, 2007). "Kurt Elling: This cat can scat!".  
  3. ^ "Kurt Elling coming to Coronado Aug. 6".  
  4. ^ a b Yanow, Scott (2008). The Jazz Singers: The Ultimate Guide. Music Dispatch. p. 72.  
  5. ^ a b  
  6. ^ a b Elling, Kurt (November 16, 2007). "Master Class: Kurt Elling on His Early Musical Training". Concert Hall of the Community Music School of  
  7. ^ a b Makos, Jeff (June 1997). "Vocal Ease". The University of Chicago Magazine (University of Chicago). 89–90: 26. 
  8. ^ "Kurt Elling FAQ". 
  9. ^ James, Steve (May 3, 2000). Daddy-o' Kurt Elling really digs life"'". Reuters ( 
  10. ^ a b Schudel, Matt (February 27, 2009). "A Tribute Supreme".  
  11. ^ Elling, Kurt. "Close Your Eyes". 
  12. ^  
  13. ^ Carr, Ian; Digby Fairweather; Brian Priestley (2004). The Rough Guide to Jazz. Rough Guides. p. 237.  
  14. ^ Chinen, Nate (January 23, 2009). "Playfully Laying Claim to Songs of Two Jazz Greats".  
  15. ^ "Weddings: Jennifer Carney, Kurt Elling".  
  16. ^ Koransky, Jason (July 12, 2007). "Act 3: Kurt Elling Works to Balance His Drive for Artistic Innovation with His New Family Life".  
  17. ^ Schudel, Matt (February 27, 2009). "A Tribute Supreme".  
  18. ^ A full list of his awards and recognitions is on his website.
  19. ^ DeRogatis, Jim (January 31, 2010). "Enduring the 52nd annual Grammy Awards".  

Further reading

  • Chicago Jazz Magazine (September 1, 2010). "Kurt Elling and Laurence their own words". Chicago Jazz Magazine. 
  • Elling, Kurt (November 8, 2004). "Spirituality, Poetry and Jazz: Some Thoughts Driving the Jazz Singer". First delivered at the University of Missouri, Columbia. 
  • Gioia, Ted (February 2008). "The State of Jazz Vocals Today". 
  • Murray, Robert (April 17, 2008). "Some Notes on Kurt Elling" (PDF). 2008 Season Program: Kurt Elling: Jazz and Orchestra. About the Music.  
  • Paige, Bill (November 15, 1997). "Local Noise: Kurt Elling".  
  • Rubenstein, Ben (August 28, 2006). "Kurt Elling". Centerstage. Sun-Times Media. 

External links

  • – Elling's official website.
  • Kurt Elling at Concord Music
  • Kurt Elling at Blue Note
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