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Jazz Singer

A Divinity Student Follows His Bliss



"I could use more than moments with you, baby / And I know where you steal them from / There are so many things I will teach you / But they'll call me a useless bum.... Stolen moments...sto-len mo-ments..."

Kurt Elling is getting down. Sure, he's still committed to making it through the graduate program at the University of Chicago Divinity School, to tackling the German exam required for his master's degree, to grappling with existential questions of human identity... but right now, during an impromptu jam session at a south-side jazz club, he is swinging and stomping and singing tunes the only way he knows how, as a divine "harmonic convergence of time, energy, music, primal emotions, and celestial ideas." Heidegger will just have to wait.

Intense and ponytailed, 23 years old and fretful that time may be running out for finding his bliss, let alone for following it, Elling's dual interests in things musical and metaphysical find their roots in his "churchly family" in Rockford, Illinois. His father is the principal of a Lutheran church school, where he's also the organist. His mother sings in the choir. His grandfather was a missionary, and eight great-uncles attended seminary. Elling joined the church choir in elementary school. "I can't remember a time when I didn't sing. I learned all the Bach chorales. Later, I would make up harmonies. I had the Messiah memorized by high school." People sometimes lauded his musical talents, Elling recalls, but his father discouraged him from singing solos in church. "He never wanted to make it look like he was pushing or showing his son off."

Elling didn't plan to be a singer, anyway. He enrolled at Gustavus Adolphus College, near Minneapolis, majoring in history, with lofty intentions of serving in the U.S. State Department as "a world changer," he says. Meanwhile, he re-sisted his family's religious urgings.

"There were some ministers who I really respected growing up, but so many were these polyester types, these imperialists wanting to teach people this thing that really wouldn't help them....It was just so important to them to point the way to heaven," Elling recalls.

And then there's the whole problem of, as he puts it, the "White Dead German Guy Syndrome."

"Up to very few years ago, it was all white dead German guys who defined reality--Hegel, Kant, Nietzsche...I mean, what's going on here?" The lives of women, blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities played little part in this philosophical tradition, Elling notes, and Sunday church lessons seldom applied to the everyday world. "There wasn't a concern with, 'Look at this neighborhood.' If you think you have this great truth, if you talk about all this love, and you sing some hymns and then you go home and have pot roast, it's very--I don't get it."

But rebellion eventually gave way to a sense of social responsibility, and Elling ended up in theological studies after all. "I kept trying to make deals with whatever this was," he says. His surrender came, he says, "when I was reading Kierkegaard a little too late at night. It was the 'either-or' dialogue, very polemic, very aggressive. Basically it says, well, you know you're on earth, and either you go with God or go against him." Elling concluded that he had been endowed with certain skills-- among them a passionate interest in social issues and a degree of charisma--that exacted an obligation to use them. He switched his major to religion and started letting his hair grow long.

It was around the same time that he got hooked on Tony Bennett. "I saw him on TV. He was with this big band in this huge showroom, and he was kicking ass, man, he was just making that room roar. I think that's when I first said to myself, that would be so cool, to put on a dinner suit, go to this big room, and get to sing these great Irving Berlin tunes, Gershwin, all of that."

Elling made his debut in that world with a jazz quartet during college. Very quickly, he started to experiment with scat--often with what he recalls as "really awful" results. His saving grace was an intuitive feel for harmonics and chord progressions gleaned from all the hymnbooks. A handful of years later, his delivery is smooth and sophisticated, explosive and exciting, approaching the style of his musical mentor, Mark Murphy.

Today, in moments to spare from his div-school studies, Elling faces the musician's proverbial challenge: finding work. He makes the rounds of late-night jazz club jam sessions. This past spring he played a weekly gig at Milt Trenier's, with friends and faculty from school helping to fill the small club. Last month he and a piano-playing partner made a mad dash by car to Fargo, North Dakota, to cash in on a cheap deal on recording-studio time. They returned with a professionally produced promotional tape of Elling belting out nine of his favorite tunes, from Herbie Hancock's "Fair Weather" to Mark Murphy's "Stolen Moments." And he's lined up a three-night gig at Europia in Lincoln Park this weekend.

On Sundays, Elling is singing in church again, this time with a gospel choir at Bethel Lutheran Church in a poverty-strafed neighborhood on Chicago's west side, where he is serving a div-school internship. Here, where sound, spirit, and social concerns converge, Elling may be most at home.

"This is the root of jazz, the black church," he says. "This is where blue notes come from, notes that aren't exactly on the scale. An audience may think they're off-key, but blacks are able to say, 'That's what we want, that's what it sounds like, that's good music.'"

For Elling, making good music is a way of tapping into the transcendent. "When it's time to pray, we pray to that which is inside of me and that which is greater than me. This is the same energy I want to get connected to when I'm singing.... It's just this huge rush, this wave. You don't have to think about the chords. You don't have to think about where the sound is going. It just overpowers you, this flood.

"In a way it's a Taoist thing, in that I give up concerns about what's going to happen and I just live. In that moment, I just live. If the bass player starts playing 'Footprints,' I'm awash in it."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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