Kurt Elling

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Kurt Elling
KE Upward Spiral headshot (300x300) (cropped).png
Background information
Born (1967-11-02) November 2, 1967 (age 55)
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Occupation(s)Singer, composer
Years active1995–present
LabelsBlue Note, Naim, Concord Jazz, Cuneiform, Okeh, Edition Records

Kurt Elling (born November 2, 1967) is an American jazz singer and songwriter.

Born in Chicago, Illinois, and raised in Rockford, Elling became interested in music through his father, who was Kapellmeister at a Lutheran church. He sang in choirs and played musical instruments. He encountered jazz while a student at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota. After college, he enrolled in the University of Chicago Divinity School, but he left one credit short of a degree to pursue a career as a jazz vocalist.

Elling began to perform around Chicago, scat singing and improvising his lyrics. He recorded a demo in the early 1990s and was signed by Blue Note. He has been nominated for ten Grammy Awards, winning Best Vocal Jazz Album for Dedicated to You (2009) and Secrets Are the Best Stories (2021). Elling often leads the Down Beat magazine Critics' Poll. He had a longtime collaboration with pianist Laurence Hobgood, leading a quartet that toured throughout the world.[1]

Early life[edit]

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.

At Rockford Lutheran High School, in Rockford, Illinois, Elling continued to sing in the choir: "When it was undeniably uncool and geeky and all that, to be the choir, I did it anyway, because it was reliably beautiful, and it was rewarding, and it gave me gifts of experience and friendships." One of these experiences was that of singing the National Anthem with the high school madrigal choir, "Joyful Sounds" under the direction of Joyce Kortze in front of his first large crowd of over 40,000 people.[5]

Elling became known in Chicago from his weekly gigs at the Green Mill Jazz Club, where he 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. Elling also toured Europe with his college choir.[5] He became interested in jazz at Gustavus Adolphus while listening to Dave Brubeck, Dexter Gordon, Herbie Hancock, and Ella Fitzgerald.[6]

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] He thought about continuing work in academia or working for the World Council of Churches when he graduated.[2] He 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). He earned little money at these gigs, but Karl Johnson, the house pianist, was his mentor and teacher.[7] 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."[8] He remained a graduate student until January 1992, when he left school one credit short of graduation.[9]

In Chicago, Elling worked as a bartender and as a mover. He sang at weddings in addition to clubs. At this time, he began singing in a scat style and improvising his own lyrics.[6] 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.[10]

In 1995, Elling signed with Blue Note, and the songs on the demo became the Grammy nominated label debut, Close Your Eyes (1995).[11] 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 double bass, and Paul Wertico on drums. Close Your Eyes was followed by The Messenger (1997).[12]

Elling performing in 2006

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 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.[13] 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.[9]

Elling is a baritone with a four-octave range, and a writer and performer of vocalese, 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.

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.


Elling has performed and recorded with David Amram, Randy Bachman, Bob Belden, Joanne Brackeen, Oscar Brown Jr., Jodie Christian, Billy Corgan, Orbert Davis, George Freeman, Buddy Guy, Jon Hendricks, Charlie Hunter, Bob Mintzer, Brad Mehldau, Lee Ritenour, John Pizzarelli, 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. Howard Reich's wrote in his November 6, 2013 column "My kind of Jazz" in the Chicago Tribune, that Elling and Hobgood would be going separate ways. Hobgood linked to that article from his website. Elling's website announced the change on November 12, 2013.[14]

The band included a rotating series of pianists until October 2015 when Gary Versace became Kurt Elling's first-call pianist and was added to the Band page on Elling's website. Then in August 2016, Stu Mindeman took over as piano chair and Versace's page was moved to Extended Family.[15]

In 2016 he was a member of Branford Marsalis's quartet. He toured with the band and performed on the album Upward Spiral, which was nominated for a Grammy Award. Marsalis co-produced Elling's album The Questions and performed on three songs.[16]

Personal life[edit]

In 1996, Elling married dancer Jennifer Carney.[17] Their daughter Luiza was born in 2005.[18] In the same year, the Ellings purchased a condominium from Barack Obama in Hyde Park, Chicago.[19] The Ellings moved to New York in 2008.


Elling at the North Sea Jazz Festival 2015

As leader[edit]

As guest[edit]

With Laurence Hobgood

  • Left to My Own Devices (2000)
  • Crazy World (Naim, 2005)
  • When the Heart Dances (Naim, 2009)

With Bob Mintzer

  • Live at MCG (2004)
  • Old School, New Lessons (2006)
  • Swing Out (2008)

With others

Awards and nominations[edit]

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).[21]

Grammy Awards[edit]

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.[22]

Year Nominee / 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
2016 Upward Spiral Best Jazz Vocal Album Nominated
2021 Secrets are the Best Stories (featuring Danilo Pérez) Best Jazz Vocal Album Won
2022 SuperBlue Best Jazz Vocal Album Nominated


  • Elling, Kurt (November 1997). "Guerrilla Diaries". Jazziz Magazine.
  • Elling, Kurt (2007). Richard Connolly (ed.). Lyrics. Circumstantial Productions. ISBN 978-1-891592-06-5. Archived from the original on May 5, 2010. Retrieved July 3, 2010.


  1. ^ "Kurt Elling Biography" (PDF) (Press release). Depth of Field Management. June 17, 2010. Retrieved June 27, 2010.
  2. ^ a b Byrnes, Sholto (October 14, 2007). "Kurt Elling: This cat can scat!". The Independent. See also: "Kurt Elling FAQ". Archived from the original on March 28, 2010.
  3. ^ "Kurt Elling coming to Coronado Aug. 6". The Rockford Register Star. July 2, 2010. Archived from the original on September 14, 2012.
  4. ^ a b Yanow, Scott (2008). The Jazz Singers: The Ultimate Guide. Music Dispatch. p. 72. ISBN 978-0-87930-825-4.
  5. ^ a b Elling, Kurt (November 16, 2007). "Master Class: Kurt Elling on His Early Musical Training". Concert Hall of the Community Music School of Webster University, St. Louis, Missouri: YouTube.
  6. ^ a b Makos, Jeff (June 1997). "Vocal Ease". The University of Chicago Magazine. University of Chicago. 89–90: 26.
  7. ^ "Kurt Elling FAQ". kurtelling.com. Archived from the original on March 28, 2010.
  8. ^ James, Steve (May 3, 2000). "'Daddy-o' Kurt Elling really digs life". Independent Online. Reuters.
  9. ^ a b Schudel, Matt (February 27, 2009). "A Tribute Supreme". The Washington Post. Retrieved July 4, 2010.
  10. ^ Elling, Kurt. "Close Your Eyes". kurtelling.com.
  11. ^ Schneider, Mike (2009). "Night Talk: An Interview with Kurt Elling". Bloomberg Television.
  12. ^ Carr, Ian; Digby Fairweather; Brian Priestley (2004). The Rough Guide to Jazz. Rough Guides. p. 237. ISBN 1-84353-256-5.
  13. ^ Chinen, Nate (January 23, 2009). "Playfully Laying Claim to Songs of Two Jazz Greats". The New York Times. Retrieved July 4, 2010.
  14. ^ "Kurt Elling's New Directions". November 12, 2013.
  15. ^ "Kurt Elling – Band". Kurtelling.com. Retrieved October 9, 2021.
  16. ^ Morrison, Jim (June 2018). "Apprehend the Greatest Ideas". DownBeat. Elmhurst, Illinois. 85 (June 2018): 38–42.
  17. ^ "Weddings: Jennifer Carney, Kurt Elling". Chicago Tribune. December 12, 1996.
  18. ^ Koransky, Jason (July 12, 2007). "Act 3: Kurt Elling Works to Balance His Drive for Artistic Innovation with His New Family Life". Down Beat.
  19. ^ Schudel, Matt (February 27, 2009). "A Tribute Supreme". Washington Post.
  20. ^ "Kurt Elling | Credits | AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved August 22, 2018.
  21. ^ A full list Archived September 27, 2010, at the Wayback Machine of his awards and recognitions is on his website.
  22. ^ DeRogatis, Jim (January 31, 2010). "Enduring the 52nd annual Grammy Awards". Chicago Sun-Times.

Further reading[edit]

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