The Vocation of a Jazz Singer: Exploring the Spirit with Kurth Elling
By George Hermanson
An interesting person in Jazz and Spirituality is Kurt Elling. The Chicago-raised, New York-based vocalist 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.
Singing had always been part of his life. His father was the musical director at a Lutheran church. But the jazz bug bit, and for the last 15 years he has dominated the ranks of male jazz singers, thanks to his unmistakable, four-octave baritone voice and performing flair. His last CD, Dedicated To You, won the Grammy Award this year for best jazz vocals album.
In his new CD the Gate he does "King Crimson material, some Beatles material... Also some Herbie Hancock stuff. We do a version of Blue and Green, so depending on whether you think Miles wrote it or Bill Evans wrote it, you can say whichever one you think."
The Gate refers to "the Gateless Gate that you'll find in the East. The gate that you'll pass through between the sacred and the profane that is around you all the time, that is awaiting every step, that you fall into, that you experiment with from childhood on."
He fell in love with Jazz because of the inclusive community it was. He says, "the jazz musicians consistently pulled me up, they took me up, they put their arms around me and said, "Hey man, you're with us," that really moved me and made me feel a great desire to be a part of my family, to do the work that it would take on my own."
He brings together his ideas of spirituality,which he had before moving into Jazz, and now sees performance as a spiritual practice. He brings together the profane and the sacred. His work is a good example of what Whitehead suggests about harmony and intensity and novelty, which is a way of feeling Love Supreme.
He says : "It just happens that jazz has a very long history of musicians and artists understanding that there's a transcendent experience in trying to be transparent and clear in music and reaching out for something that you as an artist and perhaps no one has ever played before, a certain combination of notes, a certain melody that comes out, a certain experience on a given night that's never occurred before and won't be repeated. That is a direct communication of the artist's spirit with the audience's collective spirit and back again. I would have a hard time as seeing that as anything other than spiritual."
The artists that influence him are "spirit-oriented." He makes the point that we struggle with intensity and harmony and how they can lead to boredom and chaos when we let the ego take over.
"Of course, any powerful device of communication can be turned toward creativity and the amplification of the human spirit, and it can be turned to destruction. It can be turned to withering scorn, and it can be turned to one-upmanship.
But to me, that's kind of the crusty human part, the competitive part. That's the stuff that's not the purest part of the jazz world. You know, we're just human beings walking around, it makes sense that we're going to compete with each other, especially when it comes to people who are dedicating their lives to a virtuosic - and an individual virtuosic - endeavour.
That said, when I think of the people who are most legendary and are most expressive ... Duke Ellington. There's a spirit being. Charlie Parker. Definitely a transcendent mind. [Thelonious] Monk was in love with the transcendent spirit ... These are all people who are going down conscious spiritual paths and have a notion of music as an extended arm of their spiritual lives."
He responded to the question of how does the spiritual flow out to others? He says: " I certainly don't bring it up to people unless it's an informed question such as the ones you've been raising. I don't go out to audiences and say, "Hey, look how spiritual we're all going to be tonight." We're here to have fun.
One of the definitions of happiness is that one is not self-conscious, one is no longer conscious of history, of future, of physical feeling, of concern, worry, anxiety, regret - any of the things that commonly put us in a situation of being unhappy. If all those are gone, if all those are at least momentarily diffused and forgotten, then one tends to be happy. And on a given night, if music moves you and touches you and you're in the moment, and you're not thinking about your concerns, your bills, the economy, whatever, then you're happy. And that, in and of itself, is a spiritual awakening, at least for an hour and a half, two hours. To be happy is enough."
All of this suggest, to me, what Whitehead was getting at in Adventures of Ideas. It is to be in the moment, bringing all the feelings of the past and giving form, to last in the moment, to prepare us for the next moment in the process. Elling’s is living spirituality that invites us on the journey of harmony and intensity.