December 2003

Kurt Elling

While you might expect a hep cat like Chicago jazz vocalist Kurt Elling to be downtown, he actually makes his home in low-key Hyde Park on the Windy City's south side. "It's not the hippest neighborhood," he says, but "it's beautiful, it's affordable, we have a lot of friends down here and we're right on the lake." Plus, Elling says, there are good jazz clubs there.

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Jim Newberry

Kurt Elling at home

He and his wife of seven years, Jennifer, love the diversity, the architecture, plentiful bookstores, nearby parks and the Indian cuisine of Rajun Cajun (which, somewhat bizarrely, also serves soul food). They're also steps away from Lake Michigan, along which Elling runs regularly.

Elling settled in Hyde Park in the early '90s while studying at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and the couple bought their vintage, 2,500-square-foot, three-bedroom apartment six years ago. Now they mischievously call it the kind of apartment "that'll make the New Yorkers jealous."

There's more than urban space to make one jealous. Elling and his wife are avid collectors of contemporary art. "Whenever I'm with her on tour, one of the first things we do is find out where the galleries are," he says, and "see what the scene is like." Every piece in the pad has a story for Elling to tell. Whether it is a Jacob Hashimoto sculpture that features 360 miniature handmade kites ("The first thing we purchased together") or prints by "thought-provoking" New Yorker Glenn Ligon, Elling says, "I like a strong statement."

Elling hints that his interest in visual art may come from his interest in the spiritual. The singer got his chops singing in choirs, after all. "If I had Rockefeller money or something, we'd have a nice mix of this kind of stuff and some moderns and some gothic. I love the German gothic stuff-stuff out of churches with the beautiful gold leaf and all the saints and everything. That stuff is very moving to me. I spent a lot of time in church."

Touring, which he does about six months out of every year, introduced Elling to a current favorite. He owns five pieces by Sydney, Australia-based sculptor James Powditch ("He's a hip dude"), whose work recalls Frank Lloyd Wright and references classic films like The Manchurian Candidate. "You get this crate from Australia and it's 15 feet long and you are totally jaked," Elling exclaims in true jazzbo lingo.

"Myself When I am Real" by Houston's Tierney Malone hangs in the apartment's front room. Elling says that Malone is "influenced by classic cover art," and the piece was specifically created to catch the singer's eye. The artist references an Elling song and the word "Esperanto" stretches across the canvas. As fate would have it, Elling saw it for sale and snatched it up. "It's very jazzy."

Elling's excitement about a new addition, a massive black and red work by Chicago painter Wesley Kimler titled "Tangerine," is contagious: "I'm really jaked about it," he raves. The painting is featured on the packaging of his recent CD, Man in the Air (Blue Note).

Visual art isn't the only hobby Elling has. "I'm always reading with an eye toward how it can affect what I write," he says. Elling writes in his office using a piano and a "working" bookshelf. "This is the A-list stuff. I feel like I want to know the best possible stuff." His favorite authors include Herman Hesse, Saul Bellow, Paul Auster and Vladimir Nabokov. He's been reading poet Robert Creeley to audiences recently, but confesses, "I'll give you a call when I figure it out." As for his own aspirations, Elling says, "I do write outside of music, but I don't care for it as much." If he did, it might be "some mix of Raymond Chandler with a lot of jazz information."

Right now, Elling says he's "reading more political analysis, because of all the trouble that we're in." And not just reading: later in the evening he will play a political benefit. "I don't believe in passivity."

But he does believe in daydreams. "I'd love to have a big Calder mobile happening over the dining room table. That would be awesome."

Computer?
An Apple iBook. "I'm running OS X." He also has a 10-gigabyte iPod. "Ten gigs is pretty huge. I got a Basie playlist. I got a Frank Sinatra playlist. I've got all of Miles Davis at the Plugged Nickel. I've got a lot of choral music, Bach, Edvard Grieg. A lot of Dexter Gordon sides, Ray Charles stuff, Funkadelic, Stevie Wonder, a whole gospel section, the Edwin Hawkins Singers, Marion Williams. And I've got a lot of live Weather Report. It's good to run to. And King Crimson."

Audio?
Kyocera DA-510cx CD player. JVC components. Naim amp. AGI Model 511 preamp. Big Bose PA speakers in his office. And some 30-year-old, British-made KEF 105s in the front room. "They're so clear."

Car?
"A '91 Mercedes 560 SEL," he smiles. "It's 17 feet long. It's my one vice," although he does allow for the occasional Belgian beer. "I've gotta be cool" to keep the voice in shape, he says.

Movies?
"I'm kinda dorky. I like David Mamet; he's so stylized. I like very verbal movies. The Lion in Winter: great writing and splendid acting. A Man for All Seasons. Bergman's metaphysically claustrophobic stuff, like The Seventh Seal. Kurosawa, his stuff is so gorgeous but you need time and a bigger TV to have that experience. Also, Caddyshack and The Blues Brothers-a Chicago classic."

Print?
JazzTimes, Down Beat, the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times and the New Yorker. "I love The New Yorker, and I love Harper's. Thank god for Lewis Lapham-that guy, he deserves a medal."

Listening to?
Theo Bleckmann. Nancy King-"a great singer from Portland. She needs some love from the business." Jackie Allen ("so soulful") and classical pianist Havard Gimse.

Dream endorsement?
"Hugo Boss for the band," Elling says, because looking good is a "part of the jazz tradition."

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