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Final Chorus: Kurt Elling: Being Fully in the Moment

Watching and listening to Kurt Elling on the “Jazz Singers” session in PBS’s “Legends of Jazz.” I remembered what Cecil Taylor said of his life’s vocation: “This music is about magic and capturing spirits.” And Duke Ellington explored its religious dimensions. Although I’m an atheist, I can respond spiritedly to religious spirituality in music-from Verdi’s “Requiem” to black gospel singing. Formerly a graduate student at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, Kurt Elling notes that “Jazz had the Spirit from its birth. Gospel music is in its genes.” Also, although he recognizes that “there is a general lack of mystery in our culture to begin with, part of the beauty of the experience of art is in its mystery-particularly when it comes to poetry and music.”

I sensed the pull of mystery in John Coltrane’s ceaseless spiritual searching for connections to the cosmos in his later music. And Elling, in his singular vocalese, as in his lyrics to Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme-Resolution” in his Man in the Air Blue Note CD, connects to Coltrane’s yearning to capture spirits. But Elling, deeply versed in poetry and philosophy, also digs Frank Sinatra, who I doubt read much of Rilke or studied theology. “People think of me,” Elling told Jim Newsom in Virginia’s Portfolio Weekly, “as outré, bizarre, yet Frank is one of the guys that I spent a lot of time checking out and learning from.”

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Originally Published
Nat Hentoff

Nat Hentoff

Over more than 60 years, Nat Hentoff (1925-2017) wrote about music, politics, and many other subjects for a variety of publications, including DownBeat (which he edited from 1953 to 1957), the Village Voice (where he was a weekly columnist from 1958 to 2009), the Wall Street Journal, and JazzTimes, to which he regularly contributed the Final Chorus column from 1998 to 2012. Of the 32 books that he wrote, co-wrote, or edited, 10 focus on jazz. In 2004, Hentoff became the first recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Jazz Masters award for jazz advocacy.