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What’s in a Grammy?

As this issue went to press, one of the big stories in the music world was that 26-year-old Esperanza Spalding won the Grammy for Best New Artist, triumphing over such popular favorites as teen idol Justin Bieber and Canadian rapper Drake. Headlines everywhere called the victory an “upset,” and Spalding was profiled in media outlets that rarely even mention jazz, much less feature it.

Our cover subject knows more than a little about the Grammy Awards, including the winning and the losing things. Beginning with his debut album, 1995’s Close Your Eyes, every one of Kurt Elling’s discs has been nominated for a Grammy in the Best Jazz Vocal Album category. Yet, through 14 years and all those nominations, Elling became something of a musical analogy to the NFL’s Buffalo Bills: the most successful loser ever. His losing streak finally ended last year, when Dedicated to You took home the statuette. Elling says being passed over wasn’t easy, but his respect for his colleagues seems to stamp out any jealousy. “The very first time I was nominated and didn’t win, what are you going to do?” he says. “I lost to Shirley Horn. Who am I [compared] to someone like that? There were several times when there were people in the mix who had put the time in, who were in line in front of me. You can’t be upset about any of that.”

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