Twelve years ago, jazz singer Kurt Elling left Chicago for New York.
Three months ago, he returned.
The move, says Elling, was prompted not by the pandemic, which has devastated New York, but by a longstanding desire to move back to the city where he launched his career.
Still, with many New Yorkers having left the city – as documented in various press reports – one has to wonder if the pandemic was the catalyst that finally triggered the move.
“Jennifer and I had talked about moving back every year that we lived in New York,” says Elling, referring to his wife, Jennifer Elling.
“It was always a question of when was going to be right. The catalyst was that my daughter got into an arts high school” in Chicago, adds Elling of the couple’s teenager.
Also in the mix: “Family concerns, grandparents wanting to enjoy them while they’re young and healthy,” explains Elling. “It just happened that the pandemic hit on the summer that we had already planned to come home. It made the move certainly more challenging and more dramatic. But it was 11 years coming, since we only thought we were going to be there for a year.”
Before the move, Elling was identified as a Chicago singer whose art had been shaped on the bandstand by hometown giants such as saxophonists Von Freeman, Eddie Johnson and Edward Petersen. Elling’s long New York tenure dulled that profile, which he now seems intent on sharpening. For when Elling began presenting his local “Porch Concerts” online over the summer, and when he recently opened his “25th Anniversary Virtual Concert Tour” online, his between-song commentary embraced his ties to this city and its globally admired jazz scene.
So why had he resettled in New York?
“I think it’s all too common for jazz musicians who are coming up to want to test their mettle” there, says Elling. “We want to see if you can find a place in New York that is yours. I wanted to have something of what I think are sacred spaces. A neighborhood that belongs to me. Friends that I made myself and not just from passing through. As much as I love Chicago, New York has always been a force to be reckoned with.”
Quite apart from geography, however, Elling – like most musicians in the United States – temporarily has lost the home that’s central to his art: the stage. He played his last bona fide public concert in March in California, just before the coronavirus lockdown, and — again like most colleagues — has been contemplating the toll of that loss.
“As it has been for a lot of musicians, it’s been a psychological challenge,” says Elling. “I was upwards of 200 nights a year on the road before the pandemic. And to have that avenue of communication, vocation, sustenance so completely cut off, so suddenly – I think the hardest part for me has certainly been that I can’t engage my vocation.
“I need to sing for certainly emotional reasons, for spiritual reasons, physiological reasons, for the sake of my sense of self in the world, for friendship’s sake. If I’m not out there, some of these people I see only on these gigs.
“I count my blessings,” adds Elling, who this year released the album “Secrets Are the Best Stories.” “I’m not out on the street. I’m not scrambling in the way a lot of musicians are. I was able to take a step back for a second and try to figure out what I could contribute, rather than just claw my way through something.”
What he came up with was the aforementioned “25th Anniversary Virtual Concert Tour,” a series of Friday-night livestreams from the Green Mill Jazz Club. That’s where then-Blue Note Records president Bruce Lundvall first heard Elling and decided to sign him in the summer of 1994.
I heard Elling several months before Lundvall did and also was struck by Elling’s work.
“The other ‘find’ of the evening was newcomer Kurt Elling, a singer who instantly – and justly – won over the huge crowd at the Jazz Showcase,” I wrote of a January 1994 performance. “His high-speed scat in music of Thelonious Monk (with ingenious lyrics by the great Jon Hendricks) and his unexpected whimsy in the old torch song ‘Everything Happens to Me’ utterly disarmed his listeners.”
A week later, Elling told me of his surprise at how Chicago musicians had begun embracing him.
“When I began studying at the U. of C. (two years ago), I started sitting in with musicians in South Side places like Alexander’s Steak House and the New Apartment Lounge,” Elling had said. “And I couldn’t believe it, but musicians like Eddie Johnson and Von Freeman and Ed Petersen and Paul Serrano kept pushing me on. … So I’m a singer now. I’m still trying to figure out exactly what it is I’m doing (vocally). I’m living in a basement, hustling for work, singing for society bands, trying to pay off student loans and eating sparingly.
“But this is the best time to be a jazz singer. I mean, how many young male jazz singers are there now? Hardly any, because they don’t teach jazz in the schools. So maybe the field is open.”
Elling was right about that, considering the dearth of great male jazz singers then and now. His first Blue Note album, “Close Your Eyes,” emerged as the most exciting jazz debut recording of 1995, propelling him to the front ranks of that era’s jazz vocalists. Several brilliant subsequent albums followed, as well as some decidedly less interesting work.
But Elling certainly was performing on all cylinders during his first “25th Anniversary Virtual Concert Tour” performance Oct. 9. Though his vocal tone was a bit nasal and even at its best not exactly plush, his scat singing proved thrilling and his range of repertoire wide.
The Green Mill’s online concerts, which also include a “Saturday Night at the Green Mill” series featuring other artists and hosted by Elling, are likely to benefit both singer and venue.
“It helps keep the joint at the forefront,” says Green Mill club owner Dave Jemilo. “It’s seen all over the world, and it’s coming live from the Green Mill.
“It’s not like you’re putting on a slick show. It’s like you’re putting on a gig.”
Yet the production values — featuring warm lighting and unobtrusive camera work — exceed much of what we’re encountering online these days.
It all comes across as Elling’s somewhat belated but explicitly stated love song to Chicago, a city he has been reevaluating since his return.
“A lot has changed, most of the important things are still the same, some of the saddest things are still the same,” says Elling.
“We still have the obvious problem with guns and gun violence in town. The city is still as beautiful aesthetically as it’s ever been, if not more so. … I’m hopeful.”
“Because Chicago is an incredibly resilient and tough city. And I think that a lot of the brain drain or monetary drain that front-line New York is suffering just now, we’re not going to have as much, because Chicago is an economically more livable city to begin with.”
Chicago, adds Elling, has been “my dream city from my earliest memories. It’s the sparkling, magnificent, architectural and artistic and culinary capital on the beautiful Lake Michigan. And with COVID treating the world the way that it is, and cities having to circle the wagons, I want to be home and help defend my city.”
To view the “25th Anniversary Virtual Tour” and “Saturday Night at the Green Mill” series, visit https://greenmilljazz.com.
Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.
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