By Susan Johnson
World-renowned jazz vocalist and Grammy winner Kurt Elling returns to Rockford to perform in a benefit for the Urban Christian Education Fund at 7:30 p.m., Aug. 6, at the Coronado Theatre in downtown Rockford.
It’s a special homecoming for Elling, a musician who spends much of his time on the road performing in venues worldwide. But he got his start right here with a family background in music and is a 1981 graduate of St. Paul Lutheran School in Rockford.
Praised as “the standout male jazz vocalist of our time” by The New York Times, Elling is pleased to come back to the town of his roots and sing for a worthy cause. His latest release, Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman, was awarded the 2010 Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album. A nine-time Grammy nominee, he was just named Male Singer of the Year for the sixth time by the Jazz Journalists Association, and he has won many other awards.
He performed at the White House for the President and first lady in November 2009, at the first official state dinner. June 11, 2010, he was at Wrigley Field to sing the National Anthem and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” for the Cubs/White Sox Crosstown Classic baseball game. He has performed at Chicago’s Symphony Center numerous times, and his maturing voice continues to win new raves. More info is available at his website at kurtelling.com.
The United Christian Education Fund (UCEF) provides tuition assistance to students at St. Paul Lutheran School. After just two years of existence, UCEF will provide nearly $4,000 in tuition aid next year. Proceeds of the benefit go directly to UCEF (see helpucef.org). Tickets are available at coronadopac.org or at the box office.
Kurt Elling granted an exclusive interview to The Rock River Times, which follows.
TRRT: How did you decide to do this benefit concert for UCEF? Did someone approach you about it, or did you hear of it somewhere?
Kurt Elling: St. Paul Lutheran is the church I grew up in as a child, and my father has been on and off the “Minister of Music” since I was 3 years old. So it was an easy enough call. I know some of the challenges that they face and that Rockford faces. So when Pastor Thies approached me about the possibility of doing an educational benefit for the kids in that neighborhood, it seemed the obvious thing to do.
TRRT: What’s your current interest—any particular type of music, any special venue?
KE: I do about 200 nights a year on the road. I play every place from The Green Mill in Chicago, which is a classic, formerly Mafia-owned club, to the Sydney Opera House in Australia, to Carnegie Hall, to a little club in Cleveland called Nighttown; outdoor festivals. I haven’t actually been home at my apartment in New York approaching six weeks because I’ve been playing dates. … We were in Portugal, Cologne, London.
TRRT: Has the depressed economy affected your performance plans?
KE: It’s affected everybody’s consciousness. At least, I’ve been in a very fortunate professional position because what I do is fairly unique. There aren’t as many men of professional caliber who are singing jazz, and also I have the gift of timing. My reputation has been growing throughout the last 15 years or so, and at last my creativity is peaking, so I think everybody is swimming against the tide and the economy. It isn’t going to be any easier getting gigs, but as long as I continue to keep making people happy, and me happy, and keep going strong…
TRRT: Outside the United States, what’s your favorite place to perform? Would the current situation with increased airport security, the TSA scanners, etc., tend to change your plans to perform overseas?
KE: It doesn’t really change the plans. You just have to be mindful of how it’s going to be before you leave here. It’s always on the mind of musicians if you’re on trains, buses…once you leave here, you can’t really control what’s going to happen to you except on the stand. With music, you’re in charge… [but] from the cab ride to the airport to security checking—you’re reacting to things and trying to keep a pleasant mind and be the happy warrior and know that what we’re trying to deliver to people is music, beauty and a friendly handshake. The economy changes things more than airport security because it’s incredibly expensive to get airplane tickets.
We have a couple of spots I would call favorites—the Sydney Opera House; we love going to Australia. We’ve got a lot of beautiful people there. We’ve been there probably about seven times. It’s always great to be welcomed to Paris, and we’ve got a strong following there. It’s fun to be in Denmark because people get all my jokes. Germany is a lot of fun.
TRRT: Would you like to perform with another musician in the near future? If so, who?
KE: I’ve got a list of people, mostly jazz people…I’d really like to hit with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. It’d be great to hit with Stevie Wonder sometime. To really make a record would be great…[also] Renee Fleming.
TRRT: What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned by experience over the course of your career?
KE: That I was right! (laughs) I was right.
TRRT: What advice would you give to young performers just starting out in the music business—made even more difficult in the current economy?
KE: I think there’s only one kind of advice that you can give to anyone. Regardless of the economy, it’s going to be a struggle. To fall in love with something, whether that’s music or piling rocks on top of each other. Just fall in love with something—find your place and follow up on that. If you work harder and are more demanding of yourself, more in love with it, more energetic than anybody, chances are you’ll get what you want.
From the Aug. 4-10, 2010 issue