Heralded by critics as "the world's hippest singer" and "beyond the cutting edge," internationally renowned jazz vocalist Kurt Elling will perform at 7 p.m. this Saturday, May 7, at The Arts Center, in Jazzin' Oak Park.
Sponsored by the Oak Park Area Arts Council and the Oak Park and River Forest High School Alumni Association, Jazzin' Oak Park will benefit artistically talented area high school students by raising funds for 11 $1,000 college scholarships.
Camille Wilson White, executive director of the Arts Council, could hardly contain her glee about booking Elling, a Chicago-area native. Without any personal connections, Wilson White began lobbying Elling's agent over a year ago before getting a rejection. But she refused to take "no" for an answer.
"When he's not traveling, Kurt appears at the Green Mill [4802 N. Broadway in Chicago] on Wednesday evenings," Wilson White explained. "So I said to the Arts Council board, 'We need to make a field trip down to the Green Mill. Let's go down and see if we can talk to Kurt Elling ourselves.' And that's exactly what we did."
Last September, Wilson White, accompanied by several board members, arrived at the Green Mill early enough to strike up a conversation with Elling before his show. And the rest, as they say, is history.
"So it's a long time coming, but the bottom line is, we got him," she said, with a laugh.
Kurt Elling, jazz innovator
During his 10-year career as a jazz singer, composer and lyricist, every one of Elling's six releases for the Blue Note label has been nominated for a Grammy award.
At age 37, Elling is best known for reinvigorating the art of vocalese: writing and performing lyrics to fit the lines of preexisting instrumental jazz solos. One of the finest examples of this is his universalist lyric for John Coltrane's "Resolution," the second movement of "A Love Supreme:"
Godâ€"king above all other godsâ€"lead us now, so we can walk wherein the prophets said that we would trod.
Buddhaâ€"tell a sutra like a spellâ€"teach us well to answer silence with the calling of bells.
Allahâ€"bring us to a good alarmâ€"subjugate our wills to answer you like a mighty arm. . . .
And Jesusâ€"remember every promise madeâ€"present yourself in the middle of the prayers that we say.
Vishnuâ€"preserve us all along the wayâ€"keep us clear of the final thunderbolt of the judgment day. . . .
Buildâ€"bridges where you need to goâ€"bring the fire of enlightenment here to life below.
Speakâ€"mercy to the things you meetâ€"listen up to hear the whispering of the blood you bleed.
Stay awakeâ€"no mistakeâ€"dance the dream awakeâ€"and awake.
A former University of Chicago Divinity School student, Elling's lyrics reveal a concern with love, both human and divine.
"I am an artist," he insisted, however, "not a preacher, a philosopher or an academic."
Elling is also famous for his rapid scatting (using nonsense syllables as lyric), as well as an art form he invented called "ranting."
Describing how he first started "ranting" in earlier days, Elling said, "I was doing wedding band things . . . . On these gigs, we'd be in the middle of 'Isn't it Romantic' or something like that, and the leader would come up while I was singing and say in my ear, 'Tell them that they're going to cut the cake now,' or 'Five minutes to the bouquet toss.'
"So instead of stopping singing, I'd just start making up the announcement in song, often trying to rhyme the lyrics and sometimes making up little stories to go with it, singing all the while over the changes.
"Well, I was invited on the gig with the Ed Petersen Band at the Green Mill. We were hitting on some tune, and Ed leans into me and says, 'Hey, man! You should do that thing you do on the wedding dates where you make up a storyâ€"that is cool, man!'
"So I leapt out thereâ€"and out pops a pretty prolonged subconscious offering involving dream sequences and out of body trances and some past life stuff. Well! You can imagine the response that gotâ€"and you can imagine how thrilling it was to feel this other door open. So I ended up experimenting with that quite a bit in front of audiences, and they loved it. It was jazzâ€"even I never knew where it would go."
Elling's improvised "rants" are sometimes accompanied by improvised melodies, while other times they have no instrumentation.
On Saturday night, he will perform with his trio, longtime collaborator Laurence Hobgood on the piano, Rob Amster on bass and Frank Parker, Jr. on drums.
"Listening to his CDs is one thing," said Wilson White. "But when you hear it live, it's just another world. The night we went to the Green Mill, when the show started we looked around and the place was packed, packed. He is something to see."
The United Kingdom's Jazz Review would agree. In 2002, a reviewer suggested, "Elling may be the greatest male jazz singer of all time."
Elling has won the Down Beat critics and Jazz Times reader polls three years in a row and has toured through Canada, Israel, Japan, Australia and most of Europe.
Ars Nova to open
Five of the most talented jazz instrumentalists at Oak Park and River Forest High School will open Jazzin' Oak Park for Kurt Elling. These students joined forces to form the group Ars Nova ("new art") especially for this event. All have played with the larger Jazz Band Ensemble at OPRF.
"I really hope we continue to play together more outside school though," said saxophone player Chris Weller, the only junior among seniors. "We sound good."
Alex McLeese will play saxophone for the show as well; he's an accomplished classical clarinet player to boot. "With jazz, there is so much opportunity for self-expression. There's more range for creating tone and ideas," he said.
Pianist Cole DeGenova, drummer Keith Brooks and bass player Jacob Recchia have played together in the past with their own group, Cole DeGenova & the Casanovas, for which they produced a jazz CD, as well.
"There's something totally distinct to jazz that you can't find in any other musicâ€"there is freedom and artistry of playing," said DeGenova.
He (and Hobgood) will have the rare opportunity to play on a Fazioli piano on loan to The Arts Center especially for Jazzin' Oak Park. Fazioli pianos are made by hand from red spruce wood from the western Italian Alps, and are a favorite of jazz great Herbie Hancock.
The band members credit the Oak Park and River Forest school system with nurturing their jazz development. Recchia mused, "I think it's unusual that Oak Park has jazz bands in junior high and high school. Ellen Holleman was a great director in junior high and then I was introduced to Scotty Jones for high school."
Holleman is Oak Park Elementary School District 97's coordinator for instrumental music and Jones is music department chair for the high school. Eighteen year ago, when Holleman started as a music teacher at Dist. 97, there was no jazz program. She soon spearheaded what became a jazz extravaganza in Oak Park. Now there are co-curricular jazz bands for sixth, seventh and eighth grades at Brooks and Julian middle schools. It has even trickled down to the elementary schools where some fifth grade jazz bands exist.
Keith Brooks' jazz education began at Beye School, where Jonathan Ellwanger (now Beye's principal) was his music teacher.
"I was part of the jazz band there," Brooks recalls. "We played jazz and rock and funk. And I thought, 'I really enjoy playing this.' As I got ready to go to junior high, I met Ms. Holleman and she helped me to further enhance my skills playing drums and playing jazz. After I got to high school, I met Mr. Jones. He helped me and told me about people who could help me be a better musician. So I had a lot of support from the schools."
Jones, in turn, acknowledges the support of the Arts Council. "The Arts Council makes it a high priority to involve our kids [with Jazzin' Oak Park] each yearâ€"to let them perform," he said. "These kids have been treated like royalty. The Arts Council has made it a point to give a lot back to our kids, to make this educational."
In keeping with this focus, the Arts Council arranged for Elling and Hobgood to hold a master class for jazz students at OPRF next Monday afternoon. Referring to the upcoming class, Elling wrote, "Teaching young people about music is among the most important things that informed adults can do." Junior high jazz students from Oak Park's Brooks and Julian middle schools and from Roosevelt Middle School in River Forest also have been invited to attend.
Arts Council activities
Founded in 1974, the Arts Council's mission is "to promote, develop and support performing, visual and literary arts in Oak Park and neighboring suburban communities."
Wilson White is working to make Jazzin' Oak Park the premier jazz event in the western suburbs. This relatively new annual fundraiser began three years ago; last year Chicago jazz trumpeter Orbert Davis was its headliner.
The Arts Council's other major fundraiser, Artful Object, has taken place every fall for over 10 years. Most of the proceeds from that event support ArtsFunds, a program that distributes money to local arts organizations. In July, ArtsFunds will give a total of $65,000 to 38 area arts organizations, including Open Door Repertory Company, The Art House, and Heritage Chorale, to name a few.
Among other offerings, the Arts Council prints a quarterly newsletter listing the latest arts events in Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park. Their e-mail service, called "e-art," announces auditions, employment opportunities in the arts, as well as art studio rentals and art-related events.
Each year the Arts Council recognizes exceptional contributions to the arts by presenting the Joseph Randall Shapiro Award to a local individual or organization. This year's winner was Circle Theatre in Forest Park.
Scholarship money raised from Jazzin' Oak Park will go to recipients selected by an Arts Council scholarship committee that reviews CDs, audiotapes, DVDs, slides, portfolios and photographs of student art, in addition to an application and essay. This year's student essay question is, "How does living in a diverse community affect your art, and how will it affect your future?"
Jazzin' Oak Park begins at 7 p.m. Saturday, May 7, at The Arts Center, 200 N. Oak Park Ave. Tickets are $45; $35 for Oak Park Area Arts Council members, OPRFHS Alumni Association members, seniors, students and groups of 10 or more. Tickets are available at Buzz CafĂ©, 905 S. Lombard Ave.; Buzz CafĂ© in the Oak Park Public Library, 834 Lake St.; Val's halla Records, 723-1/2 South Blvd.; Terra Incognito, 246 Chicago Ave. and Gallery Etcetera, 7349 Madison St., Forest Park. Call the Arts Council at 358-5690 for more information.