Kurt Elling was born in Chicago, Illinois on November 2, 1967. His interest in music started with his father, who was a choir leader at a Lutheran church. Elling attended elementary school at St. Paul Lutheran School in Rockford, and throughout his early years, he sang in choirs and played violin, French horn, piano, and drums.
Elling attended Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, where he majored in history and minored in religion. After graduating from Gustavus Adolphus in 1989, Elling enrolled in graduate school at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
In Chicago, Elling held day jobs to survive, working as a bartender and even as a mover. Elling made extra income singing at weddings in addition to playing at clubs. At this time, he began singing in a scat style and improvising his own lyrics. Elling began listening to the vocalese of jazz singer Mark Murphy, who exposed him to the poetry of Jack Kerouac. The minimalism and emotion of Chet Baker's music was also influential.
While living in Chicago in 1995, Elling decided he was ready to record. He had met pianist Laurence Hobgood and convinced him that he was ready to go into the studio, and they came out with nine solid songs. The cassette recording was sent to Bill Traut, a manager in Los Angeles, who eventually gave it to Bruce Lundvall of Blue Note Records.
In 1995, Elling was signed to Blue Note, and the songs on the demo became the Grammy nominated label debut, Close Your Eyes (1995). The album features Edward Petersen and Von Freeman on tenor saxophone, Dave Onderdonk on guitar, Laurence Hobgood on piano, Eric Hochberg and Rob Amster on acoustic bass, and Paul Wertico on drums. Close Your Eyes was followed several years later by The Messenger (1997), with Elling releasing a total of six albums for the Blue Note label.
In 2006, Elling performed on the television program Legends of Jazz, in the episode "The Jazz Singers". Elling sang "She's Funny That Way" and performed a duet with Al Jarreau on "Take Five". The recording was released on CD and DVD. In August of the same year, Elling signed a new record contract with Concord Jazz, and his first album with the label, Nightmoves, was released in 2007.
The follow-up, Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman (2009), is a tribute to the 1963 recording John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, widely recognized as one of the all-time finest jazz vocal albums. The album arose out of a 2005 concert commissioned by the Chicago Jazz Festival, showcasing the Coltrane-Hartman material. Later, Elling and pianist Laurence Hobgood rearranged the music, culminating in a performance in the Allen Room at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York. The concert was recorded in January 2009 and the album was released in June.
On January 31, 2010, Elling won his first Grammy Award in the category of Best Jazz Vocal Album for the album Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman on the Concord Jazz label.
Blue Note Records:
Close Your Eyes (1995)
The Messenger (1997)
This Time It's Love (1998)
Live in Chicago (2000)
Flirting with Twilight (2001)
Man in the Air (2003)
Dedicated to You (2009)
The Gate (2011)
1619 Broadway -- The Brill Building Project (2012)
Passion World (2015)
Guest Appearance 2016
Kurt Elling performed with Branford Marsalis on the 2016 release Upward Spiral.