Musician paints jazz as spiritual

Thursday, November 11, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:06 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Jazz music may not be the first thing on the minds of MU religious studies students, but according to Chicago-based jazz singer Kurt Elling, there is a strong relationship between jazz and the study of the divine.

On Monday, Elling spoke to nearly 100 religious studies students, faculty and community members about the relationship between jazz and spirituality. MU’s Department of Religious Studies and the “We Always Swing” Jazz Series sponsored the free lecture.

“Kurt is the perfect example of what you can do with your religious studies major,” said Trish Beckman, an assistant professor of religion and one of Elling’s former classmates. “It’s not always about the solitary work of a scholar, but it’s about doing other things as well. Kurt brings a whole language to it that a lot of us study but don’t do ourselves.”

Elling grew up with an interest in both music and religion; he was raised Lutheran and sang in his church choir. As a graduate student at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, he studied the philosophy of religion against the backdrop of a city with a thriving jazz scene.

Elling has since made a career of his two interests and is known for his use of lyrics to explore spiritual concepts.

Alicia Miles, a vocal performance major at MU, has been a fan of Elling’s work for more than five years. She said Elling’s lyrics have always impressed her.

“That’s why I’m here, to see what’s inside of his head to make him write like he does,” she said. “I’m really thankful that he chose to do this art; it’s not easy.”

During his speech, Elling pointed out that jazz has gospel roots.

“In spite of its early reputation as the devil’s music, jazz had the spirit from its birth,” he said. “Gospel music is in its genes.”

Elling also pointed to other jazz musicians who explore spirituality in their work. John Coltrane’s grandfathers were both ministers, he said. Art Blakey played in his church as a young boy and later converted to Islam. Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter are both Buddhist, Elling said, and feel their music provides a way to explore spirituality.

“I am hard-pressed to find an aspect of music that is not spiritual,” he said.

The event’s organizers said they were happy to see the collaboration of those interested in jazz and religious studies.

“The neat thing about (the lecture) is the connection between the community and what we do in our religious studies department,” Beckman said. “It’s that literary love meets metaphysical mystical music that captivates most of us religious studies types and jazz lovers, too. When we all come together, it’s really exciting.”

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