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Jazz Singer Kurt Elling Plays Not My Job

Kurt Elling
Timothy Saccenti/

For many years, vocalist Kurt Elling was the Susan Lucci of jazz: Every year he would be nominated for a Grammy, and then every year he wouldn't win. But ninth time's a charm! In 2010, he won his first Grammy, and this year, he's a favorite to win another for his latest record, The Gate.

We've invited Elling to answer three questions about other artists nominated for the Grammys.

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PETER SAGAL, HOST:

And now, the game where people who have done a lot of great things do something else. Kurt Elling is often called the greatest male jazz singer alive. But for many years, he was the Susan Lucci of jazz.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: He'd be nominated for a Grammy every year and then he would not win a Grammy every year. Another point of comparison to Ms. Lucci, the man rocks a formal gown.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: He got his first Grammy last year. He's also a favorite to win his second this year for his latest record, "The Gate." We are so pleased to welcome Chicago's own Kurt Elling. Kurt, great to have you here.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

KURT ELLING: Thank you.

SAGAL: So, did you develop this desire to sing jazz early? Was this something that you did as...

ELLING: No, not until late adolescence we would call it, I guess.

SAGAL: Right.

ELLING: Scientifically.

SAGAL: Right.

TOM BODETT: Yeah, that's when I took up smoking.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ELLING: Some people call it that.

SAGAL: Yeah. But that wasn't where you were going. Weren't you - you had other career...

ELLING: No. My father was a Kapellmeister or a church musician. So I took that from him and a lot of sort of the craft of music. And then I got turned on to jazz and then when I came back here to go to the University of Chicago for divinity school, which is another whole left turn, I was sitting in, in clubs at night.

SAGAL: Right.

ELLING: And I'd come out of nowhere and do my little thing, and all these cats would just hey, you sound great, and what's you're name, and come back next week. And these old cats would put their arms around my shoulder and say you're with us. Over and over again this happened to me in Chicago. It happened to me in Minneapolis. It happened to me in New York.

These beautiful established artists would really surround me and remind me and pull me in. It never happened to me in divinity school.

SAGAL: Really, strangely?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ELLING: Never one - oh, young man, you're with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ELLING: You come over here.

SAGAL: No?

ELLING: It never happened.

SAGAL: So you've been recording jazz for a while. You've been, god knows how many records. First Grammy Award last year and another nomination this year, top of the game. One of the things you're known for is our ability to scat, you're good at.

ELLING: Some people think.

SAGAL: Can you, like, talk in scat? If I were to ask you a question now, you could answer in scat?

ELLING: If you need me to.

SAGAL: Oh, here we go.

ELLING: But the more people hear it...

SAGAL: All right, so here we go. So what do you think of the state of jazz in America?

ELLING: Well...

(SOUNDBITE OF SCAT)

ELLING: You know, it sounds a little Danish.

SAGAL: It does.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Is that the secret?

ELLING: Yeah.

SAGAL: Oh my god.

ELLING: It is the secret.

SAGAL: It that all you guys have been doing, decided what bar to go to after the gig, in Danish.

ELLING: Well, Clark Terry lived over there long enough that he figured out that's how you - because he had a whole bit he does called mumble.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUMBLE)

ELLING: And then I'd go to Denmark and everybody understands me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ELLING: They don't think I'm scatting at all, they just think I'm speaking.

SAGAL: Right.

ELLING: It's crazy.

SAGAL: You're latest album, "The Gate," actually has some covers of some popular songs, "Norwegian Wood," by the Beatles and "Stepping Out," by Joe Jackson.

ELLING: Jazz is the ultimate synchronic art form.

SAGAL: Well, let's see. Because we want to help you, we want to help you to a wider audience. So here's a song - and we don't know if this is going to work. We want to see if you can do this in your style. This is a song by Kesha. Here's the original version.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF "WE R WHO WE R")

SAGAL: All right, I'm just going to say, before anybody scoffs, this woman has made so much money, there's a dollar sign in her name, OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: So we wanted to see, we've given you the lyrics and we wanted to see if you could actually do a cover of that.

ELLING: I could, but, you know, when I scan the lyrics...

SAGAL: Yeah.

ELLING: Before having heard the throbbing salacious money-making beat that is so...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ELLING: ...prominent in successful music these days, I scanned this and it sounded like a tawdry Robert Flack to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Is there any other kind of Roberta Flack?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Seriously? But no, go on.

ELLING: Tonight, we're going hard, h-h-hard hard, just like the worlds is ours, ours, ours. Right?

SAGAL: Right.

ELLING: We're tearing it apart, pa-pa-pa-part, part.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ELLING: You know we're superstars. We are who we are, are, are, are.

SAGAL: Bravo. Kurt Elling, ladies and gentleman.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: I'm telling you, they like it. Next, we've got a little song called Friday we want to give you. Never mind.

ROXANNE ROBERTS: In jazz speak, is there sort of Chicago jazz speak and New York jazz speak and I'm thinking this is all jargon.

ELLING: Stuff goes around but it's definitely fairly regulated at this point.

SAGAL: All right, I'm going to do this.

ROBERTS: OK, say something in jazz speak.

SAGAL: Yeah.

ROBERTS: Yeah, say something.

SAGAL: Say something in jazz, please.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ELLING: Well, Deke, what about which would you have me pearl?

SAGAL: I have no idea what you just said, but it sounded very cool.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Well, Kurt Elling, we're delighted to have you with us. We have asked you here to play a game we're calling?

CARL KASELL: Dude, first thing you need to do, get a drum machine.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: So, you got...

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: You got another Grammy nomination. Congrats. But seriously, if you're ever going to be in the part of the awards broadcast that people get to watch, you're going to have to get up into the pop category.

So, we're going to ask you three questions about the other nominees this year. Get two right, you win our prize for one of our listeners, Carl's voice on their voicemail. Carl, who is Kurt Elling playing for?

KASELL: Kurt is playing for Tara McDonnell of Boca Raton, Florida.

SAGAL: All right, you ready to play?

ELLING: Tara, I need you to start rubbing your commemorative Newt Gingrich chia pet for luck.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: All right, here's your first question. Bruno Mars is up for Best Album, Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Boyish Smile of the Year, you name it. How did Bruno Mars get his start in show business?

Was it A: as a nine year old soloist for the group Up With People? B: as a four year old Elvis Presley impersonator? Or C: as a bear at Disneyland's Country Bear Jamboree attraction?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ELLING: I'm going to go with the Elvis impersonator.

SAGAL: You're going to go with the Elvis impersonator?

ELLING: Because I have routinely seen his photo and said "that is so Elvis," with the cocked head and the t-shirt with the rolled up thing and the...

SAGAL: You're right. He got his start...

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

SAGAL: He grew up in Honolulu. His father played a band for tourists. They did all the standards. It was a novelty act. And they had him come out as a four year old and sing like Elvis and he was filmed in the 1992 move "Honeymoon in Vegas." Here's Bruno Mars at the age of four.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ELLING: At a certain point, you're going to want to walk away from something like that.

SAGAL: No.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: You're going to want to move on.

ELLING: You are.

SAGAL: The next question, the British singer Adele, of course we all know up for a bunch of Grammys, favored to win. But her brief career has not been without controversy. Who claimed that they were owed royalties from her hit songs?

Was it A: her ex-boyfriend because he broke her heart and thus inspired her songs?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: B: the band the Del Tones, who say she's profiting by people confusing her, Adele, with them, the Del Tones? Or C: her sixth grade English teacher, who helped her lose her Eliza Doolittle like accent?

ELLING: Oh, it's the boyfriend.

SAGAL: The boyfriend?

ELLING: Yeah.

SAGAL: You sure?

ELLING: Yeah, boyfriends are like that.

SAGAL: They are. You're right.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

SAGAL: That's amazing.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

ELLING: See, that chia pet is coming in handy now.

SAGAL: Yeah, it is. You know that Adele sings songs about heartbreak. The guy who did break her heart said you owe me some money. She told him to get lost.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: All right, you're doing really well here. You're doing really, really well. Your last question, Indie band Bon Iver is up for Record of the Year as well. Band leader Justin Vernon says the idea for the band came to him when?

A: when he was reading the Harry Potter books out loud to his kids and he starting singing in his Dobby the House Elf voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: B: he said the vision for the band came to him while he was laid up with mononucleosis and watching "Northern Exposure" on TV. Or C: it started as a U2 tribute band and somebody said he was even, "Bono-er than Bono."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ELLING: Doesn't Bon Iver mean good winter?

SAGAL: It might.

ROBERTS: Think about "Northern Exposure."

ELLING: I was thinking about "Northern Exposure."

ROBERTS: I mean you already won.

ELLING: And mono as a combination.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROBERTS: Well, I mean you're flat on your back.

ELLING: Yeah.

ROBERTS: And you're watching a show about a very cold desolate place.

ELLING: OK, I'm going with Roxanne on this then.

SAGAL: I think you're wise to do so. She's right and so are you. Yes, that's what happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: He was up in his cabin. He was watching "Northern Exposure" and there was an episode of the show in which they came out and they're sort of wishing each other a Bon Hiver, or good winter.

ELLING: Oh, well there you go.

SAGAL: And that's the name of the band and it went from there. Carl, how did Kurt Elling do on our quiz?

KASELL: Kurt, you had three correct answers. So you win for Tara McDonnell.

SAGAL: Well done.

ELLING: Hey Tara.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: Well done. Kurt Elling's latest record is "The Gate." It's up for a Grammy this weekend. He's also won a Grammy for his fabulous record "Devoted to You." Kurt Elling, thank you so much for being with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: Kurt Elling, ladies and gentleman.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!