Derek Gordon’s legacy lives on

Jazz musicians perform to benefit arts fund

Derek Gordon was a Kurt Elling fan. Gordon booked the jazz singer from Chicago at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and later at the Manship Theatre in Baton Rouge.

Elling and his family, prior to their move to New York in 2008, also welcomed Gordon, the late president and CEO of the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge, as a dinner guest at the singer’s home in Chicago.

Elling remembers his 2009 concert at the Manship Theatre well. He’s happy to be returning to the theater Tuesday as one of four performers participating in a concert that will benefit the Derek E. Gordon Arts Fund. But Elling regrets that Gordon, his jazz-loving friend and patron, who died Sept. 12, 2012, won’t be there to enjoy the concert.

In a 2007 interview with The Advocate, Gordon cited Elling’s album, “Nightmoves,” as a personal favorite. The singer, he said, “is a poet, a voice, a philosopher and a showman. He has such a control and a sense of ease in his music. Once you hear him, you never forget it.”

Elling and Gordon met when the arts administrator worked at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

“Gordon made it clear that he really loved the music I was doing,” Elling recalled. “He was extremely gracious to me, a sweet and kind person and very generous with the contacts he had and opportunities that arose. I always felt that he was a big supporter of mine.”

Elling will perform at the Derek E. Gordon Arts Fund benefit with one of jazz music’s top pianists, Fred Hersch. Vocalist Vanessa Rubin and classical guitarist Berta Rojas are also on the program.

Elling and Hersch have worked together before, in duet concerts and for the pianist’s setting of Walt Whitman poetry to music, “Leaves of Grass.”

Elling is a 10-time Grammy nominee who won a Grammy for his 2009 album, “Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane & Hartman.”

“It was great to be nominated all those times,” he said. “It’s always wonderful when people make it clear that they’re listening to your work and enjoying it.”

The singer’s latest album, 2012’s “1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project,” features his interpretations of classic pop songs composed by Carole King, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Sam Cooke and more.

“We’re doing music from a popular realm in our style,” Elling explained. “We wanted to bring my ideas to bear upon what’s possible with those compositions.”

The songwriters identified with the Brill Building in New York City are also very much a part of the arc of American music.

“They are great writers, following in the tradition of the Tin Pan Alley writers, trying to make hit records, trying to build a better mousetrap, learning from each other, stealing from each other,” Elling said.

His jazz listeners have responded well to his arrangements of Brill Building pop hits.

“They love it,” he said. “I’m very fortunate that my jazz people tend to follow me. And I do my best to keep them happy and keep them surprised about which direction we’re going in.”