The world is full of people whose parents insisted that they take piano lessons. But the world’s supply of people who have mastered the piano is much, much smaller.
Mary Louise Knutson is one of those few. She took her first piano lesson at age 4 and has since built a career as a nimble, lively virtuoso in the world of jazz.
The group she formed in 1992, the Mary Louise Knutson Trio, has been described as “state-of-the-art piano trio finery” by JazzTimes, with perfor- mances offering “timeless, classic, piano-trio music, right up there with Bill Evans and Bill Charlap,” said the Star Tribune, citing two of America’s most influential jazz pianists.
Knutson’s trio, which typically includes Gordon Johnson on bass and Phil Hey on drums, tours frequently and also plays at a number of venues around town, including jazz clubs such as the Dakota and Crooners in Minneapolis and at Jazz@St.Barney’s in Plymouth, among others.
The trio’s two CDs, In the Bubble and Call Me When You Get There, feature jazz standards and Knutson’s original compositions. Both have performed well on JazzWeek’s radio charts.
From classical to jazz
After growing up in Wausau, Wisconsin, Knutson graduated from Lawrence University in Appleton with
a degree in classical piano performance. But during a summer session at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, she encountered other young musicians who were studying jazz.
What she heard intrigued her, and when she moved to Minneapolis after graduation, she knew she wanted to be a jazz pianist.
It was a style of music that she mostly taught herself.
“I sat in my apartment listening to recordings, transcribing and analyzing them, learning how to express melodies,” she said. “The biggest part was learning how to improvise melodies, which is something I’ve worked at continuously.”
As she freelanced with other groups and sat in on jam sessions, she knew she wanted to form her own trio, so she did. And that group’s been going strong for 28 years now.
When she’s not busy with her own group, Knutson plays with the JazzMN Orchestra and accompanies beloved jazz vocalists Connie Evingson and Patty Peterson. She also teaches private lessons in jazz piano on the side.
All about town
This month, Knutson was scheduled to be at the piano during the season-finale performance of the JazzMN Orchestra, featuring Grammy-winning Brazilian vocalist Luciana Souza on April 20 at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres (COVID-19 will likely change that.)
Kris Howland with Chanhassen Dinner Theatres said it’s really some- thing to see a star like Knutson paired up with a group like JazzMN.
“This is an astonishing group,” she said. “They are one of a handful of professional jazz orchestras still in existence across the nation, and they’re in our own backyard.”
In addition to the JazzMN concert, upcoming shows for Knutson were set to include an April gig with the Jazz Women All-Stars at the jazz club Crooners in Minneapolis and a May 1 show at Orchestra Hall’s Target Atrium in Minneapolis.
Hard work and dedication
So what’s the difference between all of us who disappointed our mothers — by goofing off when we should’ve been practicing piano — and someone like Knutson, who’s devoted her career to composing and performing music at the highest level?
Of course, there’s the matter of talent, with which she was clearly blessed. But there are other factors, as well.
One of them is desire.
“I haven’t found anything else I’d rather do or anything that I think I could do better,” she said.
Then there’s the incredible power of showing up to an instrument, day after day: Practicing with a terrible head cold. Practicing when it’s a beautiful day outside. Practicing with a broken heart. Practicing on your birthday.
A dedicated musician needs to be there for all of it.
Knutson, age 53, practices for at least two hours just about every day in her studio, located in the South Minneapolis home she shares with partner Michael B. Nelson, a trombonist/arranger and long- time Prince collaborator.
“A wise woman once told me, ‘If you want to be a successful artist, you have to put the time in,’” Knutson said. “There are plenty of days when I sit down to write music and nothing comes to me. There might be five days a row with nothing. But then on the sixth day, I get a great idea, and it was worth it. If you’re not working consistently, you won’t be around when the muse shows up. It’s like wanting to win the lottery, but not buying a ticket.”
A refined repertoire
World class jazz/R&B vocalist, KBEM Jazz 88 FM radio personality and Twin Cities music legend Patty Peterson — founder of the Jazz Women All-Stars, of which Knutson is a member — described Knutson as a jazz “goddess.”
“Her exquisite looks, incredible piano playing and professionalism are far superior to so many people who want to be in this business,” Peterson said. “I love the way she jams on stage with up-tempo tunes. And then, when it comes to playing a passionate ballad, she can move an entire room to tears.”
Jeff Whitmill, director of St. Barnabas Center for the Arts and artistic director of Jazz@St.Barney’s concert series at St. Barn- abas Lutheran Church in Plymouth, said the Mary Louise Knutson Trio consistently draws the series’ biggest audiences.
“She’s a musician of the first order and one of the most fun people you’ll ever meet,” he said. “She puts such energy into the piano and the music, and she’s so good at communicating with the audience. She lets people know the significance of the music and why she chose it.”
On the road with Doc
One of Knutson’s career highlights was when she was regularly touring with trumpeter Doc Severinsen, former bandleader for The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. From 2010-2018, she was the pianist for Severinsen’s big band and symphony shows, playing in concert halls all over the United States.
Severinsen, who is now 92, was always known for his flashy outfits, sense of humor and incredible trumpet playing.
“He’s still all those things and more,” Knutson said. “He’s a great guy, and it was a wonderful experience, even though — as one of only a couple of women on the tour bus — I did crave the company of other women sometimes.”
Over the years, Knutson has performed with countless other artists, including jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, Bobby McFerrin, Dianne Reeves and many others.
As a show player, she’s performed with Reba McEntire, Michael Bolton, Jordin Sparks, Trisha Yearwood, Sam Moore, Donny Osmond, Smokey Robinson, the Osmond Brothers and even comedians such as Phyllis Diller.
A distinctive style
Even before she ever sits down to play a note, Knutson has an attention-getting personal style that makes her espe- cially memorable. Her tumbling mass of graying curls has become part of her signature look.
“After seeing my first gray hairs at age 18, I never thought to hide or dye it, and luckily it’s been graying in an attractive way. I always get compliments on it,” she said. “I’m sort of a low- maintenance kind of gal, and I don’t want to spend the money or hassle with anything like dying it.”
In a world in which many musicians opt for a wardrobe of basic black, she also sets herself apart with the colorful, flowing garments she wears during performances.
“I’m very aware of choosing the right clothing,” she said, “because I really want it to pop from the stage.”
When you’ve been performing and composing music for most of your life, the passing years naturally bring new perspectives and approaches. “I used to feel pressure being a rare female instrumentalist in the jazz world,” she said. “I always worked so hard to be at the top of my game, I guess as a way to give people a reason to hire me when they might have traditionally been more comfortable hiring a man.”
Now she’s gained an appreciation of the simpler things, not just in everyday life, but also in her music.
“I used to work so hard to create perfect gems of tunes that would blow people’s minds harmonically or melodically,” she said. “Now, I want things to be simpler.”
And there’s a quiet power in that simplicity.
“I find I’m more able to keep my energy focused in the moment of playing and to be completely present,” she said. “The nerves are gone, and I have realized that if I can enjoy the moment, I’ll actually play better.”
Julie Kendrick is a contributing writer for many local and national publications. She lives in Minneapolis. Follow her @KendrickWorks on Twitter.