He was a conductor, composer, trumpeter and longtime faculty member at Cornish College of the Arts, but Jim Knapp, who passed away on November 13, will be remembered as the main architect of Seattle’s modern jazz scene. He was 82 years old and lived in an elderly care facility in Kirkland, where he died of congestive heart failure and complications from diabetes, which resulted in the amputation of a leg a few years ago.
“He was the sound of this city,” said John Bishop, drummer and founder of Seattle’s Origin Records. “It’s like your grandfather talks a certain way and wears certain clothes and then one day you’re there, you sound like a grandfather.”
News of Knapp’s death sparked a wave of outpouring on Knapp Facebook page, including an article by Grammy-winning Village Vanguard Orchestra composer-in-residence Jim McNeely, who described Knapp as “a brilliant musician, an excellent teacher, and a humble, gentle and generous man.”
Born in Chicago in 1939, Knapp grew up in a family of musicians.
“Our living room was like a rehearsal room,” remembers Knapp’s younger brother Bill Knapp of Rhode Island. “My dad worked for the telephone company, but he was a jazz pianist and had a small band. My uncle was a professional bass player.
Beginning at the piano and then the trumpet, Jim Knapp began writing big band arrangements while still in high school and graduated with a BA in Music and an MA in Composition from the University of Illinois at Urbana. -Champaign, interrupted by a stint in the US Army. While stationed in Germany, he performed with a young musician named Manfred Eicher, who would later found ECM Records and credit Knapp as an influence. Knapp would later record for ECM with the First Avenue trio.
In Illinois, Knapp developed unique big band instrumentation, contrasting the lush, mellow timbres of the French horn, tuba, and fluegelhorn with the brighter sounds of trumpets and trombones. Swirling copper clouds with reeds lingered in his musical palette. Knapp then codified his thoughts on the arrangement in a 2015 book, “Jazz Harmony.”
In 1969, Knapp moved to Seattle to marry his girlfriend from Illinois, Joan Skinner, a dancer and choreographer who had come to the West to take up a professorship at the University of Washington. Knapp and Skinner collaborated artistically and personally, performing in a free improv group, the American Contemporary Dance Company. In 1971, Knapp began teaching at Cornish College of the Arts, where he established the school’s first four-year accredited jazz degree program in 1977.
“At that time, there were maybe three other schools that had a separate jazz program,” said bassist Chuck Deardorf, who then led jazz studies at the college. “It was really innovative.
At Cornish, Knapp hired top-notch Seattleites, but also recruited stellar teachers from across the country, starting with bassist Gary Peacock, followed by trombonist Julian Priester, drummer Jerry Granelli, singer Jay Clayton, pianist Art Lande and saxophonists Carter Jefferson and Hadley Caliman. , who all had a profound influence on Seattle jazz.
“It was really the golden age of the Cornish situation,” said trumpeter and saxophonist Jay Thomas, a regular at the Knapp ensemble.
During this time, Knapp also conducted the Composers and Improvisors Orchestra, a 14-piece chamber jazz group that collaborated with a dazzling succession of guest artists including Carla Bley, Anthony Braxton, Bob Brookmeyer, Gil Evans, Dave Holland, Sam Rivers and Cedar. Walton, among others.
Knapp followed with the Jim Knapp Orchestra, or JKO, with whom he recorded several albums for Seattle Origin Records, including “It’s Not Business, It’s Personal,” an album recorded in 2009 that was only released this year. Its mischievous (and slightly sarcastic) title is typical of a composer whose work includes “Secular Breathing”, “Kennewick, Man” and “Nerds of Steel”. The program for the new album is also a Knapp classic, driven by both pastoral romanticism and worldly rhythms, a fascination that Knapp played in real life with Seattle afropop band Je Ka Jo.
To many listeners, Knapp’s music reflected the slightly hazy landscape and crisp sea air of the northwest, but for all its pastoral beauty, his work also had a melancholy aura, perhaps a reflection of a great tragedy. personal. As a young man, he lost his sister and his mother in a fire, and his stepson was killed at 18 in a motorcycle accident; his wife, Skinner, died earlier this year.
But Knapp rarely spoke of such things. A private, modest, sometimes even self-deprecating man, he once told an interviewer that he had not moved to New York – where jazz reputations are made. – because it would force him to “sell himself all the time”.
“He wasn’t a showbiz guy,” observed Thomas. “But I think he could, in some ways, be the brightest musical light I’ve ever known.”
At Knapp’s request, Thomas will carry on Knapp’s music tradition as director of the JKO, which will give a concert at 7:30 p.m. on December 19 at Town Hall, presented live and streaming by Earshot Jazz.
“It’s not a memorial,” Thomas said. “It is a party.”
In addition to his brother Bill, Knapp is survived by 12 nieces and nephews.
A true memorial where people can pay their respects to the composer will take place on January 31 at Jazz Alley, featuring JKO and Knapp’s other major project, Scrape, a string group.