Monday, March 10, 2014

Interview with Jazz Pianist and Composer Mary Louise Knutson: Jazz, Improvisation and Creativity

Photo by Dietrich Gesk

Minneapolis-based jazz pianist, composer and teacher, Mary Louise Knutson has toured all over the United States with former Tonight Show bandleader and trumpeter Doc Severinsen and his big band and with her own group, Mary Louise Knutson Trio. She has appeared with such jazz greats as Dizzy Gillespie, Bobby McFerrin, Dianne Reeves, Kevin Mahogany, and many others. As a show player, Knutson has performed with artists such as Reba McEntire, Michael Bolton, Donny Osmond, Smoky Robinson, the Osmond Brothers and comedian Phyllis Diller. Knutson's latest jazz trio CD, In the Bubble, made JazzWeek's Top 10 and stayed in the Top 50 for 19 consecutive weeks. Knutson's debut jazz trio CD, Call Me When You Get There, was featured in JazzWeek's Top 50 for eight consecutive weeks, earning Knutson the award for “Top New Jazz Instrumentalist of the Year” in 2001 from KWJL Radio in California. In 2006 Knutson was a Minnesota Music Awards nominee for both Jazz Artist of the Year and Pianist of the Year, and in 2005, she was a Finalist in the Kennedy Center’s Mary Lou Williams "Women in Jazz" International Pianist Competition. In 2004, Knutson was the recipient of Lawrence University's distinguished Nathan M. Pusey Alumni Achievement Award. As a composer she has won numerous awards, including two from Billboard magazine. Formerly an instructor in jazz piano and improvisation at Carleton College, Knutson teaches privately and conducts master classes in jazz, composition and improvisation.

Lisa: You have extensive training as a Classical pianist. At what point did you pick jazz as your focus and why?
Mary Louise: The summer following my junior year in high school I studied classical piano at the Eastman School of Music's summer session in Rochester, NY. High school kids from around the country were there to study either classical or jazz. I met a lot of the jazz students and was so inspired and intrigued by the music they were playing - the rich harmonies, the playful rhythms, the winding melodies, and the magical improvisation. My curiosity was piqued. I went off to college to continue my classical piano studies, but found a ways to dip my toes into the jazz pool as well. I played in several jazz ensembles, dabbled in jazz composition, and studied jazz piano privately for a couple summers. I learned about building chords and theory, yet I still didn't really know how to improvise and was very uncomfortable trying. Luckily, most of the jazz ensemble sheet music was written out and most of the improvised solos were handed off to more experienced improvisers. But my love for jazz was growing daily and I had a great desire to immerse myself in its challenges. By the time I graduated, I knew that I wanted to become a jazz pianist.  
Something else occurred right after college that further solidified my desire to learn improvisation. I had just received my degree in classical piano performance and was staying with my parents for the summer. I had also just performed my senior recital about a month earlier. A family friend was visiting and said, "Mary Louise, please play something from your recital." I attempted to play something, but I couldn't get through any of my pieces by memory and my books were stashed away in boxes. Then she said, "Well, surely you must be able to play SOMETHING!" I couldn't. I was so embarrassed that I couldn't play a thing without the music! I thought that surely she was thinking I should know the classical piano repertoire inside and out since I had just completed my degree. I wouldn't have even been able to play "Happy Birthday" had she requested it. So from that day on, it became my goal to play music by ear and to improvise, so that I could go anywhere in the world and play without written music. 
Lisa: How did you start playing with Doc Severinsen and his band? Was it intimidating? 

Mary Louise: My first gig with Doc was in 2010 when the Minnesota Orchestra hired me to play for his holiday show at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. There were hundreds of musicians on the stage - a 100-piece orchestra, a 100-piece choir, a 30-piece bell choir, a 15-piece big band, and a rhythm section (including me), which was at the back of the stage. Doc's drummer from the Tonight Show Band, Ed Shaughnessy, was a few feet away from me and Doc's bassist from New York, Kevin Thomas, was right next to me. Doc was clear across the room at the podium conducting and playing. It crossed my mind, "I wonder if Doc can even hear me back here."  
After the shows that weekend, the stage manager came to me and said that Doc wanted to see me in his office. I thought, "Oh no, Doc's probably going to give me some pointers on how I can improve." When I got there, he said, "You sound great! Do you want to go on tour with me?" I was ecstatic inside, but didn't want to show it. Of course I wanted to go on tour with him! It had been one of my dreams to tour with a nationally known and respected artist and here it was coming true!
The next year, Doc came to Minneapolis again to play a summer big band show and another winter holiday show, which I was hired for, but he hadn't called me for any touring that year. I was beginning to think that his offer was just too good to be true. But after the holiday show, Doc apologized that no tour had taken place and asked me if I'd help him put together a big band for touring. I thought, "How does he think I'm capable of helping him with THAT?" But I agreed, hoping that my beau, trombonist Michael Nelson, might be able to help me with the assignment. And he did. He knew which horn players played well together and which were a good fit for Doc's tastes. He hand-picked Doc's trumpet and trombone section and Doc picked his saxophone section (including two-time Grammy Award winner tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts, who was an original member of the Tonight Show Band), a drummer, and a bassist. Touring began in the spring of 2012.
Lisa: What is it like playing in Doc’s band? 

Mary Louise: The band is a real powerhouse and the soloists are burning. Doc likes the band to play with a lot power just like the big bands did before microphones were used. Plus he jokes that he can't hear very well. At 86, Doc knows exactly what he wants to hear, so we try to accommodate him at every turn. We all have so much respect and appreciation for who he is and what he has accomplished in his life as a musician and TV personality. And yes, that makes it very intimidating! Doc, himself, doesn't try to intimidate, but it's hard not to be intimidated by his masterful playing and lifetime of experience playing with every big name in the industry. Not to mention, I certainly want to play well for my band mates who are monster players themselves. 
Lisa: What are some peak experiences with your band mates?
Mary Louise: Peak experiences? Well, next to Doc, I have the best seat in the house at the piano, which is in front of the bass and drums and faces the horns. I can hear all the nuance and sheer power from the horns, the impressive solos from all corners of the band, and Doc's soaring trumpet. Every night is a peak experience. 
Lisa: Let’s talk about your life offstage. Can you describe your creative space? 
Mary Louise: I live with my musician boyfriend, Michael, in a 1920's stucco duplex. The first floor unit is our music space - I have the front two rooms and he has the back two rooms. A little sound proofing gives us more privacy. The upstairs unit is our living space. Pretty ideal for two musicians! My piano takes up one entire room except for the corners where I have my office desk and shelving.
Lisa: How do you do it all? How do you balance all the aspects of your career?
Mary Louise: If I ever hope to get anything accomplished creatively, I have to protect my time. And by that, I mean that I have to block off time in my schedule for practicing and composing, otherwise I'm likely to give time to other projects or spend the day procrastinating with activities that require less of a creative/emotional risk - like answering emails or promoting my gigs. If I'm lucky enough to have an open day (with no rehearsals, appointments, errands, etc), I try to get in 3 hours of practicing or composing, 2 hours of business, and 1 hour of exercise prior to my evening performance or teaching schedule. By writing my practicing and composing time in ink on my calendar (yes, I use a paper calendar!) I can check it off when it's done. And if I skip it, I know it, and am disappointed in myself. So the scheduling keeps me honest! I also turn off my phone during creative time. 
Lisa: Let’s talk about your compositions. How do you get started? What sorts of things fire your compositional imagination? What does your creative process look like? 
Mary Louise: One way I approach composition is to sit at the piano and allow my hands to wander across the keys, pressing down any key, any cluster of notes, any rhythm - sort of like what a child would do in their innocence and absence of knowledge. I attempt to be curious about what I'm hearing rather than judgmental. I try not to play any familiar chord voicings or harmonic patterns. I allow myself to fall into a rhythm, a melody, or a harmonic progression by surprise. And when something piques my interest, I write it down on staff paper. What appears first might be melody, harmony, or rhythm. It doesn't matter. Then I play with it and see if it can be developed. If it goes nowhere, then I leave it alone and hope to be inspired the next day. At least the seeds of the idea are written down.
Lisa: What’s the fastest time you’ve ever completed a piece?
Mary Louise: Only once have I developed a song quickly, within a few hours ("How Will I Know?" from Call Me When You Get There). I don't know how it flowed out so quickly, other than I was just lost in my feelings. Maybe letting my feelings be the guide was the approach here. Otherwise my compositions usually take weeks or months to complete. "Sea of Qi" from my latest CD, took SO long, at least 9 months. I was stuck for the longest time trying to find the chord progression that would end the first section and lead back to the repeat of the theme. I had to let it go and come back to it time and time again. Finally I found the missing chords and it all worked out. That was a happy day!  
Lisa: How do you deal with creative blocks like this without getting discouraged?
Mary Louise: Once when I was in a really deep creative slump, I decided to use a technic that I swore I’d never use. It’s a technic where you assign a number to every step of the scale...the first step of the scale would be 1, the second step of the scale would be 2, etc. Then you can take any sequence of numbers - say your birthdate, your social security number, your credit card number - and see if it makes a melody. I thought this was the most heartless approach to composition. But I was really stuck, so I tried my cell phone number and it worked really well! I titled the tune after the popular Verizon slogun, "Can You Hear Me Now?" and it's on my latest CD, In the Bubble. The "A" section melody is based on my cell number and the rest of the tune developed out of that. I will never criticize composing by number again!

Lisa: What do you believe are the top three most important things that help people be creative in their fields? 
Mary Louise: First, time management - respect your creative time, schedule time for creativity everyday (even if just 15 minutes). Second, when you show up for your creative time, leave your inner critic behind. Now is the time to go with the flow, go with your emotions, and let your art out on the page. You'll have the option to refine things later. Third, feed your "creative well"; at least once a week go see art, plays, dance, music, movies; spend time in nature; eat amazing food; try new things; spend time with friends. Sounds fun, doesn't it? If you deny yourself these pleasures, then you'll deny yourself inspiration. Much of this I learned from a book called, The Artist's Way, by Julia Cameron. It's an incredibly powerful workbook for anyone (not just artists) wishing to unleash their creativity. 
Lisa: I love that book! What else has led to your success?  
Mary Louise: Curiosity, patience, persistence, reliability, and a positive outlook. I always want to know "why?" and find out "how," and this curiosity has taken me deeper into everything I do, and luckily I have the patience to keep digging for the answers. My persistence in practicing over the years has helped me to grow well beyond my initial level of talent. I've landed a lot of opportunities just because I'm reliable. Many freelance musicians don't realize the damage they do when they make a policy of canceling one gig for a better paying gig, or by failing to study the music ahead of time, or wearing inappropriate attire. And finally, my positive attitude has been especially helpful in moving through challenges. I love this quote by Henry Ford, "Whether you think you can, or think you can't--you're right." This really rings true for me. I've actively analyzed my thoughts for years and what I've come to believe is that - what you choose to believe, or focus your attention on, is what manifests in your life. So, I'm mindful of my thoughts and when challenges come about (and as hard as it is to reroute my thoughts sometimes) I look for what's positive in the situation. Positivity creates flow, whereas negativity can be paralyzing. I've been paralyzed by fear and negativity many times, and it's much more fun to experience the flow and growth that positivity can bring!
Lisa: Any last words?  
Mary Louise: Thank you all, and Lisa (our host), for the opportunity to share my thoughts with you. . Here's wishing you all a joyful and abundantly creative life!  

To learn Mary Louise Knutson's ideas on teaching piano, improvisation and composition visit
To purchase CDs or learn about Mary Louise Knutson's upcoming performances and master classes visit her website:

Album cover photo by Dietrich Gesk
In the Bubble:
"This is timeless, classic piano trio music, right up there with Bill Evans and Bill Charlap." Pamela Espeland, Twin Cities Critics Tally 2011: Top 10 Albums, Star Tribune,

"...a masterful combination of original works and new arrangements... Knutson's compositions are marked by exquisite melodies, emotive harmonies, shifting rhythms and an elegant touch that recalls McPartland, Arriale, and Jarrett." Andrea Canter,

"...beautifully realized..." Stuart Kremsky, Cadence Jazz Magazine
"Her straight-ahead approach...spotlights her luminous work on the ivories, which is endearingly lyrical, sprightly, and rife with inventive nuances. She's been accurately compared to Bill Evans and Marian McPartland, with maybe the playful spirit of Vince Guaraldi thrown in."  Rick Mason, full review Critics' Picks, City Pages, Minneapolis-St. Paul 

Check out these samples from "IN THE BUBBLE" 

Album cover photo by Dietrich Gesk
Call Me When You Get There:
"Call Me When You Get There is...state-of-the-art piano trio finery." JazzTimes   
" excellent pianist whose voicings sometimes recall Bill Evans...she has a talent for coming up with fresh melodies. This is an impressive disc..." Scott Yanow, LA Jazz Scene 
"Mary Louise Knutson is somewhat reminiscent of Marian McPartland with her combination of strength and lyricism, line and texture, fresh reconceptions and exciting, beautiful original melodies. Piano Jazz is alive and well in Minnesota!"  Andrea Canter,

Check out these samples from "Call Me When You Get There"