Alumna returns to campus to jam

Ben DeCorsey

This year at Lawrence, a majority of the freshman class was born in 1988. While they were busying themselves learning motor skills and what not to put in their mouths, Mary Louise Knutson graduated from Lawrence.
In the 18 years since then, she has done what to many students in the jazz department seems to be the impossible dream: making her living as a jazz musician.
Other than teaching piano lessons for one day each week, Knutson’s only source of income is her work as a freelance pianist. “I’m here to tell you that you can do it,” said Knutson after her concert Oct. 23. “I’m here to say ‘you can’ a thousand times. You need to start believing it.”
Knutson, 2004 recipient of the Nathan M. Pusey Alumni Achievement Award, arrived at Lawrence to give a master class and play a concert.
Her master class focused on her own story of success and some of the practical aspects of working as a jazz musician today. Her advice was very straightforward.
“A young pianist told me she was getting lots of offers from different singers, and was wondering whether or not she should just pick one. I was a little confused by the question — why wouldn’t you take every gig you can get?”
She also included a segment on putting together a press kit and how to distribute them to club owners and promoters.
The concert itself was a clean success for all of the musicians involved. Knutson played with Lawrence faculty Mark Urness on bass and Dane Richeson on kit.
The trio played a selection of standards as well as two of Knutson’s own compositions, “Meridian,” a Billboard Magazine award-winning song, and “Call Me When You Get There,” the title track from her latest CD.
Knutson mentioned in her master class that she was not quick to learn improvisation, and she would shudder at the prospect of an upcoming solo. The now-seasoned performer has clearly overcome her fears.
That initial hesitation has made her a very tasteful soloist, with no shortage of clean melodic thoughts and one foot rooted firmly in the blues.
Monday night also found Urness and Richeson in top form. The Lawrence community is used to listening to wonderful playing from these two, but the exposed trio format gave them extra room to stretch out.
The results were entrancing: racing, courageous solos from Urness, full of hairpin turns and heartbreaking melodies, and an increase in the volume and intensity of the pyrotechnics Lawrence jazz fans have come to expect from Richeson.
The jazz department made a smart move by bringing back an alumna to play for the current students. This concert was immediate proof that the hours of work will pay off and that determination does prevail.
With the caliber of the current Lawrence jazz student as high as it is, there will doubtless be a wealth of alumni performers to choose from in the future. We can only hope that they will be as articulate, warm-hearted and fluent with their instrument as Mary Louise Knutson.