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Seattle Jazz Mainstay Jim Knapp Dies at 82

The musician and educator led several influential ensembles and founded Cornish College’s jazz studies program

Jim Knapp
Jim Knapp

Jim Knapp, a trumpeter, composer, bandleader, and educator who was arguably the most influential figure on Seattle’s jazz scene in the past half-century, died November 13 at his home, a senior care facility in Kirkland, Washington. He was 82.

His death was first announced by Seattle jazz journalist Steve Griggs and confirmed by Seattle media outlets including the Seattle Times and KNKX-FM radio. Cause of death was congestive heart failure and complications from diabetes.

Knapp founded the jazz studies program at Cornish College of the Arts in 1971—one of the first of its kind—remaining with the school for 45 years and mentoring hundreds of musicians in Seattle and beyond. In the process, he brought some of the world’s finest jazz artists to the school, and thus to the city, enriching it in both arts and education.

As a musician, he was equally influential, creating important ensembles that became staples of the city’s jazz life. In the 1970s he created and led the 14-piece Composers and Improvisors Orchestra; afterward, in 1995, came the long-lived Jim Knapp Orchestra (JKO), a popular ensemble in Seattle and the greater Pacific Northwest for over 25 years that released several recordings on Origin Records. It was yet another avenue through which Knapp’s presence became formative for musicians in the Seattle area. Later still, he founded the Chamber Groove Orchestra and Scrape.

“He was the sound of this town,” Seattle musician and Origin head John Bishop told the Seattle Times. “It’s like your grandpa who talks a certain way and wears certain clothes and then one day, there you are, talking like grandpa.”

Tributes to Knapp poured in on social media from musical figures local and otherwise. “I owe so much to Jim and his musical teachings,” trombonist Andy Clausen, a Seattle native, wrote on Facebook. “He was a harmonic genius, and a most generous mentor. I will forever cherish our lessons, hunched over scores at the piano, listening to records, and discussing the musical questions we faced.”

“Jim Knapp was a huge part of my own awakening,” said acclaimed Grammy-winning composer/arranger Jim McNeely. “He was such a lyrical, thoughtful player…. Brilliant musician, great teacher, and a humble, sweet, generous man. Rest in peace, dear friend.”

James Donald Knapp, Jr. was born July 28, 1939 in Chicago, Illinois, to James Sr., a telephone engineer, and Mildred King Knapp, a housewife. Knapp’s father was an amateur pianist and his maternal uncle had been a bassist who attended Chicago’s Austin High School—an incubator for what became known as early jazz’s Chicago Style. Knapp began taking piano lessons when he was six, but switched at 12 to the trumpet. He won a seat in the jazz band at Morgan Park High School, where he first tried his hand at composing—and discovered a knack for it.

That knack took him to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he majored in composition, though he later admitted that his main motives for this major were that “I didn’t have to practice as hard as instrumental majors … and I also got to tell everybody else what to do.”

After finishing his bachelor’s degree, Knapp was drafted into the U.S. Army, serving in Stuttgart, Germany (where he met and played with bassist Manfred Eicher, who would later found ECM Records). Upon his discharge in 1964, Knapp returned to UI, where he earned a master’s degree in 1968.

The following year, Knapp moved to Seattle with his fiancée Joan Skinner, a choreographer who had accepted a teaching position at the University of Washington. He began establishing himself on the Seattle jazz scene, and in 1971 joined the faculty at Cornish, where he began developing the school’s first four-year accredited jazz program. The faculty Knapp recruited for the program included Gary Peacock, Julian Priester, Jerry Granelli, Jay Clayton, and several others, reshaping the possibilities and character of jazz in Seattle.

In 1977, Knapp founded the Composers and Improvisors Orchestra, a band with a jazz leaning but a strong classical presence. Knapp was its primary composer; however, he also commissioned original music from the likes of Carla Bley, Bob Brookmeyer, and Anthony Braxton. (The CIO recorded with Braxton on his 1993 Composition 96.)

Knapp turned his attention to the Jim Knapp Orchestra, a more traditional big band that performed his compositions and arrangements, in 1995. Four years later, he founded the Chamber Groove Orchestra, a more direct successor to the CIO with its use of strings and woodwinds. He developed a string orchestra, Scrape, in the 2010s.

Origin Records released It’s Not Business, It’s Personal—Knapp’s final album, recorded in 2009 with the JKO—on November 12, the day before his death.

Knapp was predeceased by his wife Joan and a stepson. He is survived by his brother Bill Knapp of Jamestown, Rhode Island, and 12 nieces and nephews.

The JKO, now under the leadership of Knapp’s longtime lieutenant, trumpeter/saxophonist Jay Thomas, will perform a tribute to Knapp December 19 at Town Hall Seattle (with a livestream by Earshot Jazz). JKO and Scrape will both perform at a memorial at Seattle’s Jazz Alley on January 31.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.