Berwyn Heights, Maryland
Only days before he performs at the Richmond Folk Festival, Jan Knutson will turn 19. But the tunes this young musician plays with such virtuosity and subtlety express the history of American vernacular guitar traditions. Knutson’s repertoire draws from the Great American Songbook, Gypsy jazz, and jazz’s heritage of guitar improvisation. Such is the level of skill he exhibits that his mentor, the guitar master Frank Vignola, says Knutson “is destined to be one of the next generation’s great guitarists.”
Given his musical pedigree—mother Laura played violin for the U.S. Army Band, and father Jeff is a trombonist for the Navy Band—it’s perhaps not surprising that Jan Knutson took to music early. After trying piano and violin, he added guitar at age 10, hoping to play rock and roll. But it was jazz that really grabbed him when, at age 12, musicologist Frank Latino, his first guitar teacher, introduced him to the work of legendary Gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. “From that moment on,” Knutson says, “I knew I had to play jazz guitar.”
Knutson plays and composes in the jazz idiom, but, he says, “first and foremost, I am rooted in the tradition of guitar players.” He’s found musical mentors in some of the greats, having studied with Vignola and Washington D.C. masters Paul Wingo and Steve Abshire. He has shared the stage with many others who inspired him, like Bucky Pizzarelli and Julian Lage. Knutson has racked up honors and opportunities, including being invited to the prestigious Jazz at Lincoln Center Summer Academy, performing as a soloist with the U.S. Army Blues, and being selected as an Artist in Residence at the Strathmore Music Center—all while still in high school. Now he is pursuing a BFA in Jazz Performance at the Manhattan School of Music, where he studies with the great Rodney Jones.
Knutson’s goal is to keep on learning and performing, using music as a vehicle to communicate with audiences. When asked what attracts him to jazz guitar, he reflects: “I like that very intimate instrumentation and setting … and how, with the improvisation, you can hear where it’s being worked out. You feel like you get to know people and understand humanity when you listen to that music.” It’s that sense of wonder and connection that keeps drawing audiences to this young guitarist’s evocative renditions of the classics of American jazz guitar.