He was a band leader, composer, trumpet player and longtime faculty member at Cornish College of the Arts, but Jim Knapp, who died Nov. 13, will be remembered as the primary architect of Seattle’s modern jazz scene. He was 82 and living in a senior care facility in Kirkland, where he died of congestive heart failure and complications from diabetes, which had prompted the amputation of a lower leg some years ago.
“He was the sound of this town,” said John Bishop, drummer and founder of Seattle’s Origin Records. “It’s like your grandpa who talks a certain way and wears certain clothes and then one day, there you are, talking like grandpa.”
News of Knapp’s death prompted an outpouring on Knapp’s Facebook page, including a post from Grammy-winning Village Vanguard Orchestra composer-in-residence Jim McNeely, who described Knapp as a “brilliant musician, great teacher and a humble, sweet, generous man.”
Born in Chicago in 1939, Knapp grew up in a musical family.
“Our living room was like a rehearsal hall,” recalled Knapp’s younger brother Bill Knapp, of Rhode Island. “My father worked for the telephone company but he was a jazz piano player and had a small band. My uncle had been a professional bass player.”
Starting on piano, then switching to trumpet, Jim Knapp began writing big band arrangements when he was still in high school and earned a B.A. in music and an M.A. in composition from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, interrupted by a stint in the U.S. Army. While stationed in Germany, he played 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 trio First Avenue.
At Illinois, Knapp developed a unique instrumentation for big band, contrasting the lush, mellow timbres of French horn, tuba and fluegelhorn with the brighter sounds of trumpets and trombones. Clouds of brass swirling with reeds persisted as part of his musical palette. Knapp later codified his thoughts on arranging in a 2015 book, “Jazz Harmony.”
In 1969, Knapp moved to Seattle to marry his Illinois girlfriend, Joan Skinner, a dancer and choreographer who had come west to take a faculty job at the University of Washington. Knapp and Skinner collaborated artistically as well as personally, performing in a free-improvising group, the American Contemporary Dance Company. In 1971, Knapp started teaching at Cornish College of the Arts, where he created 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 later directed jazz studies at the college. “It was really innovative.”
At Cornish, Knapp hired first-rate Seattleites but also recruited stellar faculty from around the country, starting with bassist Gary Peacock, followed by trombonist Julian Priester, drummer Jerry Granelli, vocalist Jay Clayton, pianist Art Lande, and saxophonists Carter Jefferson and Hadley Caliman, all of whom had a profound influence on Seattle jazz.
“It was really the golden age of the Cornish situation,” said trumpeter and saxophonist Jay Thomas, a Knapp ensemble regular.
During this period, Knapp also led 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 that with the Jim Knapp Orchestra, or JKO, with whom he recorded several albums for Seattle’s Origin Records, including “It’s Not Business, It’s Personal,” an album recorded in 2009 that was not released until this year. Its impishly humorous (and slightly sarcastic) title is typical of a composer whose oeuvre includes “Secular Breathing,” “Kennewick, Man” and “Nerds of Steel.” The newly released album’s program is also classic Knapp, driven by both pastoral romanticism and world rhythms, a fascination Knapp played out in real life with the Seattle Afropop band Je Ka Jo.
For many listeners, Knapp’s music reflected the softly misted landscape and sharp sea air of the Northwest, but for all its pastoral beauty, his work also had a melancholy aura, perhaps a reflection of much personal tragedy. As a young man, he lost his sister and 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 he didn’t move to New York — where jazz reputations are made — because it would force him to be “selling yourself all the time.”
“He was not a showbiz guy,” Thomas observed. “But I think he might in certain ways be the brightest musical light I’ve been around.”
At Knapp’s request, Thomas will carry on the tradition of Knapp’s music as director of the JKO, which performs a concert 7:30 p.m. Dec. 19 at Town Hall, presented live and streaming by Earshot Jazz.
“It’s not a memorial,” Thomas said. “It’s a celebration.”
In addition to his brother, Bill, Knapp is survived by 12 nieces and nephews.
An actual memorial where people can pay tribute to the composer will be held Jan. 31 at Jazz Alley, featuring JKO and Knapp’s other major project, Scrape, a band with strings.