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Continued: A passion for jazz in Hopkins

  • Article by: ANNA PRATT , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Last update: March 11, 2014 - 1:09 PM

Fresh from writing his doctoral dissertation in jazz studies, he got to work organizing the JazzMN Big Band. In recent years, the group has moved away from its old “big band” label. It’s now referred to as the JazzMN Orchestra, he said.

The term “big band” has a 1930s and ’40s connotation, like swing music, Snapp said. But JazzMN has a wider repertoire; it switches easily between old and contemporary songs, and everything in between. “We’re trying to provide the community not just quality, but different styles within the jazz genre,” he said.

The 17-piece JazzMN group brings together top-notch musicians who’ve played with the likes of Prince, Buddy Rich and the Minnesota Orchestra. “It gives you an idea of the caliber that we have,” he said.

And, although the group has a loyal following, it’s still under the radar for many people. “We often have people come to see JazzMN for the first time and say, ‘Wow, this is incredible. We never knew this group existed.’ ”

Filling a void

Mary Louise Knutson, a pianist and full-time musician, joined the group in 2003.

Throughout the year, she tours with Doc Severinsen, the former bandleader for the NBC Orchestra on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” The Mary Louise Knutson Trio also has traveled all over the globe.

Yet she always returns to JazzMN. Even after all this time, the music never gets old. “The material is always really challenging,” and it helps her keep up her reading chops, she said. “The gig itself puts me on my toes. I have to be in shape to play with this band.”

The same thing goes for the national artists. “I learn from them every time they come in, taking notes on how [the JazzMN musicians] perform and interact with the audience. It’s a way to inform my own career,” she said.

All in all, the group is “a really wonderful, inspiring group of musicians. When you put everyone together, it’s pretty powerful,” she added.

Pulice said the group helps fill a void in the jazz scene. “It’s good to have a band of that caliber still working. It shows our city believes in the arts,” he said.

Although jazz goes through cycles, in recent years he’s seen fewer gigs locally and nationally, he said.

For starters, the sheer number of jazz venues has shrunk. The Artists’ Quarter, a St. Paul jazz club that closed its doors on New Year’s Eve, was “a true artistic place,” he said.

The Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis “has been good for us for years,” but it’s gotten more business savvy and is bringing in more national acts and fewer locals, he said.

Additionally, Broadway engagements get shorter and shorter, and more theater companies have their own self-contained groups, Pulice said.

In the past, he’d play for up to four months with a touring Broadway show during its stop in the Twin Cities. Now, a musical will often run just for a week or two, he added.

And, many other musicians that play for other nonprofit organizations don’t get paid, as JazzMN players do. “We call them ‘just-for-kicks bands,’ ” he said.

Nevertheless, he and the other JazzMN players continue to be serious about the music.

  • IF YOU GO

    What: JazzMN Orchestra concert featuring New York Voices

    When: 3 p.m. Sunday, March 16

    Where: Hopkins High School, 2400 Lindbergh Dr., Minnetonka

    Cost: In advance, $34 main-floor adult, $32 balcony adult, and $20 student. At the door, $38 main-floor adult; $34 balcony adult, and $15 student rush. Go to www.jazzmn.org or call 1-800-838-3006.

    Upcoming event: Concert featuring alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 26, at Hopkins High School.

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