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Maryland jazz prodigy tears up local music scene

16-year-old jazz guitarist Jan Knutson plays in the Glass Enclosed Nerve Center of WTOP. (WTOP/Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — Miles Teller’s dedicated drummer catapulted “Whiplash” to win the Sundance Film Festival, dodging cymbals thrown by his strict jazz instructor (Oscar winner J.K. Simmons).

That movie drummer is a kindred spirit to real-life jazz guitarist Jan Knutson, a 16-year-old music prodigy at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, Maryland — with one major exception.

“My teachers don’t throw chairs at me,” Knutson jokes.

Growing up in Berwyn Heights, Knutson began playing instruments at an early age.

“I was kind of pushed into taking piano lessons at the age of 5,” Knutson tells WTOP. “I’ve kind of kept it up since then. I started violin at age of 6, still playing that, been playing for about 11 years.”

Then, at age 10, inspiration struck from the most unlikely of places — Van Halen’s 1978 debut album.

“I was begging for a guitar, and my parents finally gave in,” Knutson says, laughing.

His music tastes shifted from rock to jazz at the urging of his first guitar teacher, Frank Latino, musicologist at the University of Maryland, College Park.

“He grew up in New Orleans and was really into the older-style jazz, pre-Charlie Parker, like Louie Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, but in particular, a gypsy-jazz guitar player from Europe named Django Reinhardt,” Knutson says. “He egged me on to listen to a lot of that stuff and I was completely blown away. … From that moment on, I knew I had to play jazz guitar.”

Currently, his favorite jazz artists include Julian Lage and Frank Vignola, the latter of whom he met a few years ago during a master class at The Mainstay in Rock Hall, Maryland.

“He actually invited me to come up and play on stage. I did not expect that at all. It was really one of the best nights of my life,” Knutson recalls. “He’s been so generous. He’s given me lessons. He helped me produce my solo jazz guitar album, ‘Out of Nowhere,’ and he’s just been so kind and has given me so many opportunities to play for people, and I’ve learned so much from him.”

Those opportunities have recently included Tabard Inn in Northwest D.C., the Old Bowie Town Grille in Bowie, Marland, and the New Deal Cafe in Greenbelt, Maryland.

This summer, he’ll do a two-week program at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, followed by a two-week camp in Castleton, Virginia, courtesy of Jazz at Lincoln Center.

It’s all practice for September when he begins the Artist in Residence program at The Strathmore in Bethesda, including cabaret-style shows at Strathmore’s new Amp club on Oct. 17 and Nov. 4, building up to a month of concerts next April, where he’ll collaborate with The Bumper Jacksons.

In December, he’ll return to The Mainstay to play with his mentor Vignola, who will also accompany him to the Salt Lake City International Jazz Festival next May.

In the meantime, Knutson somehow finds time to juggle his homework and other high school duties.

“Over this past year, it’s been ridiculous,” he says. “School, you know, you gotta have it, but it’s been tough. I’ve managed to make it work. There’s a lot of things happening, but that’s just the way it is.”

The rising senior is also busy looking into colleges, including some stellar music programs.

“Some of my dream schools are the Juilliard School of New York, as well as the Manhattan School of Music and the Eastman School of Music up in Rochester,” he says. “Those are probably my top three.”

Where does he envision himself in the next five years?

“Hopefully, if I do make it through music school, I want to be a professional musician,” he says. “I want to play world class, with the best of the best, and not just jazz guitar, really anything. I’m really open to anything, as long as I get to share music.”

Hear the full interview below:

Jazz prodigy Jan Knutson chats with WTOP's Jason Fraley

Jason Fraley | November 30, -0001 12:00 am

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