The world of music was introduced into Dr. Keith McCutchen’s life at a young age. On Sunday mornings on his way to Center Baptist Church in South Union, Kentucky, with his mother, they would listen to classical music in the car.
At church his mother would play the piano as the African American congregation, led by Annie Mae Huffman, would begin to sing.
“She was the elder statesperson of the church … oldest member at the time,” McCutchen said. “She would sing these songs that no one would even know at the time. We would learn it and sing it. That was the oral tradition — the tradition of hearing the sounds versus reading the pages — that was engraved in me.”
He began playing the piano in church as well. After his mother played, she would allow him to play.
“When someone would start singing the song, someone would come in and play in that key. My goal was to be able to hear something and be able to respond to it.”
When he wasn’t listening to classical music on the radio with his mother, such as the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields — a classical orchestra in England that played on the radio every Sunday morning — he would listen to jazz music on Friday evenings. He also enjoyed listening to music from other parts of Kentucky and the world. He listened to folk music and music from Latin America and Africa.
“I heard the world by listening to public radio,” he said. “That contrast between that language and the language used in my church experience and in jazz, all of those things intersect and have a layered identity interwoven with their various strengths.”
Jazz music is where his heart lies today. McCutchen, — a composer, pianist and conductor — is associate professor with Kentucky State University’s School of Performing Arts and Humanities. He has worked at the university since 2016, filling the position left by longtime KSU music professor and choir director Carl H. Smith. Prior to his position at KSU, McCutchen’s musical career led him all over the country and world.
He began his journey in 1982 at the University of Kentucky, where he began working with master musician, saxophonist Duke Madison — Lexington’s “Grand Old Man of Jazz,” according to jazzartsfoundation.org — and trumpeter Vince DiMartino. While studying at UK, he played piano at Consolidated Baptist Church and for the Lexington Ballet. He also has played for a catholic church.
“I had these different worlds of sound and experience through my training,” McCutchen said. “Most of my training was outside of the school experience. The ability to play with Duke Madison for years was a study in itself.”
He earned his bachelor’s degree in music education and then went on to teach in the Fayette County school system for a few years. He then went to the University of Minnesota to obtain his master’s degree. While there he led a praise band at the Park Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis.
“That, for me, was amazing in terms of diversity,” he said. “I was hired for this position. It was diverse culturally and racially. It allowed for my bi-musicality to continue to grow.”
While in Minnesota he taught for three years at St. Olaf College in Northfield. After his stint there, he and his family moved to Bloomington, Indiana, where he got a job teaching at the University of Indiana’s African American Arts Institute. McCutchen’s wife’s name is Noel and they have two daughters, Ella, 18, and Lyvia, 12. He has three adult daughters from his first marriage, Monica, Morgan and Maya.
He also attended the university’s Jacobs School of Music, where he got a doctorate in choral conducting and minors in jazz and music history and theory.
While at UI, he received a call from a U.S. consulate to go to Curitiba, Brazil, to conduct the Camerata Antiqua de Curitiba choir and orchestra.
“I did a presentation of American music including classical and jazz,” McCutchen said. “Then, I was invited back again and I did the premier of my Jazz Vespers.”
The piece he performs with the Jazz Vespers is slated to be performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City in 2022.
In 2016, he started working at KSU. In 2017, he was invited to go back to Brazil to direct the orchestra and choir.
“I was able to stay for a month. I was able to have a month long tour where I taught at two universities and had three or four jazz gigs.”
McCutchen remembers the moment he realized that jazz was universal.
“I was at a club and I remember watching a Russian man play jazz like I had never heard it,” he said. “It reminded me that anywhere you go in the world, there’s people loving this music.”
And, that love of music is what he is sharing with his students at Kentucky State University. He loves to teach his students and learn from them as well.
“The students know that I’m still learning in this process and am vulnerable in learning,” he said. “It takes a lot to be able to stand in front of people and perform. It is a labor of love to demonstrate the vulnerability of learning.”
He loves when his students have “breakthrough moments.”
“That shift in attitude that comes when they actually have that breakthrough moment with either a concept or difficult technical passage — you see that energy and the motivation,” he said. “No one really likes to practice but everyone wants to succeed and feel good about it. When you have that breakthrough amidst all that agony and preservation of trying to play that passage.
“I love when students are engaged in the process and get lost in the process. You’re going to have good and bad performances. The love of the art is in the doing. When you learn to love the process, you’re leaning to be a lifelong learner and lifelong achiever.”
McCutchen has a great love for KSU.
“I went to UK, but I was always down here with Carl Smith. It was such a full circle thing to be able to come back here in Carl Smith’s place.”
McCutchen said he is currently working to rebuild the nuts and bolts of the music program and to build community partnerships. He has partnered with South Frankfort Presbyterian and First United Methodist churches to host concerts for the community.
“At each of those, there was more than a concert, there was a building of students meeting with local community members,” he said.
McCutchen also continues to play jazz in his spare time. He has started a jam session in Lexington. Jazz players gather from 6-9 p.m. on Sundays at Creaux, 310 W. Short St., in Lexington. He also continues to play with the Jazz Vespers.
You can also catch him on Saturday nights at Frank and Dino’s, 271 W. Short St., Lexington, from 6-10 p.m. on Dec. 4, 11 and 18.
“As much as I still try to do national and international things, the importance of local artistic endeavors is more than just a performance,” he said. “It promotes community and brings people together. I’m looking forward to new collaborations.”