Sometimes as a Kentucky high schooler, when playing the piano for a congregation of about 30 to 50 at his rural Baptist church, Keith McCutchen would get “too jazzy.”
“That’s when my mother would whack me up side the head to keep me in line,” he said.
McCutchen, 53, attributes his success in music to his mother, Katherine McCutchen, who “always had music going on the car radio from the Western Kentucky University station when I was young.”
McCutchen, a composer, pianist, conductor and performer, is in his second year as director of the renowned Kentucky State University Concert Choir.
The 25-member choir, made up of undergraduates from all academic areas of the university, is a frequent guest performer for Frankfort and Kentucky communities and for university and state government functions.
Tours of the choir have included stops in Canada, the Bahamas and Germany, and the choir has received multiple awards in choral competitions, including the National Spiritual Competition and the Annual HBCU Choral Festival in Norfolk, Va.
Not bad for a school with about 2,000 students.
The KSU choir is “a true Kentucky treasure,” said Susan Stokley Clary, clerk, court administrator and general counsel for the Kentucky Supreme Court. “Those of us who work in the Capitol always look forward to the choir’s brilliant performances.”
McCutchen has the task of succeeding the legendary Carl Smith, who was involved in KSU’s music program for 55 years and directed the concert choir for 50 years.
“Keith McCutchen is a fine gentleman and a fine, well-rounded musician with a national reputation to lead the KSU choir with excellence,” said Smith, who now is choir director for Frankfort’s First Christian Church.
McCutchen’s musical reputation is to grow even more soon. He is creating a new arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” for an international conference in late January in Anaheim, Calif.
The arrangement will be performed on 10 pianos to open an event called “Roomful of Pianos” at the National Association of Music Merchants show.
“The task of writing an arrangement for 10 pianos allows me to think of having 10 orchestras or big bands to write for in one piece,” McCutchen said. “I will definitely have to apply the principle of ‘more is less.’”
KSU choir member Katvina Goulbourne of San Joaquin, Calif., said her teacher is up for the challenge. “He’s brilliant. His mind thinks in so many ways and is so understanding to his students. He wants us to excel.”
McCutchen was born June 5, 1964, in Russellville in Logan County; grew up in the small community of Woodburn on the southern border of Warren County, where his parents still live; and graduated from Franklin-Simpson High School.
His parents, Charles and Katherine McCutchen, ran an electric service business in Franklin for about 50 years, which their other son, Charles Jr., now operates.
Keith was more interested in music than business. He loved playing the piano at the family’s South Union Baptist Church about a mile from Shaker Village.
McCutchen said he was greatly influenced at the church by the oral tradition, especially by church member Anna Mae Huffman, a descendant of slaves.
“She would start singing songs even if no one knew them. She was the matriarch of the church. She made sure the spirit was there at every service and helped me so much.”
After high school, McCutchen became the first family member to go to college. He excelled at the University of Kentucky under the tutelage nationally known musicians such as Vincent DiMartino and Everett McCorvey.
McCorvey, who is music director of the American Spiritual Ensemble and UK Opera Theatre, said McCutchen was the “ideal” replacement for Smith to lead the KSU Concert Choir.
“Carl Smith is a leader among choral directors in the nation — black and white. Smith’s excellent work at KSU and the administrations’ support over the years for the choir have made it possible for Keith to come in and walk in Carl’s footsteps and keep the program sound. It will flourish under him.”
Before coming to KSU, McCutchen taught music theory and jazz piano at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., and directed the vocal jazz ensembles at the University of Minnesota. He also was director of the African American Choral Ensemble at Indiana University.
While at Indiana University, McCutchen received his doctorate in choral conducting.
Prior to teaching at the collegiate level, Keith taught arts and humanities in Lexington at Tates Creek Middle School and chorus at Henry Clay High School and School for the Performing Arts in Lexington.
McCutchen has played with performers such as the late singers Mel Torme and Dinah Shore and Doc Severinsen, a jazz trumpeter who led the band for “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” He also said he has played some cruise ships.
When an audience member hears the KSU choir sing a powerful song like “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” it’s easy to become emotional.
McCutchen said he has to keep his emotions in check when performing. He said he is concentrating on making sure that the singers are on track and are delivering the best performance as possible.
It may be hard for McCutchen not to get emotional in mid-January during the Martin Luther King holiday when he takes his choir for the first time to perform in the the southwestern part of Kentucky he calls home.
The audience will include his parents, other relatives, friends and kinfolk of Anna Mae Huffman.