This Saturday, we will celebrate the life of Jimmy Cutrell, who died Oct. 28, and I feel that he deserves more than a passing mention in the town to which he dedicated many of his most productive years.
Too often, society champions the businessman, the soldier and the athlete. It often forgets those whose achievements defy measurement and an easy accounting. The teacher often falls in that category; however, Cutrell is in no such danger. He was something greater: a master teacher, a maestro.
To understand his background fully, it must be remembered that his upbringing was in the Mississippi Delta, the region which spawned in one century three musical genres now famous the world over: blues, jazz and rock and roll.
Cutrell was classically trained, yet anyone close to him quickly discovered his affinity for the music of his home. His genius as a maestro was to bring elements of these more improvisational traditions under the more rigid standards of classic form, and produce performances that combined both elements into a whole more pleasing than its parts.
This is not to take away from his personal talents, for he was only slightly less remarkable as a soloist than as a director. His personal musical range was exceptional. As a classical pianist, his performances were of a richness and depth one rarely encounters outside the professional circuit. The intimate nature of the venues to which he was confined made his play all the more moving.
As a singer he was charismatic. With a winking boyish excitement and a booming baritone, he could quickly rouse an audience to pure joy. His stage presence exuded the confidence of a man in complete command of his own talents, yet still sensitive to the response of the listener.
My own connection with Cutrell was continuous from late adolescence to early adulthood. It was a relationship that was intense in its affection, yet strictly confined to the roles of teacher and student. Our talk was never personal, but only of the music to be learned and performed.
And what a joy it was!
The choral concerts he conducted were virtual carnivals for the ear. He understood intuitively the emotional and spiritual impact music has on the audience. His programs were brilliant mixes of differing and often contrary styles. And his preparation was exhaustive, so that the performance was effortless.
Singing in Cutrell’s choirs, one was always surrounded by the pleasant harmonies of the group. Yet during certain songs on certain days one had the sensation of a suspension of the self, the solo voice, and the sublime spiritual immersion into the living organ of the choir.
Jimmy Cutrell was an artist and teacher of extraordinary talents, but my groping description of his abilities and achievements does not begin to give reason to the profound affection and grief that many of us feel in this moment. For he was more than the sum of his talents to those who worked closely with him.
He was the kind of rare individual in society around whom there is always a pulsating and purposeful energy. And this energy undulated out from him like so many rings of water when a stone hits the surface of a pond. Its power was disruptive and disturbing to some, but overall it was undeniably good. Its benevolence lay in the fact that for all his charisma, talents and energy, here was a man whose sole ambition was to enrich the lives of those around him with love and beauty. Is this not the purest spirit of Christianity?
To be sure, Cutrell’s uncompromising openness and tolerance made many church people uncomfortable, but it was this undeniable Christian spirit that also cemented his bond with so many young people and enabled him to become the great teacher to a generation of Gainesville musicians.
To all those who shared the music of Jimmy Cutrell over the years, I hope you will take a moment to remember his many gifts to us. He may no longer be with us, but his legacy is all around in the music of our community. It is through the unbroken human thread of affinity and apprenticeship that culture is refined, expanded and endlessly enjoyed.
For Jimmy, the string was easy to pass on, because his connection with students was so simple and pure; he loved us and so we loved him.
Jesse Corn is a Gainesville native and Northeast Georgia resident. His columns appear regularly.