December 2001


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Written by
Jennifer Lee

Photo by D. J. Case


Everyone remembers where they met their love for the first time. For pianist Michael Schiller, it was in a Sam Goody music store. He was only in sixth grade, and the object of his affection wasn’t all that cuddly. That’s because his love was a CD. Not just any CD. It was a Duke Ellington CD. He spied it crammed in alongside the music of MTV. The Ellington name was familiar to Schiller. The jazz great had composed some of the scores Schiller had been playing.

The youngster from Merion Station, Pennsylvania bought the CD. He wasn’t brokenhearted. “It spoke to me,” he says. “The innovation, the way Ellington was always learning and changing the way he played. I just loved it immediately.”

Schiller, a freshman at Pitt and the winner of this year’s Pitt-Mellon Jazz Scholarship, was chosen unanimously by a panel of professional musicians. The $5,000 award is given annually to an incoming or current jazz student who shows particular promise.

Well-spoken, at times Michael Schiller seems mature beyond his years. Perhaps it’s because he was faced with his own mortality earlier than most. He was treated for a brain tumor four years before that fateful day at Sam Goody’s.

“I haven’t had a normal teenage life,” Schiller says. “I didn’t need to test the limits of my body because I’d already done that. The cancer did that.”

Instead, he spent afternoons jamming. At home, in friends’ basements, then playing gigs at bar mitzvahs and weddings. He also ventured into the Philadelphia club scene regularly to sit in and learn from veteran musicians.

Whenever Schiller plays, he tries to find that voice he first heard in Duke Ellington. Then, he leaves even his most beloved influences behind, and begins to make a music completely his own.
—Jennifer Lee

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