Steve Hillis Biography
I started music studies at the age of five in Moline, Illinois, taking piano lessons from my mother for 3 years. I then studied violin for a couple of years from my father, who was a music instructor in the elementary and secondary school system, and then studied trombone from Gordon Hallberg and John Groethe. I had the honor of being first chair trombonist in the Iowa All State Band. However, I became interested in jazz in high school, and this interest rekindled my interest in the piano. As a result, I resumed piano lessons my last two years in high school, taking from Audrey Hafar in Marshalltown, Iowa.
Upon graduation from high school I studied jazz for a semester at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. There I studied piano with Ray Santisi, who was the teacher for such famous performers as Keith Jarrett and Diana Krall. Realizing that I needed a better classical piano background, I subsequently enrolled in the University of Iowa and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree, majoring in mathematics and music.
After receiving my B.A., I enlisted in the Marine Corps for two years, playing trombone and piano in the Quantico Marine Corp Band in Quantico, VA. After this I returned to the University of Iowa and earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in piano performance. My classical piano teacher at the University of Iowa was Kenneth Amada, who was an excellent teacher. While at the University of Iowa I taught jazz as a teach assistant.
Upon receiving my M.F.A., I studied jazz in the graduate jazz program at the University of Miami for a semester and taught jazz as a teaching assistant. My jazz piano teacher at the University of Miami was Vince Lawrence Maggio, who was very helpful. Following my UM studies, I returned to Iowa City and worked for a year as a jazz musician and teacher, playing at two jazz clubs, the Loft in Iowa City and the Unique Motel in Cedar Rapids, and taught piano and jazz lessons privately and at Cornell College. Joe Abodeely was the leader of the group at the Unique Motel (in addition to being the owner); Joe was the Art Blakey of Iowa, teaching young jazz artists the fine points of playing. Al Jarreau, JR Monterose, David Sanborn, and Dan Hearle were a few of the now famous jazz artists who gained experience playing with Joe. I learned a lot from Joe.
After a year of late hours, smoke so thick that my eyes would sting, arriving home so late the birds were starting to sing, and living from month to month financially, I decided to go back to grad school and study statistics. Eventually I earned my Ph.D. and today work as a statistician for the Iowa City VA Health Care System. [Actually, I note that my plan all along after getting out of the Marine Corps was to study music for fun and then study statistics -- but it just so happened that the music part went on longer than I had previously planned.]
Honors. In 1978 I was awarded Honorable Mention for Best Instrumental Soloist in the First Downbeat Collegiate Jazz Performance Awards. In 1982 I was awarded a National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Study Fellowship which allowed me to study with jazz pianist Eddie Higgins in Fort Lauderdale.
Teachers. I wish to thank numerous teachers for their help and inspiration. I thank my four jazz piano teachers: Ray Santisi at Berklee, Joe Utterback at the University of Iowa (when I was an undergraduate), Vince Lawrence Maggio at the University of Miami, and Eddie Higgins in Fort Lauderdale. Joe Abodeely was a great jazz mentor. I thank all my classical piano teachers: Audrey Hafar and Zolene Melvin in Marshalltown, Iowa, and Dan Benton, Joe Utterback and Kenneth Amada at the University of Iowa. Joe Utterback was a very inspiring teacher who encouraged me to become a music major, and I am grateful to Kenneth Amada, who I studied with for 7 years, for overseeing my development as a classical pianist. I thank my excellent trombone teachers, Gordon Hallberg and John Groethe, as well as Armon Adams, the director of my high school band. I thank Tom Davis at the UI for hiring me to teach jazz as his teaching assistant and for the many insightful discussions that we had about jazz. Finally, I thank my parents, both musicians, for their inspiration and willingness to provide lessons for me, and also my brother Ron, a talented musician from whom I learned a lot about jazz.