“I always suspected I might have a talent for teaching because my mind always wanted answers to questions,” says pianist Michael Pellera, whose first serious jump into academia came at the rather late age of 34. “I was definitely winging it in those early years,” he remembers with a laugh. “My first group of students at Loyola included [drummer] Brian Blade, [pianist] Matt Lemmler and [pianist] Jon Cowherd. I kind of got thrown into the fire,” exclaims Pellera on facing such brilliant students.
Pellera, 62, a native of Albany, New York, attended Boston’s Berklee College of Music where he fatefully met fellow pianist David Torkanowsky, who would ultimately become his connection to New Orleans. At the time, he says, Tork never really mentioned or played the music associated with the city. “We both were just trying to absorb what they were teaching us at Berklee,” he explains. “I didn’t know the culture or the community existed until I was here.” Once Pellera arrived, Torkanowsky gave him the Professor Longhair album New Orleans Piano, and told him, “If you want to play around here, you have to play this style too.”
When Pellera first landed in the Crescent City in 1977, he went to the source and took private lessons at the home of pianist/educator Ellis Marsalis. These instructions were not only significant for a young musician but came in handy years later when Pellera stood in front of his own classrooms.
“Ellis was a proponent of really learning the lead sheet version, the original published version, of a song and learning the lyrics,” Pellera says. “I wasn’t receptive to it at first because I was basically saying, ‘Look Ellis, I’m a kid of the ’60s and grew up with the Beatles and now you want me to learn the sheet music arrangement of “My Romance.”’ His response was, ‘How are you going to know how many times to repeat that note?’ So basically, I went from telling him that I knew probably a couple of hundred songs to that I knew no songs that perfectly. That was a big one.”
“I do find myself saying that to my current students all of the time,” Pellera continues. “’How are you going to know what you’re changing if you don’t know what the original was?’”
Pellera, who during the 1980s bounced between New Orleans and New York, currently holds the position of Jazz Chair of the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts. He says he was equally stunned by the talents in his classroom at NOCCA as he was when he’d arrived at Loyola. “When I started at NOCCA in 2002, I had [pianists] Jon Batiste and Sullivan Fortner. I was like what? Wait a minute, I was in college for 12 years and now two 16-year-old kids are playing at this level? Talk about flipping the roles of the master and the student. I’d just sit them at the piano and say, ‘What are you doing?’ That was challenging. Just to see them go through all these hurdles so quickly was pretty inspiring and then to see where they’re at now.”
Pellera, however, found his own inspiration from the brilliantly intuitive Alvin Batiste who headed NOCCA’s jazz department at the time of his arrival. “Frankly, I was nervous around him—he was an icon. He told me, ‘You do your thing, I’ll do my thing.’ That was lesson number one—just don’t sweat things. Even to this day, I think, ‘Would Alvin really worry about this?’”
Pellera explains that Batiste believed in the African-based oral traditions of teaching. “He would play something on his instrument and would say, ‘You play if after me. Don’t write it down.’ You would have to learn things by ear and the kids would internalize it much quicker. I kind of adopted that and we adopted that at NOCCA.”
Like most of this city’s music teachers, Pellera is a working musician, performing regularly with vocalists Leah Chase and Phillip Manuel as well as popping up with old friends like bassist James Singleton and drummer Johnny Vidacovich. He’s also released several fine albums as leader: Cloud Nine, Son of Sky, Playin’ Piano and Piano Standard. The pianist is also quick to mention the insights he gained from noted educator Harold Danko, who taught him the importance of organization, and saxophonist Dave Liebman, who he calls a “mad scientist.” “Liebman told me what he’d like to hear from a pianist behind his solos,” Pellera appreciatively says.
“I was surprised that I got as much gratification from teaching as I have,” Pellera offers. “I realized it was kind of a people thing. You have to like people. You try to figure out what’s right for that particular person at that particular time. A lot of it is mentorship.”
Pellera is well aware that New Orleans and therefore NOCCA is a special place. “We [NOCCA] happen to be in this musical community and I do believe whatever the original gene pool is, it’s still kicking around. Obviously when you’re born into this living culture, you’re getting off to a different start than someone who’s grown up in Minnesota.” Or, Pellera acknowledges, coming up in Albany, New York.