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Mt Kisco's Justin Coby Pellis has Found his Musical Heart in Jazz

Goucher College Senior Readies himself for a Career in Music

By Rich MonettiPublished 4 years ago 3 min read
Photos courtesy of Justin Coby Pellis

As a kid, Justin Coby Pellis got into Rock ’n Roll from his father’s influence. On the other side, his mother exposed him to the old school Jewish and Israeli melodies, while opera and symphonies were a frequent destination with his grandmother. However, it was his musical theater roles at Solomon Schechter High School that inspired him to major in music at Goucher College in Baltimore. So all the musical diversity in his rearview, higher education has helped him sort it out.

“School is about getting your heart in the right place,” said the Mount Kisco native. “I had one friend who played jazz, and he just made me want to play the way he did.”

The epiphany coming in high school, he hasn’t been able to put the genre down. “It’s like Spicy Cheetos,” he said. “At first you're like, ‘oh, I can't eat that,’ but then you eat another one and another one, and it becomes an addiction.”

First, Pellis had to settle on his musical weapon of choice. Justin started on his dad's acoustic guitar in ninth grade, and insisted on playing without any training.

That said, his quick proficiency rarely left him alone. “I noticed early on that girls loved the guitar. I would just sit there in a field at school or camp and start playing. Then one girl would sit next to me, then five girls would sit next to me, and before I knew it, I had eight girls sitting next to me,” he joked.

The college senior claims he wasn’t trying to impress anyone, and his switch to the piano helps prove the assertion. “It was more intimate with me and my music,” Pellis said.

But seven or eight months on his own made him realize that the self taught solitude wasn’t enough. “I needed a teacher to make sure I could keep advancing,” he revealed.

Either way, the standard subjects at school didn’t stand a chance. “I didn’t like to read. I didn’t like to do math or science. So I needed something I could apply myself to, and that became music,” said Pellis.

He curiously kept his aspirations contained, and it never occurred to find a few mates to start a band. “When you’re in a little private school, it’s your whole world, and I never thought of branching out,” he said.

An expanse that didn’t come until college, and being graded on the public curve is one aspect of his education. “Playing live is like learning as you go,” Pellis beamed.

The development of the notes aren’t the only thing that group training unveils, though. Learning from each other’s mistakes and achieving a synergy is a process that the books can’t teach, according to the musician.

In turn, a passing glance or gyration becomes the vernacular that must be mastered. “We learn to pass innuendos and send signals with our eyes,” said Justin.

Of course, he doesn’t dismiss the importance of the classroom and learning how to engage in theoretical material. “Music is the territory," Pellis quotes his professor, Jeffrey Chappell, “and theory is the map. You can explore as much of the territory as you want, but with a map you might explore it differently.”

Justin with his mom on violin

Still, he understands that the academics can upset the natural order of the genre. “The worst thing about going to school to play jazz is people start thinking there’s a right way to play and come out trying to play the 'perfect jazz,’” Pellis lamented. “But Jazz is supposed to be messy and always developing.”

At the same time, he’s got a good handle on the limits of improvisation. “If you’re following a chord progression, and you don’t bend the notes in a way that conveys the meaning of the song, you’ve gone too far," he said.

One year left of college and Pellis will soon be in search of a path that makes a living. “The hardest part of getting out of school is realizing what kind of music actually matters to the world when it comes to making money,” Pellis asserted.

As such, Pellis considers applying his music and faith to Cantorial School training, and he welcomes having a base salary to supplement his jazz passion. “I’m sure I’ll find the right balance,” he concluded.

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