When Steve Hiltner, leader and saxophonist with the Sustainable Jazz Ensemble, picked up the phone last week, he was in the midst of a truly interesting project — he was tuning his piano.
“I kind of like it. I just do my piano,” says Hiltner from his home on Harrison Street in Princeton Borough. “When you have two strings that are out of pitch and you bring them into perfect unison, it’s a nice feeling. You can feel when they lock in.
“I’m not a professional (piano tuner), but I get it pretty close, and I’m happy,” says Hiltner. “I used to have piano tuners come in, but they complained so much about the piano — it’s an old one — that I just decided to do it myself.” It takes him about an hour to tune the piano, which has been in his family for more than half a century. “I sort of grew up underneath this piano,” he says, referring to how he used to crawl under the instrument as a young child, in Wisconsin, listening to his sister play.
Hiltner is one of the three members of Sustainable Jazz, which appears on Thursday, July 28, on Palmer Square Green, from noon to 2 p.m. Hiltner’s life’s work, aside from jazz of course, is the environment, so you might understand why the concept of sustainability is very important to him. Hiltner is the natural resources manager for Friends of Princeton Open Space (FOPOS), a position he has held since 2005. As part of the duties of that position, Hiltner writes a blog, princetonnaturenotes.blogspot.com.
Hiltner is also a member of the Princeton Environmental Commission. He spends about as much time in the woods around the Princetons (Borough and Township) as he does in front of a band or bent over the strings of his piano. He is married to Gabriela Nouzeilles, chair of Princeton University’s department of Spanish and Portuguese languages and literatures. The couple has two daughters, Sofia and Ana. Hiltner and Nouzeilles, a native of Argentina, met at a club in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Hiltner was doing a gig.
Hiltner received his bachelor’s degree in cultural botany from the University of Michigan in 1983 and a master of public health (MPH) in water quality from the same university in 1987.
Hiltner was born in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, where his father, an astronomer and professor at the University of Chicago, ran the university’s Yerkes Observatory. “When they built the observatory, around 1900, the skies above Williams Bay were a lot darker than they were in Chicago,” Hiltner says. His father later joined the faculty at the University of Michigan.
As a young man in Ann Arbor, during high school and college, Hiltner began playing jazz. His interest in music actually germinated in Wisconsin, where his mother and older sister played piano at home. “I’m the only one in my family who didn’t take piano lessons, but now I’m the only one who plays,” he says. “But we always had music around the house. My father really loved opera. He couldn’t carry a tune — he was tone-deaf when he tried to sing — but he was just enthralled by the opera.”
The family was also very interested in folk music. When Hiltner was in fifth grade, he began playing clarinet in the student ensemble. By the time he was a senior in high school in Ann Arbor, he took up tenor sax. Hiltner also had been turned on to jazz by his older brother. “He had given me a Modern Jazz Quartet album and also had turned me on to Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme.’”
But while some musicians credit their teachers with sparking a lifetime interest in music, Hiltner’s band teacher, unfortunately, had the opposite effect. “There was sort of a harsh ethic among band directors then,” says Hiltner. “They thought they had to really drive kids strongly and say certain things, kind of cutting remarks. So when I graduated from high school I didn’t want to read any more music. I just wanted to play.”
He taught himself jazz via clarinet and tenor, just figuring out how to get from one chord and note to another. “It was really like an outpouring of the heart. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just trying to play what I was hearing.”
Hiltner did gigs in Ann Arbor for most of the two decades after graduating. In 1999, Nouzeilles, who received her doctorate from Michigan, was appointed to a position at Duke University, so Hiltner and the family moved to Durham, NC. There he taught piano and helped raise his daughters. “Our kids were very young at that time, so I was kind of a Mr. Mom,” he says.
He never set out to be a piano teacher. “I’m really not a pianist, but I learned because I wanted to understand theory, and I kind of fell in love with the instrument,” Hiltner says. “One of my teachers gave me some students, and I also started composing tunes for the students.”
Being a botanist, Hiltner soon found himself working on environmental issues as well. “Almost by accident,” he says, he ended up founding the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association. “In Durham, there’s a creek that flows through the city, and we happened to buy a house that was very close to it. So I got interested in the creek and in making trails for people, little miniature nature preserves right in the city, and that kind of drew me in.”
In 2004 Nouzeilles was hired by Princeton. “I’m kind of following my wife around or blooming where I’m planted, or transplanted,” Hiltner says.
Other than the short ditties he would compose for his students, Hiltner didn’t write or play very much in North Carolina. “The whole jazz thing, which I had done for 20 years in Ann Arbor, was kind of eclipsed by family and this environmental work,” says Hiltner. It was only when he moved to this area that the impetus grew for Hiltner to begin playing music again, and Sustainable Jazz (www.sustainablejazz.com) came into being shortly after. “Some tunes started to occur to me, and I started composing jazz stuff. A couple years ago, I finally decided to put a group together and start playing it.”
Hiltner met pianist Phil Orr, a professor at Westminster Conservatory of Music, at an area benefit for New Orleans, a jam session at Westminister. “He was a pianist whose energy I really liked, and I started periodically getting together with him to play some of these compositions I had been writing. A couple years ago I got a gig at Princeton Public Library, and I had to get a group together.”
The trio composed of Hiltner, Orr, and bassist Jerry D’Anna has been working steadily for about two years, but recently Orr has not been able to participate. Hiltner has been able to enlist pianist Ron Connor, who has a child at Littlebrook Elementary (just as Hiltner does), to fill in. “He’s a real estate agent here in town and has lived in Princeton a long time,” says Hiltner. “He hadn’t really been playing all that much, but he’s a real good player.”
D’Anna is a computer technician in the financial services industry who plays both electric and acoustic bass. “He’s really a remarkable bassist,” Hiltner says. “He really loves to solo. A lot of bass players will solo if you ask them to, but Jerry really takes to it in a great way. He is very melodic and inventive.”
The band’s moniker ties in seamlessly with the work Hiltner does off the bandstand. “I’m on the environmental commission in town and have been quite a while. My work has to do more with plants and habitat restoration, and there’s a sustainable aspect to that, but there’s also an interest in climate change and energy issues that have to do with how we’re going to sustain our lifestyles, sustain comfort, and get along with each other without depleting the planet and radically changing the planet. I am very engaged in those issues.
“It’s a big part of me, and combined with the jazz that I have brought into the present, I just thought it was a nice name.”
Summer Music Series, Palmer Square, On the Green. Thursday, July 28, noon to 2 p.m. Sustainable Jazz. Free. 609-921-2333 or www.palmersquare.com.