Pitt Jazz Student Is Recipient of 2012 Pitt-BNY Mellon Jazz Scholarship

Issue Date: 
August 21, 2012

Ben Clifton in a music studioA University of Pittsburgh sophomore who plays classical and jazz piano is the winner of the 2012 Pitt-BNY Mellon Jazz Scholarship, an honor that is awarded annually to a Pitt music student.

Ben Clifton, a 19-year-old music major with a minor in Portuguese, won the $5,000 tuition scholarship based on a tape of jazz standards he submitted to a judging panel comprising nationally recognized jazz musicians.

Clifton, a native of the Edgewood suburb of Pittsburgh, began taking classical piano lessons at age 11. Upon entering Central Catholic High School, he switched to jazz and was a member of the school’s jazz band for four years. He also enrolled in the City Music Center, Duquesne University’s community music school, where he studied under adjunct professor of piano Ron Bickel. By this time, Clifton also was playing Sunday morning services at Oakland’s Church of the Ascension.

Clifton enrolled at Pitt as a freshman in 2011, drawn to the Department of Music partly because widely known local pianist Frank Cunimondo is a faculty member there. Clifton immediately became part of the Pitt Jazz Ensemble, and he backed up internationally renowned guitarist Larry Coryell at the Hill House as part of the 2011 Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert’s outreach activities.

Clifton teaches piano to at-risk youth through the Hazelwood-based Center of Life, a faith-based community empowerment organization and one of Duquesne University’s community partners. Clifton said he especially enjoys learning from his 5 th- and 6th- grade students.

“I’ll show them how to improvise over a chord progression,” he says. “But they’ll come back with a different way to improvise over that chord—something I never thought of, but that still sounds good.”

Clifton is also considering pursuing a math degree at Pitt, explaining that the relationship between math and music is “remarkable.”

When he’s not doing homework, Clifton performs with the Center of Life Youth Jazz Band for various corporate events, private parties, and fundraisers. The band has just completed its first CD, which includes two of Clifton’s original songs. One of them, titled Precious, was written in honor of Clifton’s late father, Robert Clifton, who was a Pitt professor of philosophy.

“I’m just trying to get the most out of my education that I can,” said the younger Clifton, “and to continue to connect with people through music. It’s the deepest form of communication I know.”

This is the 26th year that Pitt and BNY Mellon have funded the scholarship. BNY Mellon Jazz supports nonprofit organizations engaged in live performances and jazz education.