In the Shoes of Jelly Roll Morton

By Michael Atchison

When the request came, Mark G. Meadows ’11 politely declined. After all, he was in Doha, Qatar, pursuing his dream, playing jazz to an international audience. “I’m not really an actor, and I’m also working on a new album,” the pianist, singer, and composer wrote in his email reply to theater director Matthew Gardiner, who was asking him to audition for Jelly’s Last Jam, a musical about the life of legendary jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton.

While declining seemed sensible enough, Meadows didn’t understand what he was passing up. “I didn’t realize how big a role it was,” he says, “nor did I realize how big of a deal Signature Theatre was.” And though he had learned a Jelly Roll Morton song as a student at Johns Hopkins’ Peabody Conservatory, Meadows knew little about the life of the man whose story inspired the Broadway musical.

alum-meadowsFortunately, Meadows reconsidered. He returned home and read for the part. Though his only acting experience had come on the high school stage a decade earlier, Meadows discovered that his years of playing jazz had provided the tools to take on the challenge. During the audition, Meadows says Gardiner “seemed impressed with my ability to listen and react and respond, and I told him that’s all I do as a jazz musician. I’m listening. I’m trying to add whatever I can to make it work.”

Clearly, he did make it work. Meadows landed the lead role in the show, which premiered on August 2 at the prestigious Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, and ran through September 11. The novice actor treated each performance as a chance to perfect the part.

“The more I play Jelly Roll Morton,” Meadows said after just a few performances, “the more I learn about him. I might dust off the piano bench, because he used to dust off the piano bench before he sat on it. I might listen to him before the show, and during a solo break when I’m playing piano, I’ll play something more similar to that.” Though reticent at first, the 27-year-old embraced the chance to fully inhabit Jelly Roll’s persona.

The part proved a natural fit for Meadows, who earned a psychology degree from the Krieger School, as well as a jazz piano degree (2011) and a graduate performance degree in jazz piano (2013) from Peabody. A legendary figure in the history of jazz, Jelly Roll Morton was a key innovator during the genre’s earliest years. A gifted pianist from a young age, he forged his style in the libertine atmosphere of the New Orleans brothels where he played during his teens. Like Morton, Meadows studied classical piano as a child, though his development took cues, somewhat more conventionally, from the music he absorbed in church and at the gigs of his jazz-vocalist father.

After leaving Hopkins, Meadows became a fixture on the vibrant D.C. jazz scene, where he was named artist of the year in 2014 by the Washington City Paper. Even as he poured himself into preparing for the run of Jelly’s Last Jam, Meadows remained committed to finishing the album he mentioned back in Qatar. He released To the People last April, a recording that reflects on turbulent events, and was motivated, he says, by “not only police brutality, but just brutality in our world that we keep seeing happen over and over again.” He recorded versions of classic songs of social consciousness, such as Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” plus his own compositions, including “What Would You Do,” which he describes as a call to action for his listeners. It’s a song born of frustration, one that echoes feelings Gaye expressed nearly a half-century ago. “I’m still saying the same thing,” Meadows says, “and I’m mad about it now.”

Meadows also draws inspiration from contemporary artists, especially hip-hop star Kendrick Lamar, who has tackled similar themes. And though Meadows references various musical styles, it remains important to him that his work be called jazz, he says, “Because jazz is the music of freedom. Jazz is the music that forces you to listen and forces you to create and forces you to be free.”