PillowVoices: Dance Through Time

Celebrating Jess Meeker: Pioneering Pillow Composer

Episode Summary

PillowVoices composer and engineer Ellis Rovin takes inspiration from the Pillow's earliest composer-accompanist, Jess Meeker, with rare interviews shedding light on dance in the 1930s and the early days of Jacob's Pillow.

Episode Transcription

[Music begins, composed by J.S. Bach, performed by Jess Meeker]

NORTON OWEN: Welcome to PillowVoices, a production of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival with content from the Pillow Archives. I’m Norton Owen, the Pillow’s Director of Preservation, and it’s my pleasure to introduce PillowVoices composer and audio engineer, Ellis Rovin. In this episode we explore the story of the Pillow’s first composer, the extraordinary Jess Meeker, a man who introduced me to Pillow history and quite literally changed my life. 

ELLIS ROVIN: I am often asked by friends, colleagues, and listeners of the show, “How do you make a program about dance, in a non-visual medium like podcasting?” The first thing that helps are the giant personalities and fantastic stories that dancers and choreographers often have. The second thing essential to the non-visual telling of dance history, is music. As a composer, the musical minds of Jacob’s Pillow have always been of particular interest to me.  And as I embarked to write an episode of this podcast about the music of Jacob’s Pillow, a prominent person of interest became clear. A creative powerhouse who joined The Pillow at its inception, and remained on the staff until his passing more than six decades later, described by Jennifer Dunning in The New York Times as “a fixture at the festival.” This was someone who has inspired every piece of music I’ve ever written for The Pillow, and whose creative resilience and drive serves as a model for not just my own artistic journey, but as an integral part of Ted Shawn’s original vision for Jacob’s Pillow.  

The person in question is Jess Meeker, Ted Shawn’s longtime accompanist and composer, who later served as the music director of Jacob’s Pillow.  Meeker and Shawn began working together in the early 1930’s when Meeker was still a young, unproven musician. Despite his lack of accolades, the two would form a creative partnership which would last 40 years, until Shawn’s passing in 1972.  

Born in 1911 in Arkansas City, Kansas, (and yes, that’s AR-Kansas City, not Arkansas City),  Jess Meeker began his musical career as a teenager, accompanying the silent films of the mid to late 20s.  Though he had zero connection to the dance world himself, his neighbors happened to be the mother and father of Ernestine Day, a soloist in the Denishawn Dance Company, co-directed by Ted Shawn. Like many famous artists, the first big moment of Meeker’s career was sparked by a family connection, and a supportive local mom.

This is Meeker telling the story himself, to filmmaker Ron Honsa in 1982:

JESS MEEKER: Well, when I was about, I must have been about 17 years old or 18 years old, I lived in Kansas. In a little town in Kansas called Arkansas City, which was on the southern border of Kansas, about three miles from the Oklahoma border. And in this town lived a young woman whose name was Ernestine Day, and she was a Denishawn dancer. She had been to the Denishawn School and had performed in the Denishawn Company for many years. And so, because at the, this particular year, and I think it was in 1930, Ted Shawn and his mixed company of dancers were going to play Arkansas City with this girl as his lead dancer. And so, her mother, who lived just a block from where my mother, where my family lived, her mother asked my brother and I if we would play the, if we would play between the, you know, between the acts or, or in the middle of the performance in the, in the pit of the, of the theater where they, where they were performing. And so we were delighted to have the opportunity. This, I, maybe I was 18, I expect I was. And my brother was a violinist and we had a girlfriend who played the cello, so we had a string trio: piano, violin, cello. Probably wasn't very good, but anyway, we played. And so they, Mrs. Day invited us to play for this, before the performance started and during intermissions. So we were all planning to do it. We had practiced very hard and we got to the theater to do this thing and word came to us that Ted Shawn had absolutely forbidden anybody, any kind of music to go on. And then I guess Mrs. Day or Ernestine went to him and begged and begged. So finally, the word came back to us that Mr. Shawn was going to allow us to play after all, we didn't know him from Adam at all, but we just, you know, we knew this was a great big performance, a, you know, a big deal.

ELLIS ROVIN: As a composer not much older than Jess was at the time, it’s moments like these that make his life story so enthralling.  Picture being a young, local musician, and having the first time you see your name printed on a program, be next to one of the greatest American dance artists of the time. Furthermore, that night would be one of the first times Meeker had ever seen professional dancing, something that seems impossible given Meeker’s prolific work within the artform. Although the two did not personally meet each other that evening, possibly due to Ted Shawn’s initial rejection of the idea of a musical performance during intermission, their paths would cross again soon enough.

Several years later, Ernestine Day would leave the Denishawn Company to return to Kansas and be closer to her family, as well as to continue dancing professionally in the South.  She would take her family friend Meeker to performances in Oklahoma as her accompanist, furthering his dance education. Meeker, now the organist at his local church, was preparing a cantata for Easter, and had asked his old friend Ernestine Day to dance the role of Mary Magdalene, and the rest is history.  

JESS MEEKER: Together, we were going to put on this, this Easter cantata thing that I had composed. And we decided that we would ask Ernestine Day if she would dance the role of Mary Magdalene going to the tomb. And so we did and she agreed to do it. So we had dancing in the Presbyterian church in Arkansas City in 1933. It nearly broke the church apart, but we did it anyway and they loved it. It really was very exciting. And Shawn happened to come through town on the day that we were giving this performance. On, it was on a Good Friday and he was on his way to San Antonio, I think, to do the, the Texas Bicentennial, or, I don't know, some, anyway, a big Texas celebration, and he had been engaged to come. And so, so he just happened to come through Arkansas City, and he was there like maybe two days and he went to this performance on this, this particular, this Friday night. And then I think that on Friday, he taught a, I think Ernestine arranged to have him teach a master class in Arkansas City. And she got some students to come, among them was a boy by the name of Dennis Landers, who was a boy who sang in our choir. So he was, Dennis Landers, was this young fellow who was in the, the class that Ted Shawn taught in Arkansas City. And Dennis had done a little bit of dancing in, in Arkansas City, but he really, there were, there were no teachers there really to do any, any great deal of training. But, but anyway, Shawn was impressed with his, with his coordination and what, whatever, during, during this class. And Dennis was able to borrow money enough to come, I think his tuition was $500 for that summer. And he managed to borrow $500 to come to Jacob’s Pillow. And of course, we were all very delighted that Dennis had, was going to have a chance to study away, away from, from Arkansas City and be in New York. And so we were all very pleased about that. And I was very, very unhappy because I was going to have to have to stay in Arkansas City. And just about this time, I got a letter from Ted Shawn saying that he was starting this new men's group and he needed a male pianist, somebody who would work with him and, and compose music for him and so forth and offering me a job. So I was on the next Greyhound bus out of Arkansas City on my way to Massachusetts, to New York as a matter of fact. 

ELLIS ROVIN: Meeker finally had his ticket to New York, and it was perfect timing too.  As the 1920s became the 1930s, a combination of the Great Depression and the advent of sound movies had hurt his business as a silent film accompanist. 

It’s important to remember that this is the early 1930s, a time without cell phones, the internet, or even freeways.  Meeker was about to travel 1,400 miles away from everything he had ever known, to commit to an experimental all male dance company which rehearsed in a barn Meeker described as looking like it had “last been painted during the Civil War.”  

JESS MEEKER: By this time, I was kind of, because the, the sound movies had come in and I lost my job as a silent movie organist. And I had puttered around for about, by this time I was out of high school and I had gone to junior college. And I had puttered around teaching a little bit and playing in churches and playing for funerals. And my brother and I had a dance orchestra and we played for, like, $3 a night from nine o'clock until one o'clock in the morning. And, and it really was not, it was a real dead end at that, at that time, point in my life, and I had to get, I really needed to get someplace. 

ELLIS ROVIN: Meeker describes his first trip to the Pillow less as an artistic pilgrimage and more as an economic necessity, though I think there is a larger grey area between those two conceptions.  While the idea of moving to an idyllic part of Massachusetts for half the year, and using the other half to tour the country may sound like heaven for many artists, this wasn’t typically how Shawn pitched the idea. Remember, this is in the earliest days of Shawn owning the Pillow. There was no theatre, no outdoor stage, and there was no electricity or running water.  

RON HONSA: I mean, was it very much of a surprise to see the condition it was in? Or were you told one thing... 

JESS MEEKER: Oh, no, no, no. Shawn had said, “Well, I don't want you to think that, in New York,” he said, “I don't want you boys to think that when we get to Jacob's Pillow, it's going to be a great palatial place at all. It's just an old, very old farmhouse that I picked up for, not very much money. And I've been, I've been, I've renovated the studio, and I'm going to start spending money on the house soon as I can.” And that was it. So, so I was not, really not surprised to, to find that it was as primitive as it was. It really was in pretty bad shape, you know. And because Shawn had only, I think he owned it really maybe one year before, and he hadn't really had much, all the money that he could scrape together he'd spent remodeling the studio so he’d have a place to rehearse and have his company work. So he hadn't really been able to spend very much money on the house. And I remember in the kitchen downstairs, that it was all very primitive, there was a…one of those hand pump well kind of things that you pump the water up, you know. And a very, all, everything was very old, an old wood stove there, and, and we didn't have any electricity in the place at all, it was quite dark. And we had kerosene lamps that hung around in the various rooms and things. And so it was quite primitive, and, and even, even then, you know, the next day and the days later when we got to work and so, you know, when we were working we, you really didn't have time, or even worry about whether, what condition the place was in. But it began to improve and improve and within a few years, it looked a little bit, a little bit more like it looks now so it was really in good shape.

ELLIS ROVIN: This is the part that seems craziest to me. In retrospect, the idea of founding a commune to both center one's life around artistic creation, and avoid the financial hardships of the Great Depression makes perfect sense.  At the time, however, Shawn’s vision was much more opaque, which I think speaks to his magnetism as an artistic leader. There wasn’t a wealth of dance talent hidden within the Berkshires. Shawn was scouting the country and bringing talent to him, convincing young, brilliant, artistic minds to join him in a disciplined journey with no clear destination. I think it was the trust in Shawn required to make the pilgrimage to Becket that helped foster the unique relationship he had with his dancers and students.   

JESS MEEKER: No, I think that was very vague. I don't think anybody really. I think that as far as the concept, Ted Shawn’s concept about Jacob's Pillow and about, I mean, his whole, all of his, I don't think that he could have even have begun to cover all that in, in one, in, in one evening’s talking to these young men, or to me, or anybody. I think that he, this all came out of him through the, through the, through talks in the evening after, after we had dinner and during dinner. And we used to have lunch out on the platform after we’d have class. And he talked to people, to the fellows, and all of us out there about what his plans were. But, but I don't, it's, you couldn't even encompass it all in, in one. I mean, it took summers before we really knew what, what we thought he was up to. And, and in a way, you know, that was the, sort of everybody's dream in those early years, in the 30s. That eventually this place could, could be a place where everybody, where the guys could get married, they'd have their families and have kids and everything and still, and still have a school, an active school. But that, of course the war. Maybe it wasn't the war that, entirely, maybe it wouldn't have worked anyway. But that was sort of the, the original idea that they, eventually they would have their homes here and they would. As a matter of fact, when they disbanded, Shawn gave them their choice of a cash settlement or a piece of, of land, a piece of Jacob's Pillow. And they chose, all of ‘em except one, chose a cash settlement.          


ELLIS ROVIN: The war in question, World War II, would bring an end to Ted Shawn’s all male company.  Shawn disbanded the company as many of his dancers and collaborators, Meeker included, would soon be drafted to fight overseas. Despite the sudden end to this chapter of Meeker’s life, the 1930s had been good to him. Many creative people, myself included, have been navigating the tough reality of making an artistic living during the pandemic. I can’t express how inspiring it is to read about Meeker working through the Great Depression. Finding a path from an unknown kid in Kansas, to a pianist who had national and international tours, including several Carnegie Hall performances, and enough fame as a composer to have the Philadelphia Orchestra perform his original music.

From a compositional standpoint, Meeker’s music was one of a kind. His use of ornamentation, dynamics, and melodic shifts harken to the works of great Romantic composers such as Tchaikovsky and Dvorak. His use of harmony and rhythm create a sound evoking that of traditional ballet, leaving room to explore almost every conceivable motion, and emotion, within his distinct style. There’s a certain operatic quality to many of his works, where the story being told in the music is so clear, yet there is always space for his dancers to be the focus of the show.  Both the intro and outro music used in PillowVoices is written by Meeker, and when writing original music for this podcast I am constantly looking to him as inspiration. When one considers the sound of this podcast, the works of Ted Shawn, and the musical aesthetic of Jacob’s Pillow as a whole, all three are indicative of Jess Meeker’s influence. I’d like to play an excerpt of my favorite pieces by Meeker, his original score for Shawn’s famous “Dance of the Ages”, performed here at The Pillow in 2018 by John Sauer.

[Play “Dance of the Ages”]

ELLIS ROVIN: Being a composer can be one of the most daunting experiences in the world.  Staring at a blank staff in a silent room with the expectation of beautiful music coming out can seem impossible, even for seasoned composers. Writing music often involves wrestling with the notes, bending them into melodies which bring both personal satisfaction, and support the composition as a whole. Meeker’s unique relationship with Shawn allowed him to cultivate a slightly different process.

JESS MEEKER: On different pieces it varied. Many of the, many things he had already, he had, he had already either selected the music and had a general idea of what he was going to do. In which case, he would just bring me the music and say, here, we're going to do this now. And in the case of that Polonaise, which I think you photographed last night, was one of those cases that he'd already heard this music and he wanted to do it. And so he brought the music to me and said, “I would like to do this.” And, and so we started to work on it. On things that I composed for him, specifically, he, he would discuss the idea with me and, and I would go and compose some music, and I’d bring it back. And if he liked it, or if it, if it seemed, seemed sort of what he wanted, he would accept it, we would go to work on it. And other, other ways, other, another way we worked would be in the, in the classroom. We would study, we would, he would start on movement studies. And I would just improvise music to fit the, the exercise and then he'd, then he, then he would develop it into, a little further, until it became more than just a movement study. And then, and then I would then eventually write down the music and make, and make it, and it became composition. It was, you do the same thing over and over again, it would develop. That's the way the entire Kinetic Molpai was, was invented because he, he would work on movement studies in the studio and then I would go off and, and try to compose music to fit the exercises that he, the, the movement patterns that he had developed in the studio.

ELLIS ROVIN: I think Meeker’s background as an accompanist first, composer second, greatly influenced both Meeker’s musical style, and the artistic relationship between him and Shawn. When improvising music with dancers, there’s a certain give and take between the two parties. Competing ideas of where to take the performance are hashed out in real time, concepts like tempo, meter, and dynamics are subject to change at the whim of either party.  Meeker’s experience as a silent film accompanist gave him a different perspective. As a pianist accustomed to supporting films, he was used to being unable to affect the visual performance he was scoring. Meeker was accustomed to being locked in to the follower role, where he consistently found brilliant musical ideas. I’d like to believe this made him a particularly astute collaborator for a choreographer like Shawn, who Meeker admits wasn’t always receptive to differences in opinion. 

JESS MEEKER: Well, it was very difficult the first summer because I wasn't really aware of what was going on. But now that I can look back at, at it and see that, what actually was going on. I was adjusting myself to, and what talents and what, what intelligence, common sense, and, and, and basic musical talent I had. I was trying to adjust that to, to Ted Shawn and to his project because I really wanted to do it, I wanted to be able to do it, I wanted to be successful at it, and I wasn't sure that I was going to be. And, and it was the first experience I'd ever had like that. And I really wasn't that, I wasn't that, I was a fairly good pianist, but I wasn't really that, wasn't really good enough for that job at that time. But I must say, he drove me through it till I became, til I. I, I just the force of his personality drove me farther than I would ever been able to drive myself. So I know now why it was difficult, but I didn't know at the time, I just thought I was never gonna be able to make it. That he was going to send me back to Kansas, that I'd never get out of Kansas again. But that never happened. 

Well, generally, one didn't have differences of opinion with Ted Shawn. If you did, you were relegated to another world and you were no longer his friend. In most cases, however, there were people who, who were very fond of Shawn, he was very fond of them. And they, and you could, you could make suggestions to Shawn about things that, that, that you believe. But you had to make him think he thought of it. Tell it in such a way, you'd have to tell him in such a way that he would think that it was his idea in the first place and then you get it, get it across. But you really didn't tell Ted Shawn very much. He was very, a very determined man. He had his, he had his way of doing things and that, as far as he was concerned, that was the way to do it. And you didn’t, you didn't really bother trying to tell him anything. You know, I was a hot 21 years old anyway, I wasn't about to tell a man 40, to a man who was my boss. And who, and who I had great respect for, for Shawn, for what he did, what he was able to do.

ELLIS ROVIN: While Meeker worked as a composer and accompanist for the Pillow until his passing in 1997, some of his most important and lasting work happened during the 1980’s. Through his work with Norton Owen in the Pillow School, Meeker and Owen developed a project to preserve some of the films of Shawn’s Men Dancers. Meeker reconstructed his scores – some of which had no surviving manuscripts – and served once again as silent film accompanist, adding his original music to the films, and preserving them forever.  Despite the troves of amazing music Meeker composed, it is this work that I am most thankful for.

[Start Finale Music]

ELLIS ROVIN: Jess Meeker was a creative spirit who despite being a young man through both the Great Depression and the Second World War, two of the greatest hardships America faced in the 20th century, was steadfast in his artistic journey, becoming an integral part of both The Pillow’s legacy, and American dance history. It is an honor to follow in his footsteps, as a composer for The Pillow.

[Music begins, composed and performed by Jess Meeker]

NORTON OWEN: That’s it for this episode of PillowVoices. Thank you for joining us today. On behalf of Jacob's Pillow, we look forward to sharing more dance with you through the films, essays, and podcasts at danceinteractive.jacobspillow.org, and of course through live experiences during our festival and throughout the year. Special thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts for helping launch this podcast series. Please subscribe to PillowVoices wherever you get your podcasts and visit us again soon, either online or onsite.