Jess Meeker

Person
Biography
Composer, accompanist, and musical director Jess Meeker was born in 1911 in Arkansas City, Kansas.  An accomplished musician from early childhood, Meeker accompanied silent films in his hometown until modern dancer and choreographer Ted Shawn discovered him playing for a church pageant featuring a former Denishawn dancer, Ernestine Day.  Shawn was planning a new, all-male dance company and invited Meeker to begin work as his composer and accompanist at Jacob’s Pillow in the summer of 1933.

Throughout the 1930s, Meeker accompanied classes and played the piano for all the Ted Shawn Men Dancers performances as well as composing much of the music to which Shawn choreographed his dances.  He toured with the company to hundreds of cities across the U.S. as well as to Havana and London.  Meeker played at Carnegie Hall on several occasions, and his music was performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra at Robin Hood Dell in 1936.

Meeker continued his association with the Pillow after Shawn's company disbanded in 1940, accompanying classes and performances at the festival.  After serving active duty with the Army in World War II, he found jobs as a rehearsal pianist for Ballet Theater and several Broadway shows as well as touring South America with modern dance duo Foster Fitz-Simons and Miriam Winslow.  On Broadway, he arranged the dance music for Call Me Madam and collaborated on the score for Jerome Robbins's "Mack Sennett Ballet" in High Button Shoes.  He also accompanied Maurice Chevalier in several night club appearances and, from 1950 into the 1980s, served as the musical director for Steffi Nossen’s Dance in Education Fund in Scarsdale, NY.  

In addition to accompanying many performances at Jacob’s Pillow, Meeker often played in other venues for Ruth St. Denis, Lotte Goslar, and others.  He was the onstage pianist for a solo performed by Dame Margot Fonteyn at Jacob’s Pillow in 1973, and he performed his score for Shawn’s Kinetic Molpai when the dance was revived for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in the early 1970s.  His last New York appearance was in 1991 when he again played Kinetic Molpai for the Jacob’s Pillow Men Dancers program at the Joyce Theater.

During the 1980s, he reconstructed many of the Shawn dance scores, some from memory, and recorded the music in synchronization with 50-year-old silent films.  He also appeared in Ron Honsa's award-winning video documentary, The Men Who Danced.  

In 1981, Meeker was romantically reunited with Peg Easton Seney whom he had dated in the 1930s. They married in 1982 and later moved to Toledo, Ohio, where she died in 1988.  The Pillow’s Meeker Garden was created and maintained as a memorial to her.  After his wife's death, Meeker stayed on in Toledo and played a number of piano recitals there.  He continued to accompany classes at the Pillow up until the time of his death in 1997.
Pillow Significance
Composer and accompanist for Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers
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