December 19, 2013
What happens when you leave home to take a journey that introduces you to the art that will define you ... and then you come back? For local jazz performer Mark Meussling, it’s all about creating your world and making the most out of your talents – wherever you happen to be. You can hear Meussling perform with his Mark Mason Trio and Mark Mason Quartet combos regularly at the newly opened All That Jazz club (he also serves as musical director there). Meussling has also recorded and released several CDs, ranging from standards to spirituals to original compositions. From his farmland youth to his education at the prestigious Berklee College of Music to his return to his roots, Meussling has always carried a flame for music – and a particular passion for jazz.
Meussling’s early memories include hearing his father’s Dave Brubeck and orchestral albums, taking piano lessons early on and, finally, discovering what made music tick for him.
“What really grabbed me was when I heard an Elton John album, 17-11-70,” he remembers. “I kept picking up the needle and playing the parts over and over. I went to the piano and thought, ‘Wow, I can figure this out.’ So, this was my first attempt at trying to hear music and decipher it instead of just using the sheet music in front of me.”
He continued to play piano through his adolescence but didn’t consider studying music seriously until he actually arrived at college.
“I actually went off to college planning to become a veterinarian,” he says. Shortly after his arrival, however, Meussling quickly realized that music might be his true calling. During orientation week he entered a talent show.
“I came offstage, and they said, ‘So, you’re a music major?’ and I said, ‘No, I’m studying to be a veterinarian.” The seed was planted.
“Long story short, after a few classes with the chemistry teacher scaring the daylights out of me, I sat up all night talking with a guitar major and went the next day to the chairperson of the music department and became a music major,” he recalls. He put together a performing trio and soon set out for Berklee, though he ended up going alone.
“We were all going to go, and I said, ‘I’ll see you in the fall,’ and when fall came, I was the only one who went. I never saw those guys again.”
Once in Boston, the budding jazz student received “the full immersion into the music and the culture. I was very fortunate to see some of the greats live and in person: Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Pass, Bill Evans – the great idols of jazz who are no longer with us. As a young person, it was just surreal. I just devoured it.”
Circumstances, however, drew Meussling back home. “When I was 21, my father passed away. Plus, something pulled me back to the area.” He eventually put down roots, starting a family.
“To my chagrin, the jazz just wasn’t what I had left. I ended up playing in the basement of Columbia Street West, which was called Mother’s back then. There was also the Retreat Lounge. Buddy Nolan and I got to know each other; I’d fill in for him when he was unavailable to play. I even booked him for a few gigs ... I was kind of ‘the kid’ back then. At the same time, I started a professional career in real estate to make ends meet, but my first love was always jazz music.
Meussling continued to plug away, often adding pop, R&B and other genres to his repertoire to suit the audiences he was playing to. But his love for jazz never flagged. He’d mostly limited his performances in recent years to private parties and functions, avoiding the rat race and diminishing returns of a club and bar environment that has moved further and further away from the music he loves to make.
Fortunately, the new All That Jazz club has made him enthusiastic about performing in the club setting again and has created a music director role for Meussling that taps into his experience and expertise.
“This club gives me a reason to ‘reemerge,’ if you will,” he says.
Meussling is understandably enthusiastic about what All That Jazz brings to the area. He foresees “a huge impact. [Club owners] Annrita and Gary Chappell and I began collaborating on this project a year ago, and I knew it was the right time and the right place to rekindle awareness for fine jazz music in Fort Wayne. There has been such a void, and such a need,” he says. “The time is now. So many patrons tell us how much they love the place and how it reminds them of a Chicago jazz club.”
Built from the ground up to spotlight jazz performances, All That Jazz features a stage that accommodates single performers, small ensembles and even larger groups. Meussling points to the centerpiece of the stage.
“We have a grand piano onstage that’s definitely conducive to the jazz format. It also provides an attractive visual element. It allows us the flexibility to have a solo pianist in there, but the stage is big enough to allow for groups.”
The “stage as showcase” element is not lost on this local jazz veteran.
“Having a dedicated stage is a bit of a rarity these days; a lot of places just move a table out of the way and have the bands set up on the floor. All That Jazz revolves around the band as the featured attraction,” he says. He credits the club for breathing new life into a scene that might otherwise get bypassed nearly completely.
“As jazz artists, we’re trying to make the best of what we have here. With All That Jazz, we have a venue that’s a perfect fit for both the players and the kind of clientele that don’t just want to go to a bar. It’s for folks who want to go out for an evening of more sophisticated music and dining.”
As music director at All That Jazz, Meussling is responsible for booking musicians and scheduling the performances, among other duties. “The goal is to do my part to provide a great place for jazz musicians to make great music happen. We’ve spent years and years honing our craft; we’re working hard to provide a great venue to showcase it.” He also performs regularly at the venue.
But Meussling hasn’t limited himself to live performances. He has also recorded several albums. “I have my own private studio, so I’m able to produce CD-quality work from home,” he says. “Right now, I’ve got a jazz standards CD in progress. I also have a CD of original music which is a blend of contemporary jazz but also moves into pop-ballad/love song-type arrangements.” He’s also working on an album featuring gospel and spiritual songs, drawing from the experience he gained during 12 years as a church music director and a stint as choir director for the Embassy Theatre.
When asked how he feels about musical education and opportunities for young, potential musicians, Meussling’s passion truly comes to the fore. Shrinking music programs in public schools aside, he points to efforts made in the community.
“Obviously, Chuck Surack and Sweetwater have had a huge impact on the musical presence in Fort Wayne, with their Academy of Music. It’s wonderful to see the arts and music more accessible to the public. We’d like to see more of the younger up-and-comers get interested in jazz; we don’t see as much ‘new blood’ coming into the scene as we’d like, but part of that is a byproduct of the sheer amount of different types of music that people are exposed to.”
He points out that “a lot of people grow up with simple chord structures and melodies. Jazz commands more depth of listening. Some people hear that and they’re intrigued by it, as I was. They hunger for more of it. There’s color and richness to the sound.
“I really believe that people want to understand it and appreciate it, and the more you listen to it, the more you want to hear,” he adds. “The on-the-spot activity that’s happening when people play jazz, when people improvise with an instrument (without sheet music, in many cases), listeners find that amazing because they’re seeing art being produced at the moment. People are seeing ideas springing forth right now. To me, that’s the coolest thing. It creates a particular energy and excitement when an ensemble is playing dynamically and in sync and doing everything as one unit. That’s something jazz brings with it that no other form can.”