Howland alum’s musical gift aids upcoming film

Special to the Tribune Chronicle Howland native Alton Merrell is working with Emmy Award-winning actor Glynn Turman to help him give a convincing performance as a 1920s jazz piano player in the film “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which is being directed by Denzel Washington in Pittsburgh.

WARREN — Anyone who’s seen Alton Merrell perform knows he is a wizard on the piano.

Now, thanks to Merrell, folks will believe actor Glynn Turman is, too.

Merrell, a 1994 Howland High School graduate now living in Pittsburgh, is helping the Emmy Award-winning actor fake being a piano player in the film “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which Denzel Washington is directing in Pittsburgh with a cast that includes Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. The movie, which will be released next year on Netflix, is based on a work by late Pittsburgh playwright August Wilson, whose play “Fences” was the basis for the 2016 Oscar-winning film starring Washington and Davis.

At first, Merrell thought the film producers wanted him to teach Turman how to play the complex stride-piano jazz of the 1920s in only a few weeks. Instead, thanks to the magic of movies, Turman only has to look like he’s playing.

“Once I got a clear understanding, I just shook my head. I can’t believe this,” Merrell said. “Someone calling you to teach someone else how to look like they’re doing something you do all the time, and then you get paid for it? I saw it as a blessing.”

Merrell has been expressing his faith through his music since he was a young child. He started playing the drums at age 5 at New Jerusalem Fellowship Church, which was founded by his father, Alton Merrell Sr.

“I remember seeing other drummers at other churches play and being fascinated,” he said. “I would sit in the front row of the church and watch then. My eyes would be glued on them. What they were doing, that same gift was in me … My faith results in being a blessing to other people. That’s a big part of how I see it. My faith results in blessing others with my gift of music. It’s a joy to see people walk in discouraged, use that musical gift, and they leave encouraged.”

Merrell switched from drums to piano around age 12 and began taking formal lessons in eighth grade. He majored in music education and classical piano performance at Youngstown State University’s Dana School of Music, earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees there before going to the University of Pittsburgh for his doctorate in jazz studies.

During his career, Merrell has performed with such jazz greats as Benny Golson, Christian McBride and Jimmy Heath and such gospel acts as Kim Burrell, Donnie McClurkin and Israel Houghton. Burrell sang one of Merrell’s songs, “You’re the Reason,” on an album by Warren native and Merrell’s Dana classmate Sean Jones.

He’s a member of the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra and fronts his own jazz quartet, and he also has appeared with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Jazz Orchestra and the Warren Philharmonic Orchestra.

Those accomplishments aren’t as important to Merrell as how music connects with his Christianity.

“It’s not about the where I’m at or who I’m with,” he said. “The testimony of my life is what God has done, and the incredible music is just one of the many byproducts of that. I’m a musical evangelist, bringing light and love and music to people — bringing God to people and testifying how God has brought music to me.”

If anything, Merrell believes his current opportunity with Turman and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is the fulfillment of a prophecy he heard about a decade ago from a visitor to the church. He was told, “‘You’re going to find yourself working for movies and some of your music will be used in movies, and it’s going to be shot in Pittsburgh.’ I never forgot those words. When I got the phone call, it was like, ‘Uh-huh.’ From a faith perspective, it was God bringing about his word on what He said He would do. When I heard it, I was surprised, but I wasn’t.”

Merrell and Turman, who played Mayor Clayton Royce on HBO’s “The Wire” and was part of the original Broadway cast for the play “A Raisin in the Sun,” have had about eight sessions together. Merrell taught him the importance of the left hand in that stride-piano style and helped him learn the movement of the right hand by having Turman sing the melody and move his right hand up and down the keys to match his voice.

“If you can sing it, you can play it, and that worked,” Merrell said.

There is a possibility he could be called to offer further assistance on the set, Merrell said. Either way, he hopes to get a chance to watch Turman and Washington in action.

“It’s really cool to connect with Glynn Turman and Denzel Washington, and this movie is wonderful,” he said. “I’m glad this opportunity came about and it’s great for my career, but more important for me is that God has revealed his desires for me, and because He wants it, I want it.”