When Mark Kelley reached out to a Berklee Online advisor about returning to school after a two-decade hiatus, he didn’t just ask for a second chance—he made a compelling case unique to his position:

“I am currently the bassist in The Roots on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and am now in a place that I feel that I can complete my bachelor’s degree.”

Kelley walked during the Commencement ceremony in 2003, but he was just shy of completing his degree with less than 20 credits remaining. The opportunity to tour with John Scofield’s Überjam was too good to pass up. That lasted two years, and then he crossed paths with Meshell Ndegeocello (thanks to his doorman in NYC) and embarked on a six-year journey touring with her. In 2011, he landed the gig with The Roots, and this year he reaches the milestone of the longest-serving bassist in the band. Yet, despite his success, he felt like something was missing.

“It would always be this thing that would come up,” says Kelley. “And then maybe within the last couple of years, both of my parents started having health issues, and we’re all getting older and seeing life play out, so that started to roll back into my mind like, ‘You know what? I want to finish this.’”

Kelley reached out to Berklee’s Alumni Degree Completion Program and resumed his journey, taking two history courses through Berklee Online in the spring semester of 2023. After enjoying his experience with online learning, he doubled down and enrolled in three Ableton courses along with his capstone project.

“My advisor was like, ‘Are you planning on breaking this up into two semesters? Or are you hoping to do this in one?’ I was like, ‘One,’ and I heard her go, ‘Oh, that’s a lot.’”

Kelley laughs as he reflects on that day. “I was like ‘what am I signing up for?’”

Writers’ Strike While the Iron’s Hot

But then a unique turn of events made it easier for him to balance his heavy course load with the prospect of appearing on national television five nights a week.

“With The Roots, we’re in a small room in the corner of the studio, and down the hall is where all the writers are,” he says. “And somebody mentioned that there was a possibility of a writers’ strike maybe two weeks or so before it happened, but we didn’t really know very much about it. There had been one other time that there was potentially going to be a strike and it got averted the day that they were going to strike, and so I just felt like that was what was going to happen again.”

But the Writers Guild of America did strike, and the labor dispute with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers meant that The Tonight Show was off the air for five months. Mark Kelley suddenly found himself with a lot more free time for his three Ableton courses and his capstone project.

“It was almost like the sky opened,” he says, smiling. “It was like, ‘I’m blessing the journey.’”

With his journey blessed and his job on hiatus, Kelley threw himself into his schoolwork. 

“For me, it worked well just because had I had the schedule that I anticipated, I could sit down and there was a strict lesson plan that I could watch whenever. I could watch it over again, too,” he says. “There were exercises, and the lessons were very thorough. I had previously taken a lot of online tutorials that didn’t really go in depth. And the fact that you can also access it for a year after you’re done to still go back and go over those things is really great.” 

Kelley says the biggest difference between his campus experience 20 years ago and his recent online learning experience has been where he worked.

“To be able to do it in your home, in your own setup, makes it even better,” he says. “When you’re at school, they’ll give you a workstation and whatever they have, but to be able to do it in the place that I’m actually working from was really helpful.”

Creature comforts such as this led to him doing some collaborations with his three-year-old son. For one Performing with Ableton Live assignment he set up a monitor mix and guided his son to continuously count in the beat of the song. 

“I figured if I could get a three-year-old to hear and perform with the monitor mix that I must be doing something right,” says Kelley. In Ableton Live: Sampling, he mixed tones from Simon—the 1970s electronic game—with a loop from the Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache,” while a cut-up sample of James Baldwin talking to an interviewer tied the whole piece together.

Mark Kelley’s Appropriated Composition assignment from Ableton Live: Sampling, in which Kelley says: I chose James Baldwin’s sample which states,”From my point of view no label, no slogan, and no party and no umm skin color and indeed no religion is more important than a human being.” I chose this sample and replaced the last word human with a robot generated voice saying “human.” I chose this sample first because it’s true. Second, it is something that is a reminder although it shouldn’t have to be. I chose to replace the human voice with a robot saying it as a statement about AI and all that is currently happening because of it. I chose the drums which displayed a strong drum beat and bongos which always reminds me of war. Baldwin is a soldier and his words are bullets in the ongoing war being fought daily.

Mark Kelley: Speaker Buster

His instructors and classmates were always complimentary of his work, but nobody seemed to recognize him as the bassist for The Roots. That could be in part because his student bio simply stated: “I like to bust speakers.”

“Everybody used to always tell me, ‘Just turn down,’” says Kelley, recalling an anecdote from his first stint as an undergrad when he was gigging at Wally’s Café Jazz Club, the legendary Boston venue where greats like Cannonball Adderley and Duke Ellington played.

“I was always borrowing everybody’s amp, but I got some money from a wedding gig, and I decided I was going to spend it on an amp,” he says. “I went to Wally’s, and I was playing, and this thing was so heavy. I got this thing set up, and I’m playing real loud. I turned this thing up and I didn’t match the ohmage from the head to the speaker. And all of a sudden I hear the amp start shorting out. And I look and there’s smoke. The head of the amp is on fire. I unplug it and I kick open the fire escape door and just throw this head out into the parking lot.”

Mark Kelley on bass during his undergrad years, at the Jazz & Blues Company in Carmel, California in 2002, with the Berklee College of Music All-Star Quartet, also featuring drummer James Williams, pianist Milton Fletcher, and tenor sax player Walter Smith.

He busts speakers a lot less these days, but his playing is still fire. In fact, during his capstone project, he came up with a business strategy to play bass on other artist’s tracks remotely and as well as producing and selling his own bass loop library for use in other projects. He has set up the site for his business, Resonant Solutions, but says he hasn’t had time to take on clients yet. 

Back to The Roots

He’s been busy working with The Roots on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon ever since the writers strike ended in September of 2023. Kelley says his experiences on The Tonight Show have not only allowed him to share the stage with iconic musicians but have also provided opportunities to bridge his past and present in the music world.

“I loved playing with Steven Tyler,” he says. “He was the speaker at my graduation [in 2003], so to tell him that and to have that moment to play with him was great. … We used to have a lot of sit-ins, and those moments were cool, because you could play and you could also get to interact and get to talk and pretty much hang out for the day with the artist, so I think those are my pretty much all-time favorite moments.”

Mark Kelley plays bass with The Roots as Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon and Roots vocalist Black Thought do Run DMC’s part in “Walk This Way” with musical guest Steven Tyler.

 Published May 17, 2024