Photo: Rich Kessler Photography

Jazz Musician Mark G. Meadows Brings Spontaneity to Signature Theatre

A Jazz Musician

“I am a jazz musician,” Mark G. Meadows says matter-of-factly while sitting at a Blue Bottle Coffee table in a bright red embroidered jacket that helps him stand out among the commuters and passersby at Union Station. “Why do I need to audition for an acting role? I’m not an actor.” 

He explains how theatre first piqued his interest as a performer, and as soon as he begins recounting how he nabbed the titular role in Signature Theatre’s Jelly’s Last Jam in 2016, it becomes obvious that theatre was more interested in Meadows rather than the reverse. 

Instead of dipping his toe in the water, Meadows dove headfirst into the deep end in the form of a major production at one of the DMV’s most prominent theaters – forcing him from his comfort zone as an artist and performer. Since the successful starring role, he’s done nothing but increase his jazz and overall musical prowess through various titles at Signature, including as the Shirlington-based theater’s cabaret series artistic associate. 

 “I realize that sometimes you have to let go of your dreams and let what is happening help you find your niche,” Meadows says. “For me, my dream three years ago [was that] I’d be touring the world as Mark G. Meadows: The Movement. It hasn’t happened. But in a way, it’s almost even better because I stand out as this quasi-theatre/jazz guy.” 

Merry Motown

Meadows’ latest production is A Motown Christmas, a holiday special in Signature’s cabaret series. The show, which runs through December 22, allows the jazz musician a chance to revisit songs that evoke childhood memories of him and his father singing along to Motown hits while decorating their Christmas tree.

“It might seem selfish, but I chose the [songs] that related to me the most,” he says. “Not only because it’s what I like, but because I can teach them better. I can see my dad putting ornaments on the tree, blasting these.” 

Songs include The Supremes’ rendition of “Silver Bells,” Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas,” Marvin Gaye’s “Purple Snowflakes” and The Jackson 5’s version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” which apparently includes rapping? Yes, rapping.

“On several tracks, they straight up rap,” Meadows says about the legendary Motown group. “They’re doing it with swag and everything, so we have some surprises for the crowd to make it feel current.” 

Despite the performance being a Christmas special, Meadows says there’s no added pressure to pick specific songs people are familiar with. But he does encourage crowd engagement. Though he laughed when labeled an “expert,” he does admit he’s been listening to holiday tunes since September and can match any crowd suggestions with one of his own.

“Talk to a white person, black person, old person, young person, whatever – they know Motown,” he says. “I want people to feel the Christmas spirit. I think obviously we’re going through some awful times with a sense of culture and connectedness, and we’ve lost a real sense of feeling. I hope that the music, Motown and Christmas can tie people together.” 

A Taste of Theatre

Meadows’ first inclination was to pass on the audition for Jelly’s Last Jam, and the decision would have stood had he not been persuaded by a friend from Dizzy’s Club in New York City.

 “I got back to DC, I met up with [Jelly’s director and Signature Theatre’s associate artistic director] Matthew Gardiner, I auditioned, and he told me if I accepted the role, I would be the lead. I still had no idea what it was. I was thinking like a small high school auditorium with a piano where I play a few songs and take a bow.”

 Instead, the spotlight and pressure were on him to deliver an all-encompassing performance as historic jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton. Though he hasn’t taken the stage in this capacity since, he was suddenly an established force in the DC theatre scene. 

“It was amazing. It was one of those stars aligning kind of moments,” he says. “Now all of a sudden, my foot is in the theatre world. It’s great because I’ve begun to be a music director for a lot of productions. It’s totally opened up my world to an audience who is even more appreciative of jazz than a jazz audience.”

Go with the Flow

For Meadows, the transition from jazz musician to leading man to behind the curtains has been seamless, and includes stints in some of Signature’s more music-forward productions like its cabaret series and the musicals Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Spunk. Though the jazz artist wouldn’t turn down another opportunity to be in the spotlight, he won’t lie and tell you he’s pining for it either. 

“I’m the kind of person [who] just goes with the flow. Whatever work comes my way is the work that I accept and focus on. [Acting] has not come up as much since Jelly’s Last Jam. It’s been more so from the music direction perspective, which is more my cup of tea. If something comes up again, I’d probably take it and roll with the punches. If I look at my life, music direction is more my forte. Acting is great and challenging. I had no idea what I was doing. I managed to do it, but I feel way more secure as a music director than as an actor.”

Theatre has also helped his burgeoning jazz career, introducing his style of music to an audience who otherwise may not have heard him. While theatre is generally more restrictive than spontaneous, improvisation-heavy jazz, Meadows’ “theatrical” lyrics and ability to adapt to the classical structure has led to a surprisingly fruitful marriage. 

“Signature has given me the freedom to have jazz energy while having structure and form,” he says. “The cool thing about being a music director is that I have the authority to extend a section or repeat something or do a longer intro. I feel that even though it’s leaning toward theatre, it doesn’t lose the spontaneous nature of jazz.”

With his go with the flow attitude, it’s tough to make predictions about what’s on the horizon for Meadows. Will he be a leading man onstage? Will he oversee the music for a future production? It’s hard to predict what a jazz musician will focus on next, because like the music, there are usually twists, turns and outright risks. 

“I still don’t understand how Matthew Gardiner took a risk on me,” he says laughing. “I don’t know what he saw. I don’t even think he saw me perform, but God bless him.” 

See Meadows in A Motown Christmas at Signature Theatre now through December 22. Tickets $38. For more information about Meadows and his artistic endeavors, visit www.markgmeadows.com. 

Signature Theatre: 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, VA; 703-820-9771; www.sigtheatre.org