With a foundation in the church and a passion for America's music, Marcus Roberts is easily one of the most prolific pianists of his generation. Hailing from Jacksonville, Florida and influenced by the early exposure to his mother's gospel singing, he decided that he wanted to be a jazz pianist after listening to the music of Duke Ellington
, Benny Goodman
, Mary Lou Williams
and others on the radio. A student of classical piano at Florida State University, Roberts joined the Wynton Marsalis
band and toured with the trumpeter for six years. Accomplished as an educator, composer and musician, Marcus Roberts' recording legacy reflects the passion and deep respect for the masters of jazz and classical music.
Some say that those who can't play, teach. But for those who have experienced the music of composer, musician and educator Marcus Roberts, that statement is as far from the truth as the music of Monk is from the music of Madonna. Spending his life advancing the music he loves, either through performance, teaching or exploring the possibilities presented to it by technology, Marcus Roberts keeps busy. And though it's been eight years since his last recording, he has spent that time providing a voice for a music that just a few short years ago many thought could be silenced forever.
Fueled by a passion for music that began as he listened to his mother's gospel singing and the music of a local Jacksonville church, Roberts lost his sight at age five and taught himself piano by age eight. He played in the local Baptist church every Sunday and at twelve he started formal lessons. Though he bagan listening to jazz at a young age, the influence of gospel music runs deep and provides much of the soul found in his playing today.
"My mom used to play every morning5:30 in the morningthis Aretha Franklin record, "Amazing Grace" with James Cleveland and even as a kid, it just gets into your spirit and you take it from there."
An eight-year break from recording might sound restful, but for the passionate and energetic Roberts, it's been anything but.
"In 2004 I took a position as part of the jazz faculty at Florida State University, so I'm in my 5th year there and that's been intense because we've got a lot of good students down there... I'm just trying to build that curriculum," says Roberts.
"I worked on consolidating and presenting this Gershwin piano concerto which I did in Japan in 2003... so that was a major thing that I had to do. We've been doing more extended residencies around the country, like in Iowa, and Illinois and different places. There's been more teaching, more of a range of presentations where I want to take the group in and more collaborative things. Like we just did a show with Dianne Reeves
down in Florida where we did some of her arrangements and she learned some of ours, so you know it's been that kind of thing."
As an educator, Roberts understands and appreciates the need to continue to learn and develop his own technique. "I had to pretty much rebuild my approach and technique to playing the piano because every few years you have to do that."
Through teaching, Roberts is constantly refining his own playing. At a recent workshop held at the University of New Orleans, students appeared awestruck, as did the rest of the audience, at his mastery of the music and his instrument. Heavy doses of challenging works by Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton
, Charles Mingus
, Scott Joplin
and others provided a master's level evening of jazz education for those in attendance. If pictures are worth a thousand words, the expressions on the faces in the audience spoke volumes about Roberts' ability to communicate so much in his playing. Truly great musicians are unselfish and Roberts exemplifies this in his approach to both teaching and playing.
"It's something (teaching) I've always done since I was a teenager really. Because when you teach people it forces you to stay on top of what you're saying because you've got to be able to communicate it in a way that they can use the information. It may not be exactly how you'd use it, but it puts you in touch with different approaches to getting things done. And also, you learn a lot and it's a good feeling when you hear somebody else play and make a breakthrough because of a concept that you showed them."
But it's not just performing or teaching music that has kept Roberts busy. Changes on the business side of things have also played an important role in shaping what he plays and how he wants to get that into the hands of a wider audience. While the Internet facilitates distribution, in the hands of an artistic master like Roberts, it can also have positive implications on the creative front as well.