Marcus Roberts: Has A Lot More To Do

Tod Smith By

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Artists are usually not that comfortable with telling people go here and buy my stuff, but we're in a time when we're just going to have to get over it and do it.
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 morning—5:30 in the morning—this 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.

"...after being with RCA and Columbia—which are both fine record labels—I felt like I needed to wait and let things on the Internet and different delivery systems mature so that I could put the music out. I pretty much want to sell it myself, I don't want to do it through a major record label anymore."

Says Roberts, "You can really do what you feel is going to help you reach the people who like what you do. Yeah, it's a little harder and it's a brand new period, but I like it... now people can go to MarcusRoberts.com and they can buy this (disc) and eventually there will be more and more CDs there. So that way there's no limit to people having access to the content of yours that they want and they can decide what that is. They can determine how much of it that they want—if they want one song, if they want ten songs, if they want the whole CD, if they want part of this one and part of that one; I'm excited about offering people those options."

With a number of recordings distributed as both a leader and contributor, Roberts possesses an understanding of the business and how important it is for artists to be able to take creative control—a lesson he says jazz musicians can learn from hip-hop artists.

"You're not in between trying to maybe do something that a record label is behind and maybe they're not or maybe they're behind it today, but not tomorrow. Or maybe they decide that what you have no longer fits with their overall catalog strategy—I mean who knows? But it's very important to me that artists are able to just do their work and find better ways to communicate with their audience."

"I want to delve deeper into this technology of how we can deliver more music to people. I have to learn about that as well. Artists are usually not that comfortable with telling people go here and buy my stuff, but we're in a time when we're just going to have to get over it and do it. All of us coming together more and more—it's going to help us all to learn better strategies and use more of a community approach to selling what we do."

"I think that's one thing we need to gradually expand into. That's what the hip-hop artists did. That's why their thing expanded the way it did and had as much power and impact that it did. The jazz musician—we're a little more scattered and into these separate camps. I just don't know if that's the way to go. You know I can't push or force these things, but my opinion is that we need to head in a more collaborative direction."

If the first offering from J Master Records is any indication, music fans have a lot to look forward to. New Orleans to Harlem, Volume I is an example of what happens when you put three talented musicians together and allow them room to work. Featuring Roberts on piano, with bassist Roland Guerin and Jason Marsalis on drums, the disc is a celebration of New Orleans music and the role it played in the further development of jazz.

"New Orleans has such a rich history and an important role in starting jazz and preserving it and most people, if you were to ask them, what they consider jazz to be or what they definitely consider jazz to be, New Orleans is probably going to be the first choice."

While eleven of the disc's twelve cuts are traditional compositions the results are anything but traditional. Musicians like these make the traditional new again.

"When you have talented musicians—and again a lot of this music we've been playing for years too... all those things kind of work together to produce the inspiration that you need to take it from the original version to figuring out, well here's what we can do with it. Some of its just time. Like "Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are" (Monk) we've been playing that tune for a long time—we had four or five different arrangements of it—before we settled into okay, this how we really like to play this tune. With a lot of the music that's kind of how it is."

"I chose a lot of the pieces based on how comfortable we had become playing (them)—There a certain pieces that we were able to really personalize and I guess, put our signature on so that played the biggest role. And of course there are certain pianists I've always had an interest in—Monk, Fats Waller and Duke—so those two variables really determined what this first volume would be. "A Real Slow Drag" I did that solo on a record called The Joy of Joplin and we started playing it with the trio and (it) just developed into what's on this recording; same with "The Entertainer," "Jungle Blues"—a lot of them they're tunes that we love and that we did a lot for our development."

Many of these selections are referred to as timeless and they indeed have become a part of the proverbial American songbook. But initial critical reaction indicates that when done well, they can be enjoyed and explored again and again. For Roberts, that's where the interest lies.

"The validity of it has to do with the information that it brings. That's what I'm always interested in. That's another reason, too that we took our time before we put anything out, because—I've put out a lot of stuff and I didn't feel the need to rush. We've matured and our style has matured so now we have a bunch of work and a bunch of CDs and we'll just be putting them out."

We can expect much more from Roberts and his trio and the unique experiences they bring with them form a sound that transcends time. Each artist is an individual, yet in the truest since of the concept synergy, together their sum trumps the individual parts.

"When you've got a drummer like Jason Marsalis—with his talent and his overall vision of the drum set and not just American drums, but African and Latin and everything; and Roland with the different grooves on the bass that he plays with—not just strictly jazz grooves—he plays good electric and he's influenced by Blues and the Zydeco music of his culture—when you put all that together there's just a lot to work with."

With three discs already in the can and ready to be distributed on his own J-Master Records, Roberts is a prolific artist whose ability spans the history of jazz and beyond. Yet, he's still teaching and learning as he goes.

"I'm still going to be teaching there (Florida State University). I'm going to start studying a lot of orchestration because I just agreed to do a couple of big things with the Atlanta Symphony, so they're commissioning me to write a piece. So, I have a lot of work to do for that and you know, we'll keep playing. We'll keep doing as much trio work as we can and putting out those records. Of course, as a solo pianist I'm always interested in developing, so there's a lot to do. There's still a whole lot to do."

Selected Discography:

Marcus Roberts, Joy Of Joplin (Sony Classical, 1998)

Marcus Roberts, Portraits In Blue (Sony Classical, 1996) Marcus Roberts, Gershwin for Lovers (Columbia, 1994)

Wynton Marsalis, Marsalis Standard Time Vol. 1 (Columbia, 1987)

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