Marcus Roberts: Soul Man

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Marcus Roberts
By Frank Stewart
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Marcus Roberts
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Marcus Roberts being awarded first place at the inaugural Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition; Nov. 19, 1987
By Michael Wilderman

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What draws a blind man’s fingers to the keys of a piano? “Looking back, I think I understand it,” says Marcus Roberts, who fell in love with the instrument as a sightless child in Jacksonville, Fla. The chords emanating from strings and hammers drew him in. “The first time I heard it, I just couldn’t believe how beautiful it was.”

But that’s not the only reason for his attraction. “It’s kind of weird,” Roberts reflects, “but I think with this type of disability, there’s something stabilizing about the piano. It’s big. It doesn’t move anywhere. You can play it by yourself.” Plus, the very design of the keyboard is a boon for the blind. “The black notes are grouped in twos and threes,” he says. “So if you orient yourself by the black notes, you’re always going to know where you are.”

Today, at age 45, Roberts does indeed know where he is on a keyboard. As Wynton Marsalis puts it, “Cats in the band [at Lincoln Center] call him J Master”—that’s “J” for jazz.

Roberts also knows the jazz masters who came before him. To pay homage to the greats who have helped shape his own music, Roberts has released New Orleans Meets Harlem, Volume 1, his first recording in eight years—appropriately, on the J-Master label. The ambitious track list features compositions by the likes of Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton and Thelonious Monk. True to his talent, Roberts gives the familiar songs a personal, contemporary spin. His fingers fly off in joyful bursts of improvisation. The chords are rich and surprising. “When he plays, you feel the spirit of the sanctified church; you are inspired by the complexity of the human mind, and you want to dance,” says Marsalis. “That is Marcus Roberts, genius of modern piano.”

The budding “genius” lost his sight at age 5. Glaucoma and cataracts were the likely “culprits,” Roberts says. He has no early memories of vision but does vividly recall the thrill he felt when he heard a piano playing. His mother, blind herself and a gospel singer, pushed her longshoreman husband to buy a piano for their 8-year-old son. The father wasn’t sure. The mother simply said, “You never know.”

The family paid something like “a thousand bucks” for a Henry F. Miller upright, says Roberts. His mother began teaching him, telling him, “I really can’t feel anything from what you just played. I need you to play it until I feel something.” Did he mind her critiques?

“I’m sure there were times I got mad,” Roberts says. But he would play it again. And again, and again, until that elusive emotion flowed from his heart through his fingertips and into the keys.

“Real musicians never really get upset, as proud as we can be, if you know somebody’s telling you the truth,” he says. Of course, that’s the Roberts-ian ideal. “One of the challenges with talented young musicians is ego, and a tendency to think you know more than you know,” admits Roberts, who devotes a good portion of his life to teaching at Florida State University and at jazz gatherings like the Savannah Music Festival, where he is associate artistic director of jazz education. “With a lot of young musicians, they get to a certain point and you can’t tell them anything,” he says.

Roberts, however, has always been a good listener. He heeded his mother, who taught him for four years. He tuned his fine ear into the music in church and figured out how to accompany the singers. When he switched to a private teacher at age 12, he paid attention when he was told to devote time to scales, arpeggios and Hanon exercises. “Oh, my, piano can be a daunting thing,” he says. “My love for it overpowered my discomfort with practicing.”

As a classical music major at Florida State University, Roberts continued to listen. His piano teacher was Leonidas Lipovetsky, an acclaimed concert artist. Roberts was “one of those rare talents,” Lipovetsky says. “Even before he got all of the technical knowledge, he had the rare ability to express music in a very attractive way.” The college student also had a powerful work ethic. Lipovetsky arranged for the Library of Congress to send Braille music for Roberts. “He was bringing me one Bach prelude and fugue a week, bringing them learned.”

Lipovetsky is a proponent of the flexible wrist. “In general,” he says, “people play with a locked wrist. That’s why the majority of students, when you hear them, they sound stiff.” Russian pianists invented a different wrist position, rotating it constantly and elliptically, yet in a subtle, barely visible way. The result is “fluency,” says Lipovetsky. The piano sounds “like a person talking.” It sounds effortless. That’s how Roberts sounds when he turns his fingers loose.

Roberts has never stopped trying to learn more about the instrument and the jazz idiom, to push himself outside of his “comfort zone.” The night before this interview, he accompanied Dianne Reeves in concert, excited about the chance to marry his music to hers, to stretch his vocabulary to include her “wonderful Brazilian arrangements,” and eager to face the challenge of working for the first time with a singer he calls “magical and real and natural.

“I got the feeling that last night is not the last time,” he says of their initial musical date. “It’s something we both really enjoyed.”

Collaborating is part of Roberts’ chosen path. Rather than perform as a solo pianist, he leads a trio. “In American music,” he explains, “the bass and drums are the foundation of anything. [Bass player] Roland [Guerin] and [drummer] Jason [Marsalis] both have tremendous musical talent and ability beyond just keeping time,” Roberts says of his triomates. “They have an astonishing range of vocabulary.” Their many hours of playing together have created what he calls a “very flexible trio style.” One member can decide to do something different and within a split second the other two players know how to jump in. “We let our ears and imagination dictate what we play,” he says. But that’s not entirely true. Roberts thinks it’s just as important to adhere to “the logical and coherence and intellect of the structures we create.”

In other words, he is not a fan of carelessness. “I can’t stand sloppy music,” he says. He is appalled by lack of technical proficiency, by inattention to detail—“the same way I would be upset if I went to a doctor and he didn’t know how to use a scalpel.”

He is similarly unimpressed by musicians who play for themselves and not for the ears of their audience. “I think a big problem we have in jazz especially and maybe in classical music is that we have lost touch with the people. You don’t need to make access to your music so complicated. I try, without compressing one shred of integrity, to make it easy for people. I don’t want them to get a thesaurus or a dictionary, to go to Wikipedia [to understand what they are hearing].” He wants to create music that is virtuosic yet enjoyable—with “a great melody that’s soulful, so a 5-year-old kid could hum it and participate in it.”

To him, that means going back to what his mother taught him: Play it with feeling. “I always had this interest in a combination of extreme dignity, virtuosity and musical integrity, but mixed with this human feeling that might cover, I don’t know, thousands of years.”

He’s talking about the folk-blues feeling he heard in church when he was 11 or 12 years old. “I always look for that depth of feeling in music,” he says. He finds it in many genres: In Ravel’s music, particularly his piano concerto for the left hand, in a Brahms piano concerto, in the works of Jelly Roll Morton, one of the pianists he salutes on his new CD.

In some jazz circles, of course, playing old repertory is not respected. “I never understood where that came from,” Roberts says, genuine puzzlement in his voice. “Why do [some] jazz critics and musicians shut themselves off from the culture? It would be like you went to a favorite restaurant that had an amazing recipe. Are you going to tell them to quit making it? Or find a new way to make it that might not taste good?”

Reviving the works of Morton and other jazz forefathers is not an exercise in nostalgia, Roberts says. His ultimate goal is “to come up with something different, something new that didn’t exist before.” What’s more, by playing the works of his elders, Roberts has expanded his own musical knowledge and abilities, not to mention his stamina. When he first tackled the technically demanding music of the early 20th-century jazz giant James P. Johnson, young Roberts did pushups to build strength. He thought that’s what he needed to succeed. Years later, he says the pushups were good for his “cardiovascular health” but not necessary for his musical well-being. “It has more to do with coordination than strength,” he says. Back then I was playing pretty much based on strength.”

His interest in the past does not mean he is oblivious to the present, both as a musician and as a lover of technology. With handheld Braille computers instead of the bulky Braille equipment of the past, he says, “I can run my business and my musical life with much more professionalism.” At the Reeves concert, he says, “I had my set list all written out, who’s soloing where, how long it will be.” And he can check the set list to see if the next song is “Embraceable You” or “Yesterday.”

Yet no technology can fully overcome the obstacles presented by blindness. As a musician, Roberts is especially frustrated that he can’t sight read or conduct an orchestra. “Do I love not being able to see?” he asks. “Well, no, it is definitely a pain.”

From his blind mother, he learned not to wallow in self-pity. “She didn’t play that at all,” he says. When he teaches a student who is disabled, he’ll share his philosophy about coping with a handicap. There are frustrations, he’ll say. You can express them. Then “you have to look for the good and positive in what you have.”

“Fight the adversity,” he counsels, adding, “That’s why I love jazz music. It really has the sound of triumph in spite of very negative social conditions.”

Roberts is clearly at an artistic peak in his career yet is not exactly a household name. Maybe that’s because he has chosen to live in a place with a slow pace: Jacksonville, Fla. Wynton Marsalis periodically urges the pianist to move to New York to raise his profile. Indeed, Roberts does spend time in the Big Apple and in April 2010 will be part of the first Lincoln Center salute to Fats Waller and another program honoring Herbie Hancock.

But he doesn’t think the city would work for him day to day. New York is a hotbed of nervous energy. “If you have a lot of nervous energy, and you don’t know where it’s coming from, it puts you on edge and you’re not even sure why,” he says. “If you’ve got this disability, you need energy that’s a little slower.”

Besides, relocating to New York wouldn’t make a difference, Roberts believes. “I know a lot of people living in New York and I don’t know that their career is so much better because of it.” It’s not as if he’s a “multi-platinum reggae singer,” he jokes. He is a jazz pianist who plays with a trio. Superstardom is unlikely. Nor does he aspire to that status. “I don’t like to discuss my personal life,” he says, then laughs and adds, “If I were a bigger star, I wouldn’t have any choice but to discuss my personal life.”

He’d much rather talk about his music. And he’d love to be able to talk to the pianists he interprets on his new CD. How does Ellington write parts for a saxophone section or a trumpet section in a “massive extended work”? For Monk, his question would be elemental: “I would just want to understand how he’s producing a lot of those sounds on piano.” The chords are part of it, Roberts says, but not all of it: “One person could play a chord one way, and another person, with touch, accents, use of pedal, could make the sound very different.”

Of course, a lot of pianists today would like to ask Roberts the same question. How do you get that sound? “I can flip on the radio and hear Marcus Roberts in three notes,” says Rob Gibson, executive director of the Savannah Music Festival, where Roberts teaches. One thing Gibson hears loud and clear is “a real churchy, gospel tinge. I think it’s the chords, mainly the chords.”

“His sound is very warm,” observes triomate Guerin. And very sophisticated: “He has the amazing ability to play anything in his right hand, anything in his left hand, and have them complement each other, not sounding contrived but very natural. That’s what makes him so hip.” When the trio plays with an orchestra and Roberts really gets going, Guerin says, “the whole orchestra is looking at him with their feet and knees bopping up and down.”

Other influences bubble up in his music. “Searching for the Blues” is the one cut that Roberts composed on the new CD. Yet the blues by Roberts is the furthest thing imaginable from a mournful refrain. “The blues in life are adverse and difficult but the blues as music is uplifting,” he says. His rollicking composition is infused with his innate upbeat spirit. “I believe in the end things will be all right,” he offers. “Not in a naïve way, but we have to have faith in hope if anything’s going to get better.”

Popular music is also part of his inspiration. “I grew up in the late ’60s and ’70s. I studied Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life inside and out when I was 13. You know, Stevie’s really into chords. He’s a great arranger. I learned a lot about how chords move.” Marvin Gaye taught him similar lessons. So did Aretha Franklin, whose singing reminds him of his mother’s, and whose Amazing Grace gospel record he once transcribed for piano. “My God,” he enthuses, “the way James Cleveland arranges everything, the choir, the range of repertoire, the rhythm section and, of course … Aretha. I’d love to produce her, and I’ll tell you what, it’d be worth checking out.” Roberts does draw some lines when it comes to the music he makes, however. “If somebody said, ‘Would you do a hip-hop record?’ I’m really not that familiar with it,” he says.

Meanwhile, he hasn’t exactly given up the classics. The early masters of the keyboard are part of his pre-concert routine. “The biggest thing for me now is I like to play Bach” before performing, he says. “Somehow, Bach stabilizes you. I’m working on the G minor Prelude and Fugue from Book 1. That’s just so spiritual and stable. It helps me in terms of continuing to work on voicing, keeping track of more than one line. The biggest issue with the piano is balancing all the lines properly.”

Steadied by Bach, inspired by his jazz forefathers, always looking to the future, Roberts is a small-town boy who can easily enter a big-city world, a jazz traditionalist who is unafraid to experiment, a musician who wants to reach the most sophisticated of listeners and also make a 5-year-old hum along. He teaches, he tours, he puts in 10 to 15 hours of practice a week—and wishes he could find 15 hours more. “I feel if you ever get to the point where you feel like you’re done,” he muses, “then you’re done.”

Clearly, he is a man who knows how to keep his musical balance.

Originally published in May 2009

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