ONE OF THE MOST GIFTED and highly regarded stride and jazz pianists of his generation, Marcus Roberts made a name for himself at a relatively young age by reinterpreting the works of Monk, Morton, Gershwin and Ellington.
Blind since childhood, he nonetheless has carefully studied (and some would say mastered) the techniques and repertoire of those towering giants who came before him, and gone on to both preserve the history of jazz piano as well as revitalize and enthusiastically promote the genre through his own solo and group performances, and in his role as an Assistant Professor of Jazz Studies in the highly respected music program at Florida State University.
A popular repeat performer at the Savannah Music Festival since its retooling a few years back, his annual area shows are eagerly anticipated by diehard jazzbos, yet prove immendely resonant to those wiht no formal training in (or background knowledge of) the genre.
In addition to taking part in the 2008 SMF’s Swing Central High School Jazz Band Competition, Roberts is one of the four stellar keyboardists featured in this Wednesday’s “Piano Showdown” concert, and on Friday, his trio —abetted by Ga.’s own Marcus Printup on trumpet— joins pianist Eric Reed’s quartet for three sets of “West Coast Jazz Meets Southern Swing” at the new Charles H. Morris Center.
Roberts spoke to me by phone from New York City just before a solo show at Lincoln Center. Our complete chat can be found at www.connectsavannah.com.
What first led you to the piano?
Marcus Roberts: Church. That’s the first place where I came into contact with a piano. I eventually got a piano by the time I was eight. I was self-taught form eight to ten years old, and probably around ten years old I started performing in the church. They’d let me play every Sunday. I started formal training at twelve. Of course, that went on through high school and college, and I was working on what we call a traditional classical repertoire: Beethoven’s piano sonatas, Bach’s works, Chopin, etc... I got into jazz around the same time — around age twelve.
That happened because of a jazz radio program I stumbled onto while looking for an All-Star baseball game! I can’t remember the year. Instead, I found that show, and they were playing Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman with Lionel Hampton, just a nice range of 1920s and 1930s jazz. I was very intrigued with the sounds I heard and immediately started trying to figure them out on the piano. I’m still trying to figure them out! (laughs)
So, you were completely in the dark as far as jazz went before that show?
Marcus Roberts: Yes. I was in the dark there. I had no clue. You know, Jacksonville, Fl. was not at that time a mecca of jazz. Children didn’t just run into it. I pretty much had been listening to the pop music of the day. I honestly don’t know how else it might have happened. I’m sure I would have eventually found jazz, but I’m sure it would have taken a much longer time.
Since you came up in the church, did your family resist you becoming so interested in secular music?
Marcus Roberts: No, no. My parents were totally encouraging and embraced my interests. There were no issues of that sort for me. As a matter of fact, playing in the church put me in contact with the basic point of music, which is communicating directly to the people in an interactive way. And I guess after hearing that folk sound in church music, I have continued to search for that in every type of music I have ever attempted. Whether that’s a Beethoven symphony or a Billie Holiday record or an album of Latin music. The sound is key in keeping whatever style of music you’re talking about relevant for a long time. Without that, music just doesn’t ring true for me. I think artists, as we communicate with people, you know, there’s an exchange that happens. But it has to be based on something that you actually believe is greater than you. If not, it’s just a celebration of individualism — which is fine, but I don’t know how relevant that’s gonna be thirty years from now! (laughs)
Have you ever seriously attempted any other musical instruments before or since you took up the keyboards?
Marcus Roberts: Yeah. I played the saxophone in junior high school and high school. Also, most jazz musicians play drums on some level. Piano takes all the time, so I don’t really actively play drums or the sax anymore. If I had time, if there were maybe 50 hours in a day, then I could get back into it. (laughs)
Those experiences have to have helped you as a pianist.
Marcus Roberts: Oh yeah. They were essential to my global understanding of how jazz bands work. I had a little more understanding of the role of each instrument and how they feed off of each other and the natural way they interact. That’s helped me as a pianist and band-leader. And as a teacher too, because of the things you wind up having to sit down and demonstrate to your students.
After playing professionally (and at a high level) for so long, are there still new and challenging aspects of playing the piano that you find yourself discovering?
Marcus Roberts: Oh yeah! (laughs) It’s an infinite process. It’s like the ocean. You can’t see the end of it. So, there’s a whole bunch of information and concepts that I want to develop on the piano. I honestly might need several more lifetimes to do so. (laughs) There’s no shortage of things to work on, like finding other concepts of rhythm from different cultures, for example. There are several great pieces I’d like to study, like Bach and Beethoven pieces that I wish I had time to learn to play. There are also all sorts of concepts for pedaling the piano that I wish I could delve into.
You mentioned the infinite process as being like an ocean, in that you can’t see the end, but it’s also similar to the ocean in that if you’re not careful, you can get in way over your head and it’ll swallow you up.
Marcus Roberts: Well, you can, and that’s why you have to be very focused. The part of the landscape you feel you can understand depends on what is most meaningful to you.
I remember reading an interview once with Eric Clapton, where he mentioned that after decades as a superstar guitarist, he still spent between 3 and 4 hours a day practicing. When the interviewer asked him why that was necessary, he replied that with each day that he got older, realized without constant practice he could literally feel his chops and his talent slipping away, so he was trying to halt that inevitable process. Is that a common feeling for serious, dedicated performers such as yourself? Do you ever feel as though your dexterity and skills are less than they once were, or do you find yourself improving with age and maturity?
Marcus Roberts: You know, I honestly feel like I’m getting better as I get older, because my appreciation for being alive to play is greater than when I was a young man. We take a lot for granted when we’re young. You’re not as appreciative of opportunities, and you can sometimes feel a sense of entitlement, which is reflected in the youth of our culture. However, as you get older, you realize that playing music for a paying public is a real privilege that a lot of great musicians never even get to experience. It is a sacred obligation that you should invest your time as much as possible in creating better performances as you move along.
You’ve also taught jazz studies. Did you always have an abiding interest in becoming an instructor and trying to pass on your knowledge and talents in that way, or was that something you fell into unexpectedly?
Marcus Roberts: Well, even in middle school and high school I had to do it to get the people in my age range interested in jazz. I had to show them what I wanted to hear and it started in that way, and soon developed into watching young talent develop. I do have an interest in that. It is very inspirational to me to see yung people grow into loving this music. It’s a special thing that I have, because it puts you back in touch with how jazz became a major cultural phenomenon. This came along as a result of the diversified group of musicians playing music in the United States.
The great thing about this particular music festival you all have in Savannah is that many musicians are coming together now from various genres and actually hearing each other! This can cause a big input over time. People will unconsciously become very interested in this music. That exchange will help the public to understand each of the different types of music a little better. The key is inspiration. That’s the key. There has to be a component of inspiration that produces spontaneity. Then we have the possibility of something great being created.
How important is it that kids be introduced to music at a young age?
Marcus Roberts: It’s just important that the music uplifts them in some way. I’m not saying they have to be invested in it, but you go to a restaurant and have a great meal that’s a type of cuisine you never thought you liked, and you have now opened yourself up to the notion that that sort of experience might happen again. Whether it happens or not isn’t the point. I just believe strongly that those interactions which occur when an audience listens to a performer go far beyond just picking up a book and reading. It is a direct reaction to a belief system that is being represented. You see, when the people really get it, they give that energy back to the artist on the stage. It’s a circular thing, and let me tell you, that’s the value of a music or film or arts festival. It’s an exchange between the people who want to hear it or see it, and the people who want to present it or play it.
One of the programs you’re taking part in this year is the West Coast Jazz meets Southern Swing concert. For those who are unfamiliar with such movements in the jazz world, how would you describe to our readers the main differences between the West Coast sound and the type of jazz you’re more commonly associated with?
Marcus Roberts: Well, that’s kind of hard for me to answer, to be truthful with you. There was a time when West Coast jazz was thought to be a little more laid back or less intense, but I don’t really buy into that. I personally believe that what people will get when they come to this show is two different band’s views of jazz music. The beauty of that is they’ll be different, but at the same time there will be a common ground, a common thread.
If you listen to John Coltrane play the soprano sax, the question becomes what can we hear in this very sophisticated language that Coltrane developed that connects directly to what someone like Sidney Bechet was doing in the 1930s. I’m gonna be more curious to see how each band is able to articulate the vocabulary that we all use. I mean, we have to face it now that we basically live in a global society and the regional differences are not as pronounced. There are a far greater number of variations happening all over the world. Now that we have access to the internet and new means of communication technology we need to start viewing things in those terms.
The main thing is this: West Coast, East Coast, North or South, it’s all boils down to what the particular collection of musicians in each band comes together to produce that is unique and individual to them and their collective life experience to this point. I can tell you, for example, that Eric Reed and his group are all completely soulful, fantastic musicians. I wouldn’t argue that Southern people somehow play with more soul than folks from the West Coast. It will be interesting for people such as myself to hear what the specific differences will be between us. (laughs)
The brilliant thing about the title of the show is that it lets people know that jazz developed regionally in different parts of the USA. There are some basic components of each region, however. It started in New Orleans and moved to Chicago, for instance. You can see some definite changes as it did so, but in the 21st Century, what’s important now is to see how we take all this info and achievement, and the great imagination of the tremendous artists we’ve produced, and that we bring those accomplishments out in the modern music that’s being written today.
There are moments when you’ll find that a concept developed by Jelly Roll Morton is useful, even if it is not employed in a traditional setting. Over the next 100 years, we’ll bring together the history of jazz, instead of compartmentalizing each decade into blocks of what has already come. But that’s just my personal opinion.
I’ve always been curious about pianists who travel far and wide and usually have to use instruments which are provided for them at the various venues. I know they’re all meant to be professionally tuned in advance, but surely as each instrument handles differently, do you ever find yourself at a real disadvantage onstage, wishing that the audience could hear you play on a piano that responds more like the ones you’re most used to?
Marcus Roberts: Well, sure, it mirrors life itself. There are certainly challenges and we try to reduce the likelihood of such a negative experience by requesting appropriate instruments. But the reality is that a lot of what makes you a good musician is the ability to go into a situation that is not ideal and still produce ideal results! You always hope for the best situation. The truth is that in some cities they simply don’t have access to the right stuff. Or perhaps a poorly trained technician has worked on the instrument ahead of time.
It’s interesting that you make the true observation that to put on a great concert is a fragile thing. Many different things have to fall into place to make such a show happen! When you manage to put on a great show with a seemingly lackluster piano, that’s a tribute to the spiritual and transformative aspect of live music. There are times when you will be forced to overcome a logistical situation, which is why we practice everyday! That gives you the skill to adjust to the changing environments you encounter on the road.
You have played regularly at the Savannah Music Festival since Rob Gibson took over as director. In fact, I’d venture to say that most people around here associate your name to a certain extent with the festival, as they do Wycliffe Gordon, who’s another jazz player who’s been showcased by the SMF numerous times. How would you describe your relationship to this festival and to Rob Gibson?
Marcus Roberts: Well, I certainly have always had the absolute highest regard for Rob. I’ve known him almost 20 years now, and he’s somebody who understands how to coordinate a very ambitious agenda, but actually pull it off so it doesn’t come off looking like a big mess. Frankly, a lot of people would end up with a pretty mediocre series of concerts. But he’s always had a gift and a passion for developing a show that gives the audiences a range of performances and experiences that cross a lot of cultural boundaries. We as musicians are typically inspired every time we come to this festival, and I should say that is simply not the case at most other festivals I come into contact with.
Why do you think that is?
Marcus Roberts: I think Rob is only interested in presenting the highest level of achievement possible across these genres of music. At a lot of the other festivals, they are not concerned as much with the quality of what’s on the stage. They’re more concerned with attendance. That’s a realistic objective, but as artists, we don’t find much inspiration in that sort of approach. The inspiration comes from hearing a range of music wherein everyone concerned believes in what they’re doing to the extent that it actually inspires other musicians who are not from that particular cultural group.
I honestly think that if there were more folks out there doing things the way Rob does, that there could be a huge movement in this country that would cross generation and bring the races together in a different way — in terms of the production of art and music. But that’s just my opinion. The level of creativity and imagination at most of the festivals out there is not what it should be, and you all should be extremely proud and feel privileged to have him there. It’s a good complement to Savannah, which even has its own appeal as a great and unique city. I love visiting. The energy there is wonderful. We always feel very comfortable and at home when we come there to work. We consistently have a great time and look forward to returning.
The first time I ever saw you perform was about 20 years ago at the Atlanta Jazz Festival in Grant Park. When I look back on that day, I’m frankly amazed at the staggering amount of amazing artists I saw in one place over just a few hours. You played a short set, but later on the bill was The John McLaughlin Trio, Tony Williams’ Lifetime, Sun Ra & His Arkestra and Miles Davis — and those are just the folks I remember! Were you as awestruck by that bill as I was?
Marcus Roberts: Absolutely! But see, what you’ll notice is that things like that didn’t continue. (laughs) I know there are always challenges to making things lie that happen, But Rob Gibson has figured out a way to bring audiences out, because he knows that if people want inspirational performances —and that is what people want— they’re looking for a range of things they know they can’t typically go out and easily find on their own, if at all. It’s just like that in any other arena. This is why the Superbowl is such a worldwide event. You don’t always know who the teams are gonna be and you don’t know who’s gonna win. It is something special in music to see that unveiled.
Is there anything else you’d specifically like to mention that we haven’t covered?
Marcus Roberts: I do want you to definitely mention that we are very excited to work with these high school age young people on the Swing Central project, because they really are the future of both art and music. I’m very much looking forward to hearing and hopefully encouraging them. I want to make it easier for young people to access music. And it’s tremendous that we have assembled such an esteemed set of clinicians. Everyone involved is at a very high level of talent.
I know you’re in New York City right now. Are you there for a gig?
Marcus Roberts: Yes. I’m playing a solo piano show tonight in the Allen Room at Lincoln Center. It seats about 400 to 500 people. It’s a beautiful room.
The Marcus Roberts Trio with Marcus Printup and The Eric Reed Quartet
Where: Charles H. Morris Center
When: 5:30 pm, 7:30 pm, 9:30 pm, April 4
Cost: $35 at www.savannahmusicfestival.org or 525-5050