Marcus Roberts says great jazz is like eating a great meal: “People should not have to think about it, just enjoy it. … You don’t want to think about how it got there, it just better be good.”
A traditional jazz enthusiast, Roberts loves the greats: George Gershwin, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk.
“We create new things through a dialogue with the past,” he says. “They don’t say gravity is irrelevant because it was discovered 300 years ago.”
A pianist and composer, Roberts stands proudly on American music history. He attended the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind, the alma mater of soul music pioneer, Ray Charles; he played for years with jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and was mentored by famed jazz pianist Kenny Kirkland.
At 51, he continues to grow as a musician, sharing his knowledge at the School of Music at Florida State University, recording, and receiving accolades such as an honorary Doctor of Music degree from The Juilliard School for his many contributions to the field of music. Last year, his life and work were featured on a 60 Minutes segment, The Virtuoso.
Between residencies, workshops, symphony performances and gigs, he keeps a busy schedule, which includes a show at Victoria’s First Metropolitan United Church on Jan 30.
He began his recording career with Marsalis – who describes Roberts as “fearsome and fearless” – on the 1985 record J Mood, but it took him a while to win the gig.
Roberts met the famed trumpeter’s father at a jazz convention and talked him into giving him Marsalis’ phone number. “I called him up – I don’t think he was so happy to hear from me. But we talked intermittently for about two-and-a-half years.” Those conversations guided Roberts’ musical career and in 1984, he went to New York to sit in with Marsalis’ band. “It did not go well. I was not prepared.”
Some time later, Marsalis played in Roberts’ home state of Florida and gave him a second chance. “It went much better. You might say I had the hometown advantage,” he says with a light laugh.
Also playing with Marsalis was Kirkland who took Roberts under his wing. “He was very good to me, very supportive.” When Kirkland and Marsalis’ brother Branford left to play on The Tonight Show, and later accompany ex-Police star Sting, Roberts took over Kirkland’s seat at the piano. He played with Marsalis’ quartet for six years before striking out on his own.
In 1994, Roberts’ trio welcomed Marsalis’ younger brother, drummer Jason. “He’s the foundation of the whole thing,” says a humble Roberts. “He understands percussion, grooves and how the drums fit into every environment. He’s a terrific musician – the anchor of it all.”
Roberts, whose band also includes bassist Rodney Jordan, is known for a style in which the bass, drums, and piano are all given equal time. “Wynton and me argued about that all the time. He thought the bass and drums were featured too much, he said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘They’re up here too.’”
Raised in Florida by hard working parents, Roberts lost his sight to severe cataracts at age five. “I just woke up one day and I couldn’t see. It was very traumatic.” Two eye surgeries could not return his vision. “The only good thing about losing your sight at five is that you’re not used to having it … you have no fear, no sense you can’t do things, that you can’t adapt,” he says.
“My mother was blind as well. She didn’t waste about with a whole lot of self pity. She raised me and my brother. Took care of the household. It didn’t stop what she wanted to do.”
His mother, who lost her sight as a teenager to glaucoma, and her sisters sang gospel and she brought Roberts into the fold. His father, a longshoreman, raised the money to buy him a piano when he was eight. “Between the two of them, I could not have asked for better parents. I could not have got better support that what I got from them,” he says.
He attributes his success to hard work, good luck and contacts. He’s also been fortunate to be in bands with talented musicians who are fun to be around – a trait he tries to maintain himself. “I don’t like to work with people if I don’t like them – there’s too much trust required.”
“I look forward to providing people with some joy,” he says simply.
Marcus Roberts Trio
Jan. 30, 8pm.