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Roberts, Marcus 1963–

Marcus Roberts 1963

Jazz pianist

Converted to Jazz by Ellington, Tatum

Solo Career Boosted by Marsalis

Jumped Labels for Gershwin Tribute

Selected discography


Possibly no pianist in jazz today is doing more important work than Marcus Roberts. Generally associated with the neoclassical movement championed by his former mentor, trumpet player Wynton Marsalis, Roberts has emerged as a chief proponent in his own right of the trend toward recapturing the best elements of earlier jazz forms. While he has based the early phase of his career on a mastery of the music of such past giants as Thelonious Monk, Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, and George Gershwin, Roberts stands poised to help synthesize a new blend of music that uses earlier styles as a platform from which to launch jazz in previously unexplored directions.

Roberts was born on August 7, 1963 in Jacksonville, Florida. The younger of two brothers, Roberts went blind from cataracts at the age of four. His mother, a gospel singer at a local church, had gone blind while in her teens. When Roberts was five years old, he began to play on the church organ. His parents noticed this interest in music, and three years later, to encourage their sons involvement, they bought a piano. Roberts began teaching himself to play, spending hours on end at the keyboard. Within a year, he was good enough to give his first public performance, a recital at the church.

Converted to Jazz by Ellington, Tatum

Roberts began taking formal piano lessons at the age of 12 while attending a state school for the blind and deaf in St. Augustine, Florida. After a year of classical piano training, Roberts suddenly was converted to jazz. Scanning radio stations idly one day, he came across a broadcast of music by the great Duke Ellington. I said to myself then and there, Thats the kind of music I want to learn how to play, Roberts was quoted as saying in a 1989 Esquire article. He began collecting all the jazz he could find over the next few years. One of his most important early influences was stride piano wizard Art Tatum. The first time Roberts heard a recording of Tatum, he recounted in Time, his response was Does he have three hands?

After graduating from high school, Roberts enrolled at Florida State University in Tallahassee, where he began studying piano with Leonidus Lipovetsky. While on a European tour with some high school jazz musicians, Roberts met trumpet player and composer Wynton

At a Glance

Born Marthaniel Roberts, on August 7, 1963, in Jacksonville, FL; son of a longshoreman and a gospel singer; Education: Attended Florida State University.

Career: Toured Europe with high school jazz musicians, c. 1982; toured and recorded with Wynton Marsalis, 1985-91; recorded first album as leader, The Truth is Spoken Here, 1989; RCA/Novus recording artist, 1989-94; music dir., Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, 1994; Sony/Columbia recording artist, 1994-.

Awards: Great American Piano Competition, Jacksonville, FL, first prize, 1982; Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition, first prize, 1987.

Addresses: Office Sony/Columbia, 51 W. 52nd St, New York, NY 10019.

Marsalis, who was performing at the Montreux Jazz Festival. The following year, Roberts encountered Marsaliss father, pianist Ellis Marsalis, at the 1982 convention of the International Association of Jazz Educators. Through the senior Marsalis, Roberts renewed his acquaintance with Wynton, and the two musicians developed an ongoing dialog about the history and future of jazz.

Meanwhile, Roberts continued to hone his skills at Florida State. He entered and won a handful of piano competitions, including Jacksonvilles Great American Competition in 1982. In 1985, during his senior year of college, Roberts was invited to join Marsaliss band for touring and recording, replacing keyboardist Kenny Kirkland. By this time, Roberts had already taken it upon himself to learn the entire Marsalis repertoire, and he eagerly accepted the offer. During his tenure with the Marsalis group, Roberts performed at clubs and festivals throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. He contributed to several albums, including J Mood, Marsalis Standard Time, Vol. 1, and Live at Blues Alley. He also found time to undertake an intensive study of the music of Thelonious Monk during this period. The result of this project was a first place finish in the first Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition in Washington, D.C. in 1987. His renditions of the Monk classics Round Midnight and Blue Boulevard Blues earned him a victory over 21 other contestants, and $10,000 in prize money.

Solo Career Boosted by Marsalis

Roberts toured and recorded with Marsalis from 1985 to 1991. It was toward the end of this span that he launched his solo recording career. His first album, The Truth is Spoken Here, was released in 1989. His supporting band on the album included both Wynton Marsalis and his brother, trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis. By jazz standards, the album sold extremely well, especially for a first effort. It quickly rose to the top of the Billboard jazz chart. Roberts released his next album, Deep in the Shed, the following year. Like its predecessor, it was a top seller among jazz recordings. Both albums revealed a developing style that was both cerebrala bit too cerebral for some criticsand soulful. Comparisons to Monk, whose material was included on both projects, were common. Philip Booth, writing for Down Beat in 1990, observed that if chops, swing, maturity, inspiration, and compositional skills are the qualifications, Roberts has arrived, or at the minimum has established himself as one young jazz pianist with much to offer.

Roberts maintained his streak with a third straight number one jazz album, Alone With Three Giants, released in 1991. This album, which made Roberts the first artist ever to see his first three projects top the jazz charts, was a solo piano album featuring the works of three of the most celebrated composers in the history of jazz: Monk, Duke Ellington, and Jelly Roll Morton. Later that year, Roberts put out Prayer for Peace, a solo Christmas album. Continuing to record at a feverish pace, he released the album As Serenity Approaches, a collection of solos and duets including pieces by Ellington, Morton, Fats Waller, Cole Porter, and others, in 1992. Roberts next effort was the 1993 release, If I Could Be With You, which included several original compositions in addition to works by Ellington, Monk, and other standards. It also featured six challenging stride piano pieces by stride pioneer James P. Johnson. Robertss performance on this album moved People magazine to laud his ability to make his own brimming compositions sound as if they have always existed, and always will.

The key philosophical approach that Roberts shares with Marsalis, and which his work with Marsalis helped to solidify, is a thorough respect for jazz tradition. To me, it has to begin with the blues and swing for me to deal with it, Roberts was quoted as saying in a 1993 Orlando Sentinel interview. I think Duke Ellington felt the same way; I think Monk felt the same way, Coltraneall kinds of other folks. Beethoven felt that way, Haydn, Mozartyoure dealing with the essential component of something sacred. As his recording career continued to gather steam, Robertss live performances became major events as well. On August 7, 1993which happened to be his 30th birthdayRoberts premiered his 70-minute commissioned composition Romance, Swing, and the Blues as part of the Classical Jazz Series at Lincoln Center in New York. The New York Post described the piece as a rich, life-filled, and quite absorbing extended work. During the winter of 1994, Roberts served as music director for the 19-member Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra during its nationwide tour of the United States.

Jumped Labels for Gershwin Tribute

After recording his first six albums on the Novus label, Roberts jumped over to Columbia in 1994 to record Gershwin for Lovers, a collection of standards, recorded as a trio, by composer George Gershwin. The album reached number one on the jazz charts, selling more than 70,000 copies, spectacular numbers for a jazz recording. His involvement in all things Gershwinian led to a performance with the American Symphony Orchestra of I Got Rhythm Variations, a new interpretation of the Gershwin classic. In 1996 Roberts released two albums simultaneously. Portraits in Blue, essentially a follow up to Gershwin for Lovers, featured new takes on another batch of Gershwin tunes, in particular a radical transformation of Rhapsody In Blue. Columbia marketed this recording as a classical album, putting Roberts in a special category of crossover artists exemplified by former associate Wynton Marsalis. Robertss other 1996 product, Time and Circumstance, was an album of original compositions for jazz trio. Critics lauded the maturity of his writing and playing as well as Roberts grasp of jazz idioms. Wrote Peter Watrous of the New York Times, Marcus Robertss idiosyncratic, two-handed style sums up the possibilities of jazz in an age of nearly unlimited information.

With the release of Blues for a New Millennium in 1997, Roberts cemented his reputation as a leading figure in neoclassical jazz, second in stature only to Marsalis. Even his harshest critics were so pleasantly shocked by Blues. While his previous efforts had left no doubt about his technical virtuosity, his mastery of various jazz idioms of the past, or even his own talent as a composer paying tribute to those traditions, questions remained regarding his ability to forge that body of expertise into music that was truly groundbreaking. Writing in Emerge, Gene Seymour noted that Blues was the album that finally erased his reservations about Roberts brilliance. Damned if this wasnt the kind of music that burned on contact, he remarked. [H]e seems to have finally taken everything hes learned from his masters and merged it with his own somewhat startling intensity of feeling, Seymour continued. As audiences prepare for a new millennium of listening, they will certainly be expecting further fireworks, rooted in the best of what jazz has to offer, from Marcus Roberts.

Selected discography

The Truth is Spoken Here, Novus, 1989.

Deep in the Shed, Novus, 1990.

Alone With Three Giants, Novus, 1991.

Prayer for Peace, Novus, 1991.

As Serenity Approaches, Novus, 1992.

If I Could Be With You, Novus, 1993.

Gershwin for Lovers, Columbia, 1994.

Time and Circumstance, Columbia, 1996.

Portraits in Blue, Sony Classical, 1996.

Blues for a New Millennium, Columbia, 1997.

(with Wynton Marsalis)

J Mood, Columbia, 1987.

Marsalis Standard Time, Vol. 1, Columbia, 1987.

Live at Blues Alley, Columbia, 1988.

Intimacy Calling, Standard Time, Vol. 2, Columbia.

The Resolution of Romance, Standard Time, Vol. 3, Columbia.

Blue Interlude, Columbia.


American Visions, April-May 1994, p. 46.

Billboard, May 25, 1996, p. 1.

Christian Science Monitor, March 31, 1992, p. 11.

Down Beat, April 1990, p. 20; July 1996, p. 19. January 1998, p. 52.

Emerge, May 1998, p. 69.

Esquire, September 1989, p. 153.

National Review, September 2, 1996, p. 96.

New York Times, May 14, 1995, p. 28.

Orlando Sentinel, July 13, 1993.

Time, July 17, 1989, p. 85; June 17, 1996, p. 91.

Robert R. Jacobson

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Roberts, Marcus

Marcus Roberts

Jazz pianist

For the Record

Selected discography


Marcus Roberts is a young jazz musician who began his career as an apprentice to trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Though blind, the pianist has taken his place among jazz masters with his albums The Truth Is Spoken Here and Deep in the Shed. He explained his motivating force to Philip Booth in a profile in Down Beat, The only thing that I can do is play the music that Im trying to get together and to pay homage to the musicians who I consider to be personally motivating forces behind the philosophy that Im trying to develop.

When Booth questioned Roberts about his impairment, Roberts responded with the degree of insight which typifies his approach to jazz: I never felt as a result of me being in a situation without sight that people owed me something or that they necessarily should cater to my situation, because if you talk to any person long enough you will find that their life dealt out many unexpected sets of circumstances that they had to deal with.

Roberts was born in Florida in 1964, and lost his vision to cataracts four years later. His mother was a gospel singer who had gone blind as a teenager, and his father was a longshoreman. Marcus was picking out notes on the piano at church when he was five. He was eight when he first found a center for his interests in his home in Jacksonville, after colliding with a new piano his parents bought. I sat right down, Roberts told Jay Cocks in Time, I thought, This, apparently, is for me. I could work on this all day.

Self-taught to play piano his first year, Marcus performed at church the next. At age twelve he began formal training, studying classical piano with Hubert Foster in St. Augustine. A year later while flipping the dial on a radio one afternoon, he heard Duke Ellington play. Id never heard piano played like that, Roberts recounted to Esquire. I said to myself then and there, Thats the kind of music I want to learn to play.

After attending a state school for the deaf and blind in St. Augustine, Marcus began study with Leonidas Lipovetsky at Florida State University in Tallahassee. He first encountered Marsalis when the 19-year-old Wynton performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival, while Roberts was on a tour abroad with some high-school jazz musicians. Another year passed before Roberts talked to the trumpeter in Chicago, at the National Association of Jazz Educators convention. Roberts and Marsalis began their fellowship by phone, when Wynton challenged the pianist to develop his philosophy of jazz. The young jazzman, whose concert appearances were limited to Jacksonvilles Great American Competition in 1982, quit Florida State his senior year when

For the Record

Born in 1964 in Florida. Education: Attended Florida State University.

Performer and recording artist, 1987. Performed with high school jazz musicians at the Montreux Jazz Festival; toured and recorded with trumpet player Wynton Marsalis, 1985-1989; released first album as lead instrumentalist, The Truth Is Spoken Here, 1989.

Awards: Winner of the Thelonious Monk Piano Competition, 1987.

Addresses: Record company Novus (Bertelsman Music Group), 1133 Ave. of the Americas, New York, NY 10036.

Marsalis asked Roberts to join him to tour and record in 1985.

Already gaining a reputation as a promising find in Marsaliss band with recordings like J Mood, Live at Blues Alley, and others, Roberts won the first Thelonious Monk Piano Competition in 1987. After four years with Marsalis, Roberts was ready to lead his own album. Released in 1989, The Truth Is Spoken Here featured Blue Monk and Single Petal of a Rose. Marsalis joined Roberts along with John Coltranes drummer, Elvin Jones, and Thelonious Monks buddy Charlie Rouse, to pay homage to jazz standards and showcase Robertss original work in a debut which topped Billboards jazz chart and sold well for a new arrival.

Some thought Robertss approach too intellectual and his play scant in emotional warmth, but the majority of critics praised the album, hailing Roberts, as Chris Albertson did in Stereo Review, decidedly star material.

In 1990, Roberts released his second album, Deep in the Shed. Chris Thomas, drummer Maurice Carnes, and trumpeters Scott Barnhart and E. Dankworth joined Roberts to produce an additional critical and financial success. Though Gary Giddins in Entertainment Weekly and a few other critics considered Robertss cerebral approach aloof, most seconded Philip Booths opinion that Roberts has arrived, or at the minimum, has established himself as one young jazz pianist with much to offer.

Highlighted on the album are Robertss own improvisations which deal with the blues from differing perspectives. Roberts told Booth that his sources of inspiration were Jelly Roll Morton, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, and McCoy Tyner. He stated further, One thing I like to work on, which is a Duke Ellington and Monk conception, is the whole idea of thematic conception, where you try to develop melodies throughout the entire soloactual real, true melodies while youre playing, which are developed and extended. This record was not nearly as difficult for me to deal with as the first one. The first one is the first one. Its like your first girlfriend. You dont know nothin about girls.

The remarkable musical growth that Roberts has exhibited in his short career heightens expectations for his future. He told Booth that his immediate plans include a long-form video release to accompany Deep in the Shed; an unaccompanied solo album highlighting the music of Morton, Monk, and Ellington; and a solo and group-led set of dates to begin soon. His most pressing concern, he related to Booth, is his continued development: The more active you are in the many aspects that the music allows you to participate in, the better chance you have as an artist to develop something original and special. Im just starting to really see how complex dealing with art is, and the many variables thatespecially when I was a kidI had no idea were necessary, in order to play. Now its becoming more apparent to me. What Im starting to do in these next few years is just continue to work on my philosophy as a person, as well as a philosophy as an artist. Hopefully, if Im doing that, Ill be able to come up with something with concrete substance for the people who check it out.

Selected discography

The Truth Is Spoken Here (includes Blue Monk and Single Petal of a Rose), RCA/Novus, 1989.

Deep in the Shed, RCA/Novus, 1990.

Alone With Three Giants, Novus, 1991.

With Wynton Marsalis

J Mood, Columbia, 1987.

Marsalis Standard Time, Vol. 1, Columbia, 1987.

Live at Blues Alley, Columbia, 1988.

The Majesty of the Blues, Columbia.

Crescent City Christmas Card, Columbia.


American Visions, October 1989.

Audio, May 1987.

Down Beat, January 1988; October 1988; June 1989; April 1990.

Ebony, May 1989.

Entertainment Weekly, July 6, 1990.

Esquire, September 1989.

High Fidelity, March 1987.

National Review, October 13, 1989.

People, April 10, 1989.

Stereo Review, December 1988; July 1989.

Time, July 17, 1989.

Variety, December 2, 1987.

Marjorie Burgess

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