Pianist Marcus Roberts

The talented musician talks about his career, shares on his double-LP titled “Romance, Swing and the Blues,” and performs a song from the album.

Born in Jacksonville, Florida, Marcus Roberts lost his eyesight at the age of five. A few years later, he began to teach himself to play piano, and hasn't slowed down since. He ultimately went on to study classical piano at Florida State University, and at age twenty-one, started touring with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who would later call Roberts is the "greatest American musician most people have never heard of." In 1988, Roberts signed his first recording contract with BMG/Novus, and went on to sign with Columbia Records in 1994. His music has been praised by critics over the entirety of his career, and several of his recordings have hit No. 1 on the Billboard traditional jazz chart. He is a dedicated teacher, and devotes his time to training and developing younger musicians. Roberts' latest project, titled "Romance, Swing, and the Blues," is a double-LP containing all original material, and recorded with a brand new band, The Modern Jazz Generation.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with pianist, Marcus Roberts, the artist Wynton Marsalis calls “the greatest American musician most people have never heard of.” His new project is called “Romance, Swing and the Blues”. He joins us this evening for a conversation and a performance.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation and performance by Marcus Roberts coming up right now.

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Tavis: Known for his originality as a pianist, composer, arranger, band leader, and teacher, Marcus Roberts is one of the world’s great piano players. He lost his eyesight at the age of five, but that’s not stopped him from imagining and creating a whole new sound.

His latest project is a two-disc CD set. I love it. It’s called “Romance, Swing and the Blues” and I am honored to have him on this program tonight not just for a conversation, but indeed for a performance later in this program. Marcus Roberts, I love you and there ain’t nothing you can do about it.

Marcus Roberts: Oh, man, thank you. Likewise, man. I’m with you [laugh].

Tavis: I’m glad to have you back, man.

Roberts: I’m glad to be back.

Tavis: Could I start by asking–because everybody on the set wanted to know, including our director, Jonathan X–what is this thing you’re holding in your lap? Every time I see you, you have this thing in your hands.

Roberts: Oh, man. Well, it’s essential for my work. It’s called a Braille Sense and it’s a piece of braille technology that allows me to keep track of stuff, bottom line, like my set when I’m going onstage to play. I got books in here, I can check my email. You know what I mean? It’s got a calendar, a calculator, it’s a great piece of technology.

Tavis: Have you always been this interested in technology? I think of Stevie Wonder, for example. Stevie, every time I see Stevie, he has some new gadget, so he loves technology. You’re the same way.

Roberts: Oh, man, anytime we chat, that’s what we talk about. We talk about technology more than music [laugh].

Tavis: Wow [laugh].

Roberts: So he’s always hipping me. He stays up on all that stuff, you know, He’s got an iPhone, I got an iPhone. You know, we’re very versed in it because it kind of makes things a lot more equal and accessible to us. And if you got any kind of disability, what your main concern is is how can I have access to what everybody else has? Whether I use it or not, I want to know about it.

Tavis: Right. How does one get comfortable, for a lack of a better word, with not being able to see? I mean, obviously, if you could see, I assume–at one point, you were able to see–I assume if you could see, you’d want to see again. But you seem so…

Roberts: I would not complain.

Tavis: You would not complain [laugh]. I’m trying to be sensitive here and you just busted my chops.

Roberts: No, no, no [laugh].

Tavis: Okay, you would not complain. I get that. But how does one, especially one who had sight at an early age, how did you ever get…

Roberts: Well, first of all, I was blessed because, you know, my mother’s totally blind. So, you know, she wasn’t permitting any kind of self-pity or any absorption into what was mirroring that stuff, so that was the first thing.

But then the second thing is, I think any set of circumstances that you’re born into, right, you can’t really pick what those circumstances are. The only thing you can honestly do is choose how you’re going to react to it, okay?

So I remember being six or six and a half and everybody else in the class was reading this stuff. I was like, well, you know what? I got to do that too, so I found out about braille and all that. I’ve had a very aggressive pursuit of wanting to not let anything slow me down for what my objectives are, what my goals are, and that’s the biggest thing you have to do.

And, of course, the second biggest thing, you have to be blessed to have people who are knowledgeable and who can give you the information and the strategies to cope with the problem.

So when I went to the same school that Ray Charles went to, you know, a few decades before, I mean, that school was very good at, you know, helping you to deal with the problem and give you the skills and the tools to cope with it.

So I think those are the main things, and there’s a lot of faith and a lot of patience and you got to be willing to do things over and over until they work. That’s the biggest thing.

Tavis: I’m going to ask you in a moment about what Wynton Marsalis has had to say about you. Let me ask you first, though, what you have to say about Ray Charles. And I raise that, given what you just said a moment ago, Marcus, that you ended up going to the same school that Ray Charles went to. Most of us saw the Ray Charles movie that won the Academy Award…

Roberts: Right, absolutely.

Tavis: And so many accolades and a whole lot of money that move made. So many of us, of course, love Ray Charles. What do you make of what he was able to do with his gift since you all both went to the same school?

Roberts: Well, I think that Ray, for me and for a lot of people who are disabled and not, he kind of represents the voice of America that says I can be whatever I want to be if I’m willing to suffer and if I’m willing to fight and if I’m willing to submit myself to everything required for that cause.

And he was like, for example, he was in his 70s and, you know, we both, along with a lot of other blind guys, you know, we’re very concerned about the ability to compose our music and have it be notated so the sighted musicians can play it. That’s like a big deal for us.

And he was in his 70s and they finally had software that would allow you to do it and he was learning that software. He was working on it four or five hours like every couple of days. ‘Cause he wanted to write some music and he wanted to print it out and he wanted to have people play it.

So somebody in their 70s with all the money he made and all the accolades and everything else, that’s not ultimately what drove him. You know, he wanted to be a great artist and he didn’t want to be left out of anything that was hip. He wanted to know about it and he wanted to exist for that.

Tavis: Since you raised it, Marcus, how does being blind complicate composition?

Roberts: Oh, my [laugh].

Tavis: You went there, so I want to follow you there, yeah.

Roberts: Well, it’s complicated because, you know, most musicians you’re going to play with, they can’t read braille music, right? And even if they could, it’d be impractical ’cause you got to read with one hand and play with the other [laugh].

So I think the biggest thing that the complication is is how to get the music from your head to the piano, to a program where you can then import it into another scoring program where you can print the stuff out.

So that’s been the challenge and they, through a very complicated set of steps that I won’t get into right now, but the bottom line is, there’s a speech program that most of us called JAWS.

There are others, but this is the one that I use, and that interprets the computer screen for you. So if there’s something on the screen, it’ll read it to you. So some folks spent years and years taking that program and integrating it with another program called SONAR and writing scripts that allow you to use that program.

So, for example, if I’m wanting to play something for the clarinet in an orchestral score, you know, it’ll tell you, okay, you’re on the clarinet track, okay? You’re a measure 13 (B2) and you could play whatever you want the clarinet to do and you can listen back to it, okay? So there’s a whole series of commands that you use to navigate the score, play the stuff in, and confirm that that’s really what you want to do.

And when you’re done with that, then you take it into another program called Sibelius and that’s where the copyist takes over and makes it look good and makes it so that, you know, people won’t be mad when they’re looking at your music and trying to play it [laugh].

Tavis: I was thinking, though, listening to you, you have to really want to compose, not that composing is easy to begin with.

Roberts: Oh, my God, yeah.

Tavis: But you got to really want to compose to have to go through all those steps, Marcus, and you keep doing it. You did it for this project. You’ve done it for previous projects. You’ve done concertos.

Roberts: I know.

Tavis: You did one of them to Dr. King.

Roberts: I did, I did, yeah. The piano concerto that premiered in 2013 with the Atlanta Symphony, I dedicated to Dr. King because, again, for me he is absolutely the American symbol for the value of what one man’s struggle could mean for a whole lot of people.

You know, to see what he went through and what he was able to achieve and the impact he was able to have, I mean, there’s no excuse for not trying in every way you can to have a positive impact on your people, positive impact on the world at large.

Tavis: I wrote this down ’cause I want to get this quote right. So I asked you earlier what you thought about Ray Charles, given that, again, the two of you went to the same school. Here’s what our friend, Wynton Marsalis, said about you in 2014.

“Who’s the greatest American musician most people have never heard of? To me, it’s Marcus Roberts. I’m biased because Marcus worked in my band when he was just starting out, but anybody who’s heard him at the piano usually agrees he’s a fearsome and fearless player and a homegrown example of overcoming adversity with excellence.”

First of all, it’s Wynton Marsalis. It don’t get much better than that. But when Wynton calls you a fearsome and fearless player, how do you interpret that?

Roberts: Well, I think what he means or certainly my interpretation or what I attempt to do when I play, again, I do a lot of practicing. I do a lot of rehearsing. I study a lot of music and a lot of people have the misguided view that I’m trying to get caught up in the tradition of the music or I’m trying to recapture it or something like that.

But really what I’m wanting to do is to gain inspiration from it the same way a basketball player gains inspiration from watching LeBron James or Michael Jordan.

And the fact of it is, with that inspiration and with that attitude after you’ve done all that practicing and study, when you walk on the bandstand, you then have to let the music take over, and I’m not afraid to do it. So if I go for something, it might work, it might not.

But I think what people pay money for and what they want to see is you in the heat of battle giving everything you have to something so much greater than you that it takes over, and you are compelled by what that is.

And through your study at the conscious level, that unlocks your unconscious ability and spirit to project things that you really honestly didn’t think you could play.

Tavis: When that thing, as you put it, when that thing isn’t working in the audience, we never know that [laugh]. When it isn’t working onstage and you know that, how do you know it and what do you do about it?

Roberts: Well, when it’s working, you just submit to it.

Tavis: Absolutely.

Roberts: And also if you’re on the stage with other musicians, you know you can also gain inspiration from them. And, again, that’s where jazz music represents our democratic process very well because ultimately, you know, if you have a group of people talking about something where everybody’s got their individual perspective and agenda.

But in jazz music when we play in a band, I mean, the goal is everybody has to submit to a collective goal and use your individual power and your individual perspective to both individually pursue that goal and collectively. And that will cause things to happen in the music that no one individual could create on their own.

Tavis: I don’t know that in all the times we’ve talked publicly and certainly in all of our private conversations, I don’t know that I’ve ever asked you why the piano? I mean, you could have played–you are so gifted, I suspect that anything you put your hands to, you’d be good at. Why and how the piano?

Roberts: Well, it’s funny. I mean, I did play saxophone and drums in high school and stuff like–I think, A, the fact that it’s a self-contained instrument and I never thought that much about it until you asked.

But I think that’s one component. You know, the piano can function alone or it can function with other people. So when you need solitude and you want to be left alone, I mean, you can play solo piano recitals for people.

But then, if you want to really participate in jazz fully, then you can have a band. And also, just the great composers that have played the piano have always intrigued me, like Jelly Roll Morton and Mark and Duke Ellington, you know, Ahmad Jamal.

And then in classical music, Beethoven’s works and Ravel and Debussy and Chopin and others, I just think that I found for me that I knew that I’d have a lifetime of intriguing experiences through the piano.

Tavis: Tell me about teaching, about what you like about it, what you are teaching, how you process this. Tell me about your teaching at Florida State, your alma mater.

Roberts: Right. Well, my teaching philosophy really stems from how I’ve always taught when I was doing it unofficially for years before that, going way back to middle school. And that is to bring people into something and to give them the tools to use what they know how to do to unlock what they don’t know how to do, and…

Tavis: Say that again. Say that again. I like that. Say it again.

Roberts: Right. Well, you know, I’m interested when I teach in taking what a young person knows, okay? Start with what they actually know and use that to unlock and to give them the other things that they need, the tools that they need, to unlock what they don’t know.

Tavis: I like that.

Roberts: You know, a lot of teachers just try to force-feed a whole bunch of stuff and, you know, the kid doesn’t get it and they can’t execute it. Then, of course, to me that ends up lowering their self-esteem and their self-worth and ultimately their musicianship.

And the other thing I like to do is I like to get them all in a room ’cause, like I say, jazz is a group music. It’s a team thing, okay? So the best way to teach people is to get them in a room where other people are in the room with them, playing with them, so that they have to use their own individual powers to collectively solve all these problems and they can help each other.

So we use the music, we use the vocabulary and the language of jazz, we use exercises that I might give them. But each young person that comes into my classroom, I’m trying to find out what they can do and I’m trying to understand what their goals are.

So like I have a signup sheet and usually when I teach, you got to sign up for it. So people who are not serious are not going to sign up. So I’m really interested in working with the ones who really want to understand what the language is, how to participate in it.

And I’ve been doing it for 10 years now and I’m very pleased with the work ethic of a lot of the young people. I mean, you wouldn’t think that that many young people in their 20s or late teens would want to play jazz, but a bunch of them do.

Tavis: And what are you discovering is the through-line for why they want to do it, the thing that binds it all together?

Roberts: I think, A, it’s the ability to develop individual self-expression, but I think eventually what that turns into is you graduate from self-expression which is fine and great and part of our democratic system.

But really what you’re interested in after that is to use your self-expression to take you to the next step which is communication. And then, you know, you communicate with your other musicians, like I said, solving problems and also celebrating what you can do.

But ultimately, the greatest joy is when you see a group of young people who come together in a state of actual communion where their individual attitudes and aspirations come together to create and culminate in an experience that’s shared by all of them.

And that’s ultimately my goal, you know, with teaching is to get them to that point where they learn through jazz music how to share, how to conquer insecurities through cooperation, and that’s going to make them be better American citizens in the end in whatever field they ultimately go into, whether it’s music or not. They’ll have some skills to help them out.

Tavis: Well, they couldn’t ask for a better teacher than you. Let me talk, then, about the teacher’s music, the latest project from the teacher, “Romance, Swing and the Blues”, this two-disc CD set. Tell me about it.

Roberts: Well, yeah, it’s a two-CD set. We know that romance is something that’s been written about ad nauseam. I mean, you know, going way, way, way, way back. And, of course, swing is the lifeblood, the pulse of our music. Like Duke Ellington used to always say, “Well, if my pulse and your pulse are in sync, we’re swinging, right?”

So swing, again, it’s really like not just an individual thing. Like to swing, it really requires other people. And, of course, the blues in terms of circumstance, you know, it’s about anything that happened that you didn’t need or want to happen. It happened anyway.

And I have a quote right here that the great scholar and writer, Albert Murray, I mean, he really sums it up very neatly in terms of what the jazz musicians’ goal is in terms of coping with and dealing with the blues.

And he said, “Also, always absolutely inseparable from all such predicaments and requirements is the most fundamental of all existential imperatives, affirmation, which is to say reaffirmation and continuity in the face of adversity.

Indeed, what was the blues, whether known by that or any other name always somewhere either in the foreground or the background, reaffirmation is precisely the contingency upon which the very survival of man as human being, however normally unsatisfied and abnormally wretched is predicated.” So he…

Tavis: He broke that down, didn’t he?

Roberts: Oh, my. Murray, he was…

Tavis: Murray hit that one, yeah.

Roberts: So that’s what the record is about. It’s about the blues being used to conquer the blues. You know, it’s about the mystery of romance, why people fall in love, fall out, you know, music that kind of deals with that and addresses that.

And ultimately, it’s about swing and that’s what gave this group that the CD came out of that I’m calling The Modern Jazz Generation, that group came from that. So the swing kind of represents them, like the next generation of jazz musicians that are going to be out here playing for the next 40, you know, or 50 years.

Tavis: In terms of the playlist, in terms of the music on these two discs, how would you describe the music?

Roberts: Well, the music itself, there’s a main theme that’s introduced by the piano at the very beginning of it, and really that theme is explored in different ways throughout the whole CD. So one tune, “Evening Caress” and “Festive Day” is literally the same theme.

But with “Evening Caress”, it slowed down and it’s in a major key. And with “Festive Day”, it’s both in a major and minor key. So there’s a lot of tricks that I’m playing like with the form of it.

And, you know, there’s one track called “Oh, No! How Could You” which is really at the point in a couple’s relationship where there’s some kind of sense of betrayal or something like that where somebody’s done the wrong thing.

So it’s represented by the baritone saxophone who is like the male figure trying to explain, you know, this is what it was. And then the soprano saxophone is like the woman saying I ain’t buying it. What are you talking about [laugh].

When you listen to that track, you’ll hear the baritone first and then the soprano responds, and then eventually they play together, which kind of represents like, well, maybe we’re going to work this out. And then it slows down and they get to a groove and another blues goes on that the bass solo transitions you to.

So it’s all those kinds of things that go on in the work and I’m very proud of it. I mean, especially the work of all the young people who really had to work together as a team to play something this complicated.

Tavis: I love this part. “All compositions by Marcus Roberts”. You’ve been a busy man.

Roberts: Well, yes, sir…

Tavis: I was looking at my notes this morning and I think I counted four projects that you’ve put out in the last year and a half?

Roberts: Yeah, that’s right [laugh].

Tavis: Four projects in a year and a half.

Roberts: I know.

Tavis: You’re making me feel like a bum.

Roberts: Well, no, man.

Tavis: I got to step my game up, man [laugh].

Roberts: And that doesn’t include the piano concerto that happened…

Tavis: You see that [laugh]?

Roberts: You know, there’s a lot. Look, you know…

Tavis: You’re busy, man.

Roberts: Well, you know what? You got to stay in the field if you’re gonna make any progress. So I’m a firm believer, you know, let’s go. You know, let’s do something. Let’s keep this thing going. All the people who I admired, that’s how they were.

And I truly believe that, when you’re doing a project or you’re working through stuff with other people, I mean, your growth is exponential and it gives you more and more energy to keep going. Come on, you’re doing a whole lot of stuff too now. I mean, I’m just trying to keep up with you [laugh].

Tavis: Yeah, yeah [laugh]. I started this program by saying that I love Marcus Roberts and indeed I love all of humanity, but I really love Marcus Roberts. He is such a dear friend and just an artistic genius, and I’m always honored to have him on this program or anything, anywhere I am. I’m happy to hang out with Marcus.

So now comes the good stuff. We get a chance to actually hear Marcus play. There’s a piece on this project called “Period of Denial” and Marcus is going to play that in just a moment. Before he does that, let me tell you how much I appreciate you tuning in to our show tonight. Thank you for watching. As always, keep the faith. Marcus, good to have you on, my friend.

Roberts: Man, my pleasure always.

Tavis: I’m gonna make you do your thing.

Roberts: Thank you, man.

Tavis: Thanks again. Here comes Marcus. Stay with us.


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Last modified: January 26, 2015 at 3:55 pm