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. Addresses: Record company-- Novus (Bertelsman Music Group), 1133 Ave. of the Americas, New York, NY 10036.
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 I'm trying to get together and to pay homage to the musicians who I consider to be personally motivating forces behind the philosophy that I'm 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. "I'd never heard piano played like that," Roberts recounted to Esquire. "I said to myself then and there, 'That's 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 Jacksonville's Great American Competition in 1982, quit Florida State his senior year when Marsalis asked Roberts to join him to tour and record in 1985.
Already gaining a reputation as a promising find in Marsalis's 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 Coltrane's drummer, Elvin Jones, and Thelonious Monk's buddy Charlie Rouse, to pay homage to jazz standards and showcase Roberts's original work in a debut which topped Billboard' s jazz chart and sold well for a new arrival.
Some thought Roberts's 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 Roberts's cerebral approach "aloof," most seconded Philip Booth's 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 Roberts's 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 solo--actual real, true melodies while you're 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. It's like your first girlfriend. You don't 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. I'm just starting to really see how complex dealing with art is, and the many variables that--especially when I was a kid--I had no idea were necessary, in order to play. Now it's becoming more apparent to me. What I'm 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 I'm doing that, I'll be able to come up with something with concrete substance for the people who check it out."
by Marjorie Burgess
Marcus Roberts's Career
Marcus Roberts's Awards
Winner of the Thelonious Monk Piano Competition, 1987.
- Selective Works
- 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.