Tonight I'd like to post Bill Cushing's poem inspired by Marcus Roberts. Roberts was born in 1963, so Bill is jumping the gun a bit. Nevertheless, it's always good to promote someone new at the blog. In addition, I will also post part one of Bill's interview with this wonderful jazz pianists.
SINGING WITH BOTH HANDS
(for Marcus Roberts)
With eighty-eight steps to choose,
how do the pianist’s hands
decide which to use?
Perhaps each acts alone:
one as the heart, maintaining
clockwork tempo, balanced
as blood and milk—giving life in
obsidian or porcelain.
The other wanders free,
travels against rhythm: turns
at times unknown, sees
dead ends, backtracks to
others, sometimes climbing yet
always acting in concert.
Interview: Marcus Roberts, The Musician
(1,071 words first published May 15, 1990 in RIO Magazine)
After Marcus Roberts’ first album, 1988’s The Truth is Spoken Here, hit number one on the Billboard jazz charts in1989, music critics of the time hailed the young Floridian pianist as a new genius of jazz. Time magazine described his interpretation of Thelonius Monk’s “Blue Monk” as possessing such “light witchery that the song sounds reborn.”
Studying music at the St. Augustine School for the Deaf and Blind (which boasts another Jacksonville alum by the name of Ray Charles), he then majored in music at Florida State, where Wynton Marsalis first heard—and then invited him to join his own band. After that, Roberts became a world-class, globe-trotting professional musician. However, at the time of this interview, he was in the middle of a more ordinary activity: practice.
Although with Roberts, practice is hardly mundane. Sitting at the piano his parents bought nearly 20 years before, he plays a seductive improvised piece before kicking into a Jelly Roll Morton blues tune. When he plays the blues, it sounds like twelve hands rather than two, and one gets the feeling that a Marcus Roberts rendition of “Happy Birthday” would end up sounding like a symphonic masterpiece.
Rio: While you were playing earlier, you achieved an almost harp-like sound from the keyboard. Do you attribute that ability to technique or feel?
MR:Well, it’s both, but you’ve got to realize there are different types of technique. I’m starting to figure out different ways to sonically create different moods by creating different sounds based on the type of touch I use, or the combination of touch and pedaling that affects the sound. I’m starting to hear a specific sound that I like from certain piano players that I have a love for, who I would like to make as pillar examples for me: Jelly Roll, Duke, McCoy Tyner, Coltrane.
Rio: One thing writers emphasize about you is that, even though you’re studious of music, there’s no stiffness in your renditions. Do you find the study of music as part of the love of music?
MR:Man, that’s what study always represents. Any of the great jazz musicians have studied. Not all of them necessarily went to “X” University, but that’s not where you are going to get information about the music anyway. A lot of older musicians got their apprenticeships on the bandstand. Miles Davis played with Charlie Parker; you ain’t going to get no better teacher than that!
Coltrane played with Miles for five, six years, and by the time Coltrane developed the concept of the classic quartet he was dealing with, that don’t sound like Miles. That sounds like Coltrane. You don’t get it confused with nobody; it’s a whole other sound. He wouldn’t’ve got to that by playing with Miles. You’ve got to realize that jazz music represents the way stuff is supposed to be.
Rio: Was there anything with your musical background that influenced you?
MR:Oh, Lord, yes, yes. All that gospel; all that Mahalia Jackson. My mama’s real soulful; that’s where I get whatever level of soul that I can claim. She’s be up at like 5:30 in the morning, singing through the house.
Rio: The impression one gets is that you, along with the Marsalis brothers, are in going back to the roots, trying to rediscover the beginnings of jazz, to determine where it’ll go from there.
MR:What we’re trying to do mainly now is learn the basic vocabulary of music. If you take Elvin Jones, for example, or his brother Hank—if you take their evolution as musicians. I mean, someone like Elvin could go to a club in 1950, 1940, and hear Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, the great Duke Ellington, or hear Louis Armstrong. When we grew up, we couldn’t do that. Wynton certainly did because his dad’s a great pianist.
Rio: You guys are kind of breaking away from the “fusion” sound so popular in the 80s and 90s.
MR:To me, any music is cool as long as you trace it back. In fusion, or whatever style of music it’s called, I can’t really hear a lot of the elements of music. It’s another sound, another concept. I mean, this is pop music; they’re calling it something, so they have a marketing term for it. What I am saying is: Is the concept music or is the concept marketing?
In jazz we have the first concept of democracy, which is that you have the right to deal with whatever it is you’re dealing with as long as you respect the rights of others to do the same. That’s why you have the soloist. Then, you have everybody else improvising at the same time so you have a whole group of musicians improvising at the same time, which means that you have to function as a group. There has to be a lot of give and take.
In classical music, Bach could improvise by himself, but he wasn’t going to get together with five or six people. If you take just the Duke Ellington Big Band alone, everybody in that band had a special sound, a personal identity. Now Duke—and that’s what makes him so great, he took all those musicians—Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonzalez, and all the people in his band—and figured out a way to develop not only their identity over the years but then to use that to develop, ultimately, his overall concept of music. And he did that for fifty years. He started in the Depression and was still doing gigs by Watergate.
Rio: Dizzy Gillespie once said he felt jazz is the new classical music. Do you agree with that, or do you think it’s a whole different thing?
MR:It’s obviously different, but I understand what he’s saying: he’s saying jazz music, at the highest level, is equal to and will stand up to the objective musical tests used to define any great classical pieces. Like, if you take the late work of Duke Ellington, it’s no less great than the late music of Beethoven or Bach from a musical standpoint. What you have to realize is that Duke Ellington defined his own world of musical possibilities that had not existed before his time, so when [Dizzy] says that, he’s talking about the range of cultural identity that’s present in jazz music in America is no less great than the classical music of Western Europe.
Let's go back to 1988 for Marcus Roberts' performance of "Blue Monk." Note that Wynton Marsalis introduces him by his full name: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OLCfakvd628
More recently (in 2017) the Marcus Roberts Trio (with Jason Marsalis on the drums) plays "They Can't Take That Away From Me": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_zK2NwxEWzA
There the trio plays "I Got Rhythm": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qloc8pegkvc
I'll finish with his version of "Cherokee": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U7Yp32vmMfw
Thursday one of the all-time greats, Aretha Franklin, died. She has received many tributes, and the links to follow are certainly the least of them, but I would like to pay tribute to her tonight.
Of course, there is her "Respect": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6FOUqQt3Kg0
I want to add her "I Say a Little Prayer": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KtBbyglq37E
I'll finish with her "Ain't No Way": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PB2Mu2zBzjw
Rest in peace, Aretha Franklin.