Tuesday, August 21, 2018

More Bill Cushing, Marcus Roberts, and Aretha Franklin

Tonight I'd like to continue with Bill Cushing's 1990 interview with Marcus Roberts.  Let's return to the days of the young lions of jazz.

Interview: Marcus Roberts, The Man (975 words): first published May 15, 1990 in RIO Magazine)

Marcus Roberts grew up in modest surroundings, one of two brothers and the son of a longshoreman and gospel singer. When he was eight years old, the blind boy literally bumped into a piano in his living room. It was the last time the instrument ever thwarted him, and he became the musician he is now. However, here is an introduction to the man. 

Rio: You won the first Jacksonville Jazz Piano Competition, which must have felt good to do so in your hometown—especially going up against other competitors such as Harry Connick, Jr. Then you won several others, including the Thelonius Monk competition in Washington, DC. This was almost like an apprenticeship before getting out on the road. Do you advise that route?

MR:The good thing about competitions, the way I’ve always tried to explain it, is that once you become serious about music to decide to make that part of your life forever, whether you win or not, that is not the last step. You have to treat it as something that’s going to solidify your development and push you to the next level of creativity. What you have to ensure is that you practice hard and take it seriously enough so that it’s going to push you to really bring the best out of yourself. In this way, whether you win or not, musically you’re at a much higher level than you would have been had you not entered.

Rio: Yet no obstacle or barrier seems insurmountable to you

MR:You can’t even set that up on yourself. You just view things as a set of circumstances, and you do whatever your range of possibilities permits. To me, if you’re tackling something that’s insurmountable, the question becomes: for what? And in keeping with that same philosophy, nobody knows what life has in store. There might come a day, God forbid, when I won’t be able to play, so if I have identity first as a man who has a philosophy of life or something that’s greater than you or music or whatever your vocation is, frankly, your identity is not as strong as it ought to be. You have to tie yourself into something that will perpetuate your identity at all times, both personally and professionally, so that regardless of what happens in your life, you will be strong enough to continue to grow and develop and have something to really offer the society that will help elevate your surroundings. 
Music is just one way of doing that.

Rio: Which is preferable to you:  performing live or recording in the studio?

MR: Performing live. See, when you’re in the studio, they got headphones to put on. Plus you don’t have the vibration of the people. In the history of jazz, you listen to studio versions of things as opposed to live versions, the live versions always sound a little more spontaneous and free. That’s because you aren’t thinking about recording once you settle into it during a concert. My attitude about music was that I didn’t get into it to necessarily get record contracts. I just did it because there was something about it I had a deep love for, and I knew I wanted it to be part of my life. Period.

Rio: Steve Pick of the St Louis Post-Dispatch said you are “capable of becoming a major force in the fields of jazz composition, arrangement, and improvisation;” Jay Cocks of Time magazine wrote that your “gift is to stay connected to past masters like Monk while extending the music’s possibilities.” How do you handle those sorts of accolades?

MR:Well, I’m flattered to hear it, you know, but I try to take it with a certain gracious attitude. I don’t really need that to keep perspective; all I have to do is put on “Clean Sweep” by Duke Ellington and then I know how far I have to go. When I put his recording of “Single Petal of a Rose,” I’m like, “Oh, well. I tried. I did the best I could.” 

Check out his version: We’re talking about a genius at 60 years old rendering one that he wrote for the Queen of England, which is just one of a series of pieces he did. And that’s cool because that’s part of what development is about. On one level, you always reassess where you are and you’re always grateful for the things that you have been able to achieve as long as they’re making you more strongly committed to continue to strive for another level of excellence and sophistication that, hopefully, will eventually enrich other people’s lives, other young musicians. 

Rio: You seem like the kind of person who doesn’t let failure bother you.

MR:It shouldn’t bother you because it’s not really failure unless you quit. That’s my concept of it: you’ve only failed if you quit trying. Success is the ability to work with whatever the obstacle is until you find the solution. Even if you don’t find the solution, your quest for the solution will take you even farther, perhaps, than your initial role may have been.

Rio: So, sometimes you discover new things you didn’t even know were there.

MR:Oh, you’ll definitely do that if you’re really trying to deal with it because that search is going to encompass other areas that you consciously are not aware of. When you do a record or play a gig, that brings something out of you, which helps set the next stage of development. That’s how I treat records, based on things I have to work on.

Rio: You said that you first heard Duke Ellington on the radio.

MR:Yeah, I was like twelve. I was looking for the All-Star game.

Rio: Sounds like you found the right station.

MR:Yeah, I sure did.

Here Marcus Roberts plays Duke Ellington's "Single Petal of a Rose":  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kxOEWMpmjw8

This version of "Solitude" is from Roberts' 1991 album Alone with Three Giants: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iKiT9qi8MwM

His trio plays "Black and Tan Fantasy" here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iKiT9qi8MwM

I'll finish with his version of Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag":  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QrICKR9PAB8

 Later this year (or perhaps early next year) I will be publishing some poems memorializing Aretha Franklin, but for now here is some music.

I was thrilled to see that YouTube has Fanny's "Queen Aretha."  Fanny was one of the earliest all-female rock groups, and its leader June Millington wrote this song:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KpcJQwrf4wE&pbjreload=10

You may have heard of the aria that Aretha Franklin sang at the Grammys.  Here it is:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HqECvv7ecPk

I'll finish with a live version of Aretha's "Eleanor Rigby" from 1971: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H_yV6j6g_UQ

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