Born: August 7, 1963 Primary Instrument: Piano
Jazz pianist Marcus Roberts is from Jacksonville, Florida and his music has always been influenced by the early exposure to his mother's gospel singing and the music of the local church. Marcus lost his sight at age five. His parents bought him a piano when he was eight years old and he was self-taught for four years. During that time, he played in the local Baptist church every Sunday. When he was twelve years old, he started his first formal piano lessons. He decided that he wanted to be a jazz pianist after listening to the music of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Mary Lou Williams and others on the radio.
After graduating from high school, Roberts left Jacksonville to attend Florida State University (FSU) where he studied classical piano with Leonidus Lipovetsky, who had been a student of the noted Russian piano teacher Rosina Lhevinne. While at FSU, Roberts won his first of many awards and competitions (the young artist's competition at the 1982 National Association of Jazz Educators annual conference). The next year he won the Great American Jazz Piano Competition, followed by first prize at the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition in 1987. He was honored to receive a National Academy of Achievement award in 1995 and, in 1998 he received the award that he considers his highest honor, the Helen Keller Award for Personal Achievement. In 2003, Roberts was inducted into the Jacksonville Jazz Hall of Fame.
In 1985, at age 21, Roberts joined Wynton Marsalis' band and toured and recorded with the trumpeter for the next six years. Roberts signed his first recording contract with BMG/Novus in 1988 and completed six recordings for them before signing with Columbia Records early in 1994. All of his recordings have been critically acclaimed, and several have reached the No. 1 spot on Billboard's traditional jazz chart. Roberts' recording legacy reflects his tremendous versatility as an artist - with recordings that include solo piano, duets, and trio arrangements of jazz standards, original suites of trio music, large ensemble works, and symphony orchestra. His recording of George Gershwin's signature classic, 'Rhapsody in Blue' (Portraits in Blue, 1996) with symphony orchestra and jazz band was nominated for a Grammy. One of Roberts' most recent recordings, New Orleans Meets Harlem, Volume 1, 2007, is a celebration of how the early roots of jazz with its ragtime, blues, and New Orleans' influences, can be combined with the virtuosic Harlem styles to create an entirely new sound.
Marcus Roberts is known as one of the most diverse artists in jazz. He has a deep respect for the contributions and achievements of the great masters of jazz and classical music. His highly innovative and original piano style as well as his philosophy of jazz improvisation is a merging of his love for great music from every era with his own creative imagination. In his words, Roberts says, Every time I sit down to the piano, I draw spontaneously from as much of the history of great music as I have at my fingertips. That's why I never stop studying great music. It just gives me more to draw on in my improvisations. When Roberts performs, the contributions of Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, Ellington, Monk, John Coltrane, Ahmad Jamal, McCoy Tyner and others are integrated with his own perspective to create a thoroughly modern sound.
Marcus Roberts first performed as a soloist with symphony orchestra in 1992 and since that time, he has performed often with orchestras all over the world. In the summer of 2002, Roberts was honored to participate with his trio in the gala farewell weekend of concerts with Maestro Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood. In 2003, Roberts premiered his new arrangement of Gershwin's Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra in Japan with the New Japan Philharmonic and then in Europe, with the Berlin Philharmonic for their annual Wäldbuhne concert. The performance with the Berlin Philharmonic was recorded and released (A Gershwin Night) in DVD format. In 2005, Roberts and his trio traveled to Matsumoto, Japan to perform and record the concerto (Decca Records, 2006) with the world-renowned Saito Kinen Festival Orchestra once again under the direction of Maestro Sei Ozawa. During that recording session, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast of the U.S., leaving his Louisiana-based trio members in limbo. Drummer Jason Marsalis has still be unable to return to his home in New Orleans. After returning to the U.S., Roberts and Marsalis along with bassist Rodney Jordan flew to New York to perform at the televised hurricane benefit concert and DVD recording session (Higher Ground) to help other Louisiana musicians to get back on their feet.
Another important contribution that Roberts has made to jazz music is a large body of original music. He has written numerous suites of music, such as Romance, Swing, and the Blues, Deep in the Shed, Time and Circumstance, In Honor of Duke, From Rags to Rhythm, and The Sound of the Band, as well as a very large number of original songs and arrangements. He has received various commissioning awards, including ones from Jazz at Lincoln Center, Chamber Music America, ASCAP, and the North Carolina Association of Jazz Educators.
Roberts has been instrumental to the training and development of a large number of young musicians, including such great jazz artists as trumpeters Marcus Printup and Nicholas Payton, trombonist Ronald Westray, bassist Roland Guerin and drummer Jason Marsalis. A few years ago, Roberts became more involved in the formal instruction of young musicians and composers, first serving as a Housewright Scholar at the School of Music at Florida State University and then joining the faculty there the next year as an Assistant Professor where he still teaches when he is not on tour. Finally, Roberts and his trio regularly provide master classes, workshops, school shows, and residency programs all over the world. Their goal is to help to expose as many young people as possible to jazz music.
--Maestro Seiji Ozawa, Musical Director, Vienna State Opera
Glowing is the proper response to Roberts' music
--Josef Woodard, The Independent
Mr. Roberts... plays almost completely free of cliches, and while the intellectual construct within which he works is old - the application of the modern on a foundation of tradition--his ability in all his idioms seemed startlingly thorough.
--Peter Watrous, New York Times
That the huge crowd at Orchestra Hall on Friday night responded...with an instantaneous standing ovation said a great deal about Roberts' ability to keep an audience in his spell.
--Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune
The sheer power and beauty of Roberts' creations...warrant further investigation.
--Larry Blumenfeld, Jazziz
[Roberts'] writing is often brilliant in its juxtaposition of distant musical eras, ...its believable evocation of mood, ...and the way solos are made to emerge organically from the ensembles.
--Thomas Conrad, Downbeat
Although classically trained, Roberts is primarily a jazz pianist and composer. He is, therefore, a musician to whom improvisation is not only a living, but also an essential art. The results in the Rhapsody in Blue were fascinating.
--Stephen Wigler, The Baltimore Sun
Marcus Roberts is a superb improviser with a considerable compositional gift.
--Chris Parker, The Times (London)
There's an easy tendency to criticize the astonishing technical facility of Marcus Roberts and his associates as being too facile... when Marcus Roberts, or Wynton Marsalis for that matter, fly along brilliantly on their instruments, one never intuits a psyche on the edge of abandon but rather one recognizes extraordinary training and immaculate control... Their supreme adroitness still legitimately feeds the thrill of the music.
--Richard Perry, The Ottawa Citizen
Blues [for the New Millennium] rarely falters in its grooves. Thanks are due to an irresistible rhythm section, ... and Roberts' compositional wit
--Bruce Handy, Time Magazine
No matter what guise they assume, however, the blues are always essential to jazz, and Roberts and his 12 gifted young musicians come to delightful grips with that fact on Blues for the New Millennium.
--Geoffrey Himes, The Washington Post
And what became clear by the conclusion of this fascinating program was that Roberts...opens up a creative window on both the past and future. By retaining the substance of these works, without mimicking their styles, by finding within them new musical challenges for the present and the future, rather than a by-the-numbers need for precise historical reproduction, he is identifying the entire jazz repertory as a timeless arena for creative endeavor.
--Don Heckman, Los Angeles Times
On The Joy of Joplin, Roberts once again forces us to re-examine what jazz is and where jazz is now. That's good. It's one reason why he is a pivotal figure in today's jazz scene.
--Paul J. MacArthur, The Houston Press
There may not be another pianist alive who could pull off such a feat while staying so true to the spirit of Joplin's compositions, if only because Roberts has the historical knowledge, creative imagination and technical prowess to sustain the experiment. Yet one ultimately comes away from this recording with new reverence for Joplin, who emerges as the forger of an indestructible ragtime vocabulary and as a pervasive influence on generations of composers yet unborn when he was in his prime.
--Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune
Marcus Roberts...has made a name on the symphonic circuit playing Rhapsody in Blue which he fills with extended and dazzling improvisations that I can't imagine Gershwin wouldn't love.
--Judith Green, The Atlanta Journal