“I never plan to stop studying and sharing in the creation of great music. When I play, I play for the people. Jazz is not elitist. It was created and grew from the soil of our fertile and, at times, difficult American experience, and it will resonate as long as our democratic structure exists.”
— Marcus Roberts
Marcus Roberts grew up in Jacksonville, Florida where his mother’s gospel singing and the music of the local church left a lasting impact on his musical style. He lost his sight at age five, and a few years later began to teach himself to play piano. He had his first formal lessons at age twelve and ultimately went on to study classical piano at Florida State University with Leonidus Lipovetsky. Among the many competitions that Roberts has won and awards that he has received over the years, the one that is most personally meaningful to him is the Helen Keller Award for Personal Achievement (in 1998). He has been honored to receive many commissioning awards, including awards from Jazz at Lincoln Center, Chamber Music America, ASCAP, the North Carolina Association of Jazz Educators, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and the Savannah Music Festival.
Roberts’ first recording contract was in 1988 (BMG/Novus) and he went on to record for both Columbia Records and Sony Classical before starting his own record label, J-Master Records, in 2009. He has released several of CDs on that label: New Orleans Meets Harlem, Volume 1 (2009); Celebrating Christmas (2011); Deep in the Shed: A Blues Suite (2012); From Rags to Rhythm (2013); and two CDs with the Marcus Roberts Trio and Wynton Marsalis called Together Again: In the Studio and Together Again: Live in Concert (both released in 2013). Roberts’ recording legacy reflects his tremendous versatility as an artist and includes solo piano, duets, and trio arrangements of jazz standards, original suites of music, large ensemble works, and symphony orchestra recordings. In 2012, Roberts collaborated with Béla Fleck to write and record twelve compositions for a CD entitled Across the Imaginary Divide (distributed by Rounder Records). Roberts’ most recent recording project is with a new large ensemble, called the Modern Jazz Generation. The group’s first CD entitled Romance, Swing, and the Blues was recorded in 2013 and will be released in 2014.
Roberts’ deep respect for the contributions and achievements of the great masters of jazz and classical music has led to his highly innovative and original piano style and philosophy of jazz improvisation. Roberts has always been on the cutting edge of innovative approaches to jazz music. For example, his trio has developed an innovative style of playing that features bass and drums in a position equal to that of the piano. His original compositions in the form of thematic suites of music demonstrate this significant advance to jazz trio playing.
Roberts first performed as a soloist with symphony orchestra in 1992 with Maestra Marin Alsop. Since that time, he has performed with orchestras all over the world, but most frequently with his long-time mentor, Maestro Seiji Ozawa. In 2003, Roberts premiered his ground-breaking arrangement of Gershwin’s “Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra” with Maestro Ozawa in Japan with the New Japan Philharmonic and then in Europe, with the Berlin Philharmonic at their annual Wäldbuhne concert (A Gershwin Night (DVD), EuroArts 2003).
In April of 2013, Roberts premiered his first piano concerto, “Spirit of the Blues: Piano Concerto in C Minor”, with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Robert Spano. The concerto was dedicated jointly to Maestro Seiji Ozawa and the late Martin Luther King, Jr., and was premiered on the anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, April 4, 2013. The structure of the concerto is informed in its different movements by works of such great composers as Beethoven, Ravel, Prokofiev and Bartok. The goal was to use musical form, thematic material, and jazz improvisation to bring jazz and classical musicians together. The concerto integrates both the piano and an entire jazz trio with the symphony orchestra.
Technology plays an important role in Roberts’ life and work. He has spent many years working with technology experts to make writing a complicated score possible for blind composers. After 20 years of constant experimentation with a wide range of technologies, the right combination of adaptive software was finally available to make it possible to take on writing this concerto. This has been an enormous breakthrough not only for Roberts but for all blind musicians and composers.
Finally, Marcus Roberts is a dedicated teacher. He is devoted to the training and development of younger musicians. Roberts is generous with his time, his talent, and his vast knowledge of jazz music. He and his trio regularly provide master classes, workshops, lecture-demonstrations and residency programs while on tour. He also serves as the Associate Artistic Director for the Savannah Music Festival where he directs the annual “Swing Central” high school band competition and educational programs for students from all over the country. Roberts lives in Tallahassee, where he is on the faculty at the School of Music at his alma mater, Florida State University.