History at his fingertips

Marcus Roberts at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club

The pianist Marcus Roberts does, it is safe to say, have all bases pretty much covered. He has a degree in classical music and was a protégé of Wynton Marsalis. Just as critically, Roberts, who is appearing at the London Jazz Festival in November, grew up playing in church.

Gospel is a bedrock of African-American music, both predating and profoundly influencing the secular traditions of jazz and blues. For the likes of Marsalis and Duke Ellington, it inspired extended works that documented African-American experience. For others, it was a cultural marker to be celebrated, a specifically African-American religious experience whose emotional content could be captured in music.

Gospel’s distinct accents, forms and rituals started as a latticework of responses to slavery. But it is now a flourishing industry whose network of institutional structures, at their best, offers a musical education equal to many a first-year course at a good-quality music college.

I met Roberts earlier this year, when he was in London playing to capacity audiences at Ronnie Scott’s. After discussing his classical and jazz influences – Bach, Ravel and Beethoven; Ellington, Monk and Ahmad Jamal – he talked about his own early musical development. This had centred on his mother singing in church; a priceless experience that he said could be explained in one word: “soul”. Somewhat unexpectedly though, Roberts swiftly added: “The main thing is quick reflexes – people want to feel something.”

Roberts studied at Florida State University and was later mentored by Marsalis. An intellectually rigorous man, he has a deep understanding of jazz history but he believes knowledge has to serve a purpose. “The technique, the intellect, everything you know about it, the organisational strategies, all that stuff is fine, but at the end of the day, people don’t really care where it comes from,” he said.

“People want to be moved and healed as a result of coming into contact with your music. And that is the most important thing I got from playing in church.”

Roberts was born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1963 and lost his sight when he was five. “I had five or so cataracts,” he said. “They tried to operate and it didn’t work, so that was that.” Like Ray Charles before him, he attended the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind. Having fixed on piano via the church, he started playing when he was eight. Formal, classical lessons got under way when he was 12, which was about the same time that he became aware of jazz. “I used to listen to jazz on the radio. Friday from 6.30 to 8, a show called Swingtime”, he said, remembering the wavelength. “They would play what some people would call old jazz, a range of big band and small group jazz from the 1950s and 1960s.”

Although his extensive formal studies were dominated by classical music, Roberts played in a jazz band at university. But, he said, he took gigs “very strategically”. “I wasn’t a person who was interested in playing every night. I wanted to study. I entered a few competitions and things like that.” In 1985, when Roberts was 22 and had graduated, this seriousness of intent found its ideal resting place when Marsalis asked him to join his band. “Going on the road with Wynton was the environment that I’d been looking for,” said Roberts.

He flourished in the Marsalis hothouse – “intense is one way of putting it” – and developed into a potent improviser, whose performances are full of angles and twists.

“For me, it’s about having a hundred years or more history at your fingertips at all times,” said Roberts. To be able to utilise that history, a musician needs to be able to grasp the psychology of a style as firmly as the literal transcription. That is when, he said, you can apply the concepts of one era to those of another; when you can “take a Jelly Roll conception and apply it to modern music, or take a modern conception and apply it to early New Orleans music.”

By the time he left Marsalis, in 1991, he was fixed on a band-leading career that, like Duke Ellington, would showcase piano in a variety of formats – his Kings Place residency for the London Jazz Festival ranges from solo performance to working with a big band. And he has the swaggering two-handed fluency to realise another ambition. “Jazz in the 21st century is about integrating the entire history of the music,” he said. With its mix of original repertoire and reinterpreted legacy, he is clearly set on using his Kings Place residency to do just that.

Throughout all those years of focused study Roberts never forgot those important first steps in his mother’s church. When he is on stage, he wants to “let it go ... let it flow in a direction that is more and more on a subconscious level.” Jazz came from turbulent and difficult conditions – as Roberts pointed out, one generation away from slavery in its early years – yet sounded so optimistic and hopeful. Like the music in his mother’s church, jazz music was a way of coping with tough circumstances, and had a healing function that Roberts’ music still delivers.

By its nature, Roberts pointed out, jazz became a portrait of how things should be in a democratic environment. “It’s not enough for you to execute your part,” he said.

“In order to make group improvising work, you have to make room for everybody else to sound good, not just yourself. You have to put what you play at the service of the other musicians.”

The London Jazz Festival runs from November 9-18. Marcus Roberts residency and workshops run from November 15-17 at Kings Place.

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