Marcus Roberts: New Orleans’ Adopted Son

“If you’re in any band and something goes wrong, you should assume that it’s your fault and try to fix it,” virtuosic pianist, composer and educator Marcus Roberts advises his students at Florida State University. “If everybody does that, the problems will be solved.”

Marcus Roberts (piano) with his Trio, including Jason Marsalis and Rodney Jordan.

On Saturday, January 28, Roberts, whose prolific recording career includes over 20 albums as leader, brings his 10-piece student-heavy band, the Modern Jazz Generation, to the George and Joyce Wein Jazz & Heritage Center. The performance stands as a New Orleans debut for the MJG, which released its first album in 2014: Romance, Swing, and the Blues.

“The Modern Jazz Generation came about really due to the genuine interest of these young people that I was teaching,” says Roberts, who is an Associate Professor at the Tallahassee institution. “One by one, I’d occasionally use them for projects or gigs. In 2012, we did a show in New York and the energy in the room and the camaraderie among them was so great, I decided that I wanted to keep this going.”

Though the Florida native has never lived in New Orleans and isn’t blood kin to folks here, he is nonetheless a full-fledged member of the Crescent City’s musical clan. That affinity comes via his long-time association with the Marsalis family. At age 21, Roberts, 53, began performing in trumpeter Wynton Marsalis’ quartet and went on to sit behind the piano in the leader’s quintet, sextet and septet and record extensively with him. In the early 1990s, Roberts teamed with patriarch Ellis Marsalis for a series of duet piano concerts, and he recently got a call from trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis to be a guest on his gig. The pianist’s longest Marsalis musical association has been with drummer/vibraphonist Jason Marsalis, who he scooped up for his trio over 20 years ago when Jason was only 17. Jason will be behind the drums at the MJG’s show along with longtime trio member, bassist Rodney Jordan.

Roberts began playing piano in church before taking formal piano lessons at age 12. At that time, he began learning how to play saxophone and drums and put some youngsters together in order to increase his own musical abilities.

He attended the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, where vocational training, including music, was emphasized. Decades earlier Ray Charles attended the same St. Augustine school.

“All of us knowing that he went there—even as children, we knew that he was successful,” says Roberts of its significance. “And we thought, ‘I’m not going to do what he did, but I should be relatively successful too.’ That’s what heroes are for—to inspire us.”

Roberts, who went on to study classical music at Florida State University, credits Wynton for showing him the ropes. “He showed me how to do a record, how to lead a band, how to select material for a set and ultimately how to build a career,” Roberts says. “I had been teaching, but I didn’t understand the importance of doing it so that you could develop people who would come out here and play.”

“The first thing I tell students when they come into my office is that jazz is about listening to each other,” Roberts continues. “When you really listen to somebody, it’s a sign of respect and that’s really the foundation of our music.”

Roberts, who is also a highly accomplished artist and composer in the classical realm, appreciates the important role that Jason Marsalis has played in the development of the Modern Jazz Generation.

“He’s on top of every single detail of what’s happening on the bandstand,” says Roberts, who praises the drummer for his “rare individuality, imagination, intelligence and passion.” “Frankly, he’s the reason I ended up playing with a trio for so long. I had to find more things for him to do. What keeps a band together is the feeling that we’re not done.”

Besides his deep association with the Marsalis family, Roberts has furthered his ties to New Orleans as a number of Florida State students—including Grammy-nominated drummer/vocalist Jamison Ross, bassist Barry Stephenson and reedman Joe Goldberg—headed to the city.

The Modern Jazz Generation’s upcoming New Orleans show will include original material from Roberts’ pen plus works that he’s arranged. “It’s all the same,” he explains. “It’s like when you hear Thelonious Monk play a standard, you’d think he wrote it because he puts such an individual twist on it.”

Roberts promises that the audience is going to get “a lot of personalities.” “All these young people are part of the band because they bring something special to it. The most important thing is that the audience will get to hear jazz musicians grow in front of their eyes.”

“What I love about jazz is that there is no formula. You find your voice, a context to express it and people who want to hear it and you’re there.”