Jazz musicians are not often profiled on TV’s “60 Minutes,” but the long-running news magazine earlier this year aimed its high-profile lens at one of the best: pianist Marcus Roberts.
The piece, reported by another eminent jazz musician – trumpeter and CBS News cultural correspondent Wynton Marsalis – gave Roberts a degree of popular culture visibility almost unheard of among jazz artists these days. Moreover, it shed light on the man’s keyboard prowess, vast knowledge of piano history and remarkable triumphs over the blindness he incurred at age 5.
In April of 2013, for instance, Roberts played the world premiere of “Spirit of the Blues: Piano Concerto in C Minor,” a massive, three-movement work he penned for himself and his trio, sharing the stage with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. No musical form or challenge seems to be too great for Roberts to address, and he’ll take on another one Friday night in Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center.
Sharing a double-bill with trumpeter Jon Faddis, Roberts will lead what he calls the Modern Jazz Generation, a large ensemble featuring veterans like himself and emerging artists, as well.
“We’ve got three generations represented,” says Roberts who, at 50, considers himself one of the elders of the group – alongside bassist Rodney Jordan.
Drummer Jason Marsalis (Wynton’s brother) and tenor saxophonist Stephen Riley form the middle generation, and “I’ve got four or five of them who are in that young generation, and that’s really the reason that I put the band together in the first place,” explains Roberts.
“I remember being a young guy just wanting to play, and Wynton gave me my first opportunity way back then,” in 1985, when Roberts joined Marsalis’ quartet. Roberts left Marsalis’ employ in 1990 to start his own ensembles.
“These young people, they want to play,” continues Roberts. “There’s not enough gigs for them, there’s not enough opportunity for them. So I’ve got to provide opportunities for them to develop and grow.”
Modern Jazz Generation does that, enabling young musicians not only to work with veterans such as Roberts, Jordan and Jason Marsalis but also to gain the coveted experience of playing major venues such as Symphony Center. In effect, during the past three decades Roberts has matured from young lion to jazz mentor, nurturing an art form that must advocate for itself in a pop culture generally attuned to less-sophisticated fare.
But the concert dates represent just one facet of Roberts’ work with the Modern Jazz Generation. Last August, Roberts took the musicians into the recording studio to document his revised version of “Romance, Swing and the Blues,” an epic worked he premiered in New York under the auspices of Jazz at Lincoln Center in 1993. I attended that performance and was struck by the complexity of the material, the craft with which Roberts developed it and the musical depth of his pianism throughout. The audience apparently had a similar reaction, listeners coming to their feet fully half an hour before the piece ended.
Roberts must have had a great deal of confidence to entrust the young players of Modern Jazz Generation with this major opus, which he plans to release as an album later this year.
“We worked like animals on that music,” says Roberts, with a laugh. “I’m not exaggerating: They were working on that music literally day and night for months. They’d get together on their own and write out practice sessions – how they were going to work on it. It moved me and impressed me with their work ethic.
“One of the problems we have in jazz now (is that ) we’ve got all these different players – this camp and that camp. And these young musicians who, when I first started teaching them, they were all caught up in that stuff too. They barely wanted to work together, barely wanted to talk to each other.
“The music has matured them. … It just tells me that music has a lot to say about how people from diversified groups can come together. And yet the freedom of the music helps them build their discipline.”
For Friday night’s performance, titled “New Orleans Swing Time,” Roberts will offer contemporary perspectives on classic works by Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong, the two primary original architects of the music we call jazz. Few musicians today are more deeply versed in their innovations and philosophies than Roberts.
As for that “60 Minutes” piece (linked on marcusroberts.com), the months-long process of filming it gave the pianist new perspectives on his life in music, he says.
“It made me look at my career kind of wholistically, as a big, almost 30-year period of time” explains Roberts, who in May received an honorary doctorate degree from the Juilliard School.
“We normally don’t think of our careers that way, because we’re usually on to the next project. You do recordings, you teach and you play and, next thing you know, 10 or 20 or 30 years have gone by.”
Clearly Roberts has done a great deal during the past three decades and, like the “60 Minutes” program, the Juilliard doctorate has given him occasion to take stock.
“It’s something I’ll treasure the rest of my life – I have nothing but respect for the standards that they have maintained,” says Roberts. “I was really honored to receive it, and I’ll try to use it as a foundation for the next 30 year.”