At age 5, pianist
Marcus Roberts lost his sight, a victim of cataracts and glaucoma.
attending Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, a school that also helped launch
the career of legendary recording artist Ray Charles, Roberts began playing
of course, is a household name. Marcus Roberts, on the other hand, is known
mostly in jazz circles, leading trumpeter Wynton
Marsalis to call him “the greatest American musician most people have never
can hear Marcus Roberts yourself as soloist in Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” at
the Grand Rapids Symphony’s “Symphony with Soul” at 8 p.m. Saturday, February
27, in DeVos Performance Hall. Tickets start at $18.
pianist who came up through the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra led by
Marsalis joins the Grand Rapids Symphony along with the Marcus Roberts Trio for
the 15th annual celebration of multicultural music.
Lockington, who launched “Symphony with Soul” in 2001 during his tenure as
music director of the orchestra, returns to the Grand Rapids Symphony podium
for the first time since he stepped down from the post in May 2015 to become
music director laureate.
The evening of
jazz and blues, gospel and spirituals features the Grand Rapids Symphony
Community Chorus, directed by Duane Shields Davis. The program opens with the
rousing “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” and concludes with Davis’ original work,
“The Call,” for chorus and orchestra, joined by Roberts as piano soloist.
his trio, which includes Wynton Marsalis’ younger brother, Jason Marsalis, on
drums, will be part of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s annual, community-wide
concert, preceded by “Celebration of Soul,” a gala dinner celebrating diversity
and inclusion initiatives in West Michigan.
Marcus Roberts, who
has been profiled on “60 Minutes,” who served as artist-in-residence for the
2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City and who appeared on NBC’s “Saturday
Night Live” in 1987, is known for developing an entirely new approach to jazz
of “Rhapsody in Blue” features his trio in a performance with three musicians
sharing the spotlight equally.
what the people will be able to hear is that the bass and drums have equal
position to the piano in the group,” Roberts recently told the St. Louis
Post-Dispatch, prior to appearing last week in a four-night engagement.
I think, gives the group a lot more variety, and a lot more nuance,” said
Roberts, who is an assistant professor of jazz studies at Florida State
52, grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, where his mother’s love of singing and
the music of the local church left a lasting impact on him. After losing his
sight at age 5, he began teaching himself to play piano and had his first
formal lesson at age 12. Roberts later went on to study classical piano at
Florida State University with Leonidas Lipovetsky. Today, he mentors young
musicians as an assistant professor of jazz at his alma mater.
got his first big break in 1985 as pianist in Wynton Marsalis’ quartet, which
had been a quintet before the departure of Marsalis’ saxophone-playing brother,
Branford, and pianist Kenny Kirkland.
Roberts became the first winner of the inaugural Thelonious Monk International
Jazz Competition, an annual competition that focuses on a different instrument
every year. But among the competitions he’s won and awards he’s received, the one
that’s most meaningful for Roberts personally is the Helen Keller Award for
has earned praise for albums including “The Truth Is Spoken Here,” released in
1988, and two years later with “Alone with Three Giants,” featuring solo
performances of works by Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Jelly Roll Morton.
His discography also includes albums for RCA Novus, Columbia and other labels.
project is an EP recording titled “Race for the White House” featuring songs
meant to capture the personalities of four of the
current candidates for U.S. president.
“You can’t turn on the television without some daily update
on these various candidates, and there just seems to be such a difference in
every character,” Roberts said recently in an interview with the New Yorker.
“And, of course, I’m not really looking at these people. I’m just listening to
them, and they all have different personalities, temperaments, voice, rate of
speed. It dawned on me that it would be interesting to try to capture a little
bit of that in music.”
original material is titled “It’s My Turn” for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton,
“I Did Chop Down that Cherry Tree” for Republican hopeful Ben Carson,
America Great Again (All By Myself)” is the title of his piece for GOP frontrunner
Donald Trump, and “Feel the Bern” is the name of his song for Democratic candidate
musicians and politicians have one thing in common: They make stuff up as they
go along, Roberts said.
“We’re kind of a lot like these candidates when they’re
at these town halls. When they’re being interviewed, people ask you all kinds
of crazy stuff, and you’ve got to think quick on your feet,” Roberts told the
New Yorker. “So I thought it would be kind of cool to try to write some music
that would in some way describe these personalities.”