Pianist/composer, Marcus Roberts, has been hailed “the genius of the modern piano”. In 2014, the celebrated CBS News television show, 60 Minutes, profiled his life and work on a segment entitled “The Virtuoso”. The show traced Roberts’ life to date from his early roots in Jacksonville and at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind to his remarkable career as a modern jazz musician.
Roberts grew up in Jacksonville, FL where his mother’s gospel singing and the music of the local church left a lasting impact on his own musical style. Three years after losing his sight at age five, his parents bought him a piano and he began to teach himself to play. He had his first formal lesson at age 12 but despite that late start, he progressed quickly through hard work and good teachers. Roberts won his first of many piano competitions at age 17 (Mayport Jazz Festival, Jacksonville, FL, 1980) and then two years later he won the Young Artists Award at the National Association of Jazz Educators annual meeting. Of the many awards and competitions that he has won over the years, the one that is most personally meaningful to him is the Helen Keller Award for Personal Achievement. From Keller’s writings and his own family background, Roberts learned much about hope, optimism, and achievement that has stayed with him over the years.
At age 18, Roberts went to study classical piano at Florida State University with the great Leonidas Lipovetsky, a former student of the celebrated Madame Rosina Lhévinne. Lipovetsky was a brilliant and demanding teacher with an appreciation for both the jazz and classical idioms. Roberts left Florida State in 1985 to tour with jazz trumpeter, Wynton Marsalis, where he spent six transformative years. During that time, he was developing his own style and ideas about jazz performance.
Roberts is now known throughout the world for his creation of an entirely new approach to the jazz trio. He is also known for his remarkable ability to blend the jazz and classical idioms to create something wholly new while retaining the authenticity of each art form. In 1995, he hired drummer Jason Marsalis and bassist Roland Guerin to anchor his new trio conception in which the bass and drums had roles that were equal to that of the piano rather than playing traditional accompanying roles. In 1996, his Sony Classical recording (Portraits in Blue) was among the first to fully integrate the jazz and classical genres.
Roberts’ critically-acclaimed legacy of recorded music reflects this tremendous artistic versatility as well as his unique approach to jazz performance. His recordings include solo piano, duets, and trio arrangements of jazz standards as well as original suites of music for trio, large ensembles, and symphony orchestra. His popular DVD recording with the Berlin Philharmonic showcases his ground-breaking arrangement of Gershwin’s Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra (A Gershwin Night, EuroArts 2003).
Roberts launched his own record label, J-Master Records, in 2009. Since then he has released several popular recordings on that label including New Orleans Meets Harlem, Volume 1 (trio), Deep in the Shed: A Blues Suite (nonet), Celebrating Christmas (trio), From Rags to Rhythm (trio), Together Again: Live in Concert (quartet), Together Again: In the Studio (quartet), Romance, Swing, and the Blues (with the Modern Jazz Generation), and Trio Crescent: Celebrating Coltrane. Two new releases are planned for 2020.
Roberts continues to tour with his long-standing trio featuring two phenomenal musicians—Rodney Jordan (bass) and Jason Marsalis (drums). Marsalis has held the drum chair in the trio for over 25 years and when this trio performs, they sound like they have been performing together for decades. One of Roberts’ more recent musical projects is the founding of a new band called “The Modern Jazz Generation”. This multigenerational ensemble is the realization of Roberts’ long-standing dedication to training and mentoring younger jazz musicians. Both Marsalis and Jordan are also key founding members of this band.
In addition to his renown as a performer, Roberts is also an accomplished composer who has received numerous commissioning awards, including ones from Chamber Music America, Jazz at Lincoln Center, ASCAP, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and the Savannah Music Festival who co-commissioned him to write his first piano concerto—”Spirit of the Blues: Piano Concerto in C-Minor” (2013). In 2016, Roberts premiered his second piano concerto (“Rhapsody in D for Piano and Orchestra”) at the Ozawa Music Festival in Matsumoto, Japan. That piece was commissioned by Seiji Ozawa and the Saito Kinen Orchestra. The piece was featured in a concert at last year’s Savannah Music Festival.
Finally, Roberts has long been dedicated to the training and development of younger musicians. At the Savannah Music Festival, he serves as an Associate Artistic Director as well as the Director of the annual Swing Central Jazz programs that bring high school students from all over the country for educational programs and a jazz band competition. Roberts is an associate professor of music at the School of Music at Florida State University. He holds an honorary Doctor of Music degree from The Juilliard School.