Part I of II — Read Part II here.

Recently, pianist Marcus Roberts and his trio (bassist Roland Guerlin and drummer Jason Marsalis) played in Portland. Marcus grew up in Florida and in the church; his mom was a gospel singer. After studying jazz in college, he played with Wynton Marsalis for six years. His trio is known for its virtuosic, new approach to jazz.  

Part I of II 

When you were a kid, what kind of music was around you? 

Everything that was on the radio at the time: late ‘60s Marvin Gaye, Jackson 5. My mother would play gospel music early in the morning: Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, all these different gospel groups. I didn’t really start taking formal piano training until the age of 12. One day I was listening to the radio, to an all-star baseball game of all things, and stumbled onto jazz: Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Mary Lou Williams, Benny Goodman, etc. That whet my appetite and got me interested in the music!  

What’s in your background that most people don’t know?  

I think I’m one of the best Monopoly players on the planet. I’ve always thought about entering one of those competitions because I’m pretty sure I can win.

Someone you know has a friend who is unfamiliar with jazz and you’re asked to play a tune that would bring the friend into the jazz fold; what tune would you play?

Probably a blues. Because, believe me, if you don’t have romance or swing in your life, one thing you will have is some blues. ‘Cause something definitely went wrong at some point. So what we do in jazz music, we play the blues. Isn’t snake venom used to cure a snake bite? Well, to play the blues in jazz is to cure the blues in your life. Even the people who created jazz were only two generations out of slavery.  

Ever work with young musicians and think, “I remember that time”?

Absolutely. That’s the beauty of working with young people because they reconnect you with the optimism that you had as a young person who didn’t know anything but wanted to do something. That’s why jazz music requires generational mentorship, because the young person has the desire but has no information. The older person has information. So when you put those two generations together, they can collaborate and make both feel better.  

You speak the language of jazz; how does jazz speak to you? 

Jazz informs my identity. I take issue with folks who say don’t emulate or imitate great artists because you will lose your voice, you won’t have your own identity. Its utter nonsense. It’s like telling someone don’t learn how to read ‘cause it will take you way from being able to write. So what I do is, when I study a jazz musician, say Jelly Roll Morton, I’m trying to figure out the part of Jelly Roll Morton that is also a part of me. But he figured out something about it that’s more profound. Then I study what he figured out about it and add the part that’s me.  

Quick takes: I offer a name; you respond in one or two words.

Jelly Roll Morton – “blues”

Art Tatum – “virtuoso”

Bill Evans – “cerebral”

Nat King Cole – “lovely voice”

Errol Garner – “happy, joyful”

Ellis Marsalis – “dignified”