The Jazz Explorer


Think “Jazz Renaissance Man,” and the name that quickly comes to mind is that of Wynton Marsalis. And with good cause.

But the high-profile trumpeter and artistic director of the Lincoln Center Jazz program is beginning to receive some major competition for the title from one of his own former sidemen--pianist Marcus Roberts.

In the past few years, Roberts has led his own trio; fronted a 12-piece band playing his compositions; created a jazz-based re-interpretation of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”; composed a 70-minute work, “Romance, Swing and the Blues” via a commission from Jazz at Lincoln Center; and served as music director for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra’s 1994 tour. He is, in addition, the first artist to have his initial three albums hit the No. 1 slot on Billboard’s traditional jazz chart.


On Saturday, at the Veterans Wadsworth Theater, the 34-year-old Roberts will display his skills in their most essential form via a solo piano program titled “Evolution of Blues & Swing.” The concert will explore what he describes as “a lot of traditional repertoire from between, say, 1900 and 1945.”

“I’ll do some Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton,” he says, “some Fats Waller or James P. Johnson. And the objective will be to present some modern approaches to that music--to try some different things that weren’t available at the time.”

Roberts sees solo playing as one important facet in an “artistic mission to present the instrument in all its forms.” Beyond that quest, however, he obviously enjoys the wide open playing field that unaccompanied performance provides.

“When you play solo,” he explains, “you don’t have to share the space. When I’m playing alone, I can determine, on the spur of the moment, how I want the music to be organized. If I want to suddenly go from A major to A flat, it’s no big deal. There’s no one there who I have to communicate that to, or tell beforehand, or hope that they get it while it’s happening. I’m free to explore the piano freely.”

But solo playing alone could never satisfy Roberts’ roving creativity. Over the course of seven albums on RCA/Novus and four on Columbia/Sony, his energies have been driven by a constantly probing musical curiosity.

In part, Roberts’ open-minded receptivity and persistent inquisitiveness trace to an omnivorous musical training. A student of Leonidus Lipovetsky (who, in turn, studied with Russian pianist Rosina Lhevinne) during his undergraduate work at Florida State University, Roberts also mentions Van Cliburn, James P. Johnson, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Art Tatum as primary influences.

“It’s all music,” he says. “And the thing that you look for is what makes it all connect. What is the thread that brings it all together?”

Roberts began to find connecting threads after he left college. A meeting with Marsalis after winning a piano competition conducted by the International Assn. of Jazz Educators in 1982 had a profound impact. Hired to fill the piano chair, he anchored the rhythm section of Marsalis’ groups from 1985 to 1991, and found his musical eclecticism and fascination with historical overviews resonating with Marsalis’ own convictions.

“What I’m proposing artistically, and what I believe Wynton is proposing,” he says, “is to study the forms and harmonies that were developed in classical music, and to find some way to integrate them with the freedom that is in jazz music. By that, I mean, the freedom of improvisation, the sound of blues music as it was developed in this culture--a new thing that wasn’t developed anywhere else.

“If we combine and gain inspiration from both philosophies it will help break the soil of what I feel over the next hundred years will be a new music--a music that will have more than jazz in it.”

Roberts believes that such musical transformations will require that jazz be viewed from the same broad, inclusive perspective applied to classical music.

“When people play Mozart,” he says, “nobody is suggesting that you are reactivating or resurrecting something that has lost its value. And if we had the same respect and reverence for Duke Ellington today that Mozart and Beethoven had in the 19th century, I think we’d move a lot quicker toward the goals I’m speaking of.”

Roberts himself is moving toward those goals at full speed. Blind since the age of 5 when his vision was destroyed by cataracts, he reads and writes music in Braille and functions easily in every imaginable musical setting.

If he moves on stage carefully, one hand on the arm of a companion, caution disappears when he begins to play. He segues easily between conducting his large ensemble, signaling for solos and ensemble passages, jauntily cruising through a solo program of ragtime and stride music and performing a classical piece as soloist with an orchestra.

“Everything that I’m doing is starting to feel as though it’s a natural progression,” Roberts says. “That’s just something that takes time, but at this stage of the game, I’m pretty clear about what I’m doing. So I just get out there and do it.”


Marcus Roberts at the Veterans Wadsworth Theater, Wilshire and San Vicente boulevards, Brentwood, Saturday, 8 p.m. Tickets $30, $27 and $13 (for UCLA students with valid I.D.). (310) 825-2101. Roberts also performs Sunday at Mandeville Auditorium at UC San Diego. (619) 534-6467.