MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News.
And I'm sitting in Studio 4A, around the corner from my regular studio, very surprised. Now, I said I don't like surprises. And I don't, but I'm going to have to change my mind. I am so excited to be joined by renowned jazz pianist, Marcus Johnson and members of his trio, bassist Sean Geason and drummer Dwayne Thomas. I'm going to settle in and get my heart rate down. And Marcus, you have something for us?
(Soundbite of song "Maxin")
MARTIN: That was great. That was just great. That was Maxin from your latest CD "In Concert for a Cause." Thank you so much.
Mr. MARCUS JOHNSON (Jazz Pianist): Happy birthday.
MARTIN: Thank you. Now, Marcus, it has to be said, we are not strangers.
Mr. JOHNSON: No.
Mr. JOHNSON: No, not at all.
MARTIN: I think you played at another special day.
Mr. JOHNSON: That was your wedding.
MARTIN: That was my wedding. Yes it was. That was a little bit of time ago. Do I look different?
Mr. JOHNSON: You look the same.
MARTIN: Oh, wow. OK.
Mr. JOHNSON: Better.
MARTIN: Thank you. Thank you.
Mr. JOHNSON: Life is good.
MARTIN: That was the answer I was hoping for..
Mr. JOHNSON: But hey, that's the right answer.
MARTIN: But, you know, I confess, I know your music, but I don't know much about you. I'd like to know a little more about you. I understand that your story as a musician begins with somebody in your family winning the lottery? Is that true?
Mr. JOHNSON: My stepfather won the Pick-3 lottery and bought my first keyboard. You know, and right before that, actually, my father had taken me to an Earth, Wind and Fire concert. So, I am one of those people who has, you know, I have a stepmother, stepfather, but everybody was involved in my musical development.
MARTIN: That's great. And not just your musical development. As I understand it, you have a very interesting background. You have a graduate degree in business. You also have a law degree?
Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, I got my JD MBA from Georgetown back in 1997.
MARTIN: Why did you want to do that?
Mr. JOHNSON: You know, getting into the music industry, you really learn early that it is an industry. And I had a pretty bad experience back when I was about nineteen or twenty. And I said, I'll never be on this side of the desk again. And so I came back and studied for my LSAT. And I come from a family of doctors, so most of my brothers and sisters are doctors. And then I had - there's one other lawyer who wanted to follow my track who went to Georgetown as well and got her JD and MBA, or JD from Georgetown.
MARTIN: Oh my goodness. Very self-sufficient. If you fall down, somebody could heal you. If you need to sue somebody you got that all set. You're so terrific. And you produce and distribute your own work. Is that right?
Mr. JOHNSON: Yes. We have a company called Three Keys Music, based right in the Washington, D.C. area in Silver Spring. I was blessed enough a few years ago to run into Robert Johnson, the founder of BET. And he helped fund the company. And we have a recording studio, a couple of music publishing companies. We've been producing artists now for going-on six years. It's amazing.
MARTIN: And when do you sleep?
Mr. JOHNSON: You know, I got two hours of sleep. I just got back from Atlanta late last night, you know, about 2 o'clock. And you know, I don't need to sleep with what I do. This is our passion, and I think I can speak for Dwayne and Sean on this. And you know, we'll sleep on the other side.
MARTIN: OK. Can I get you to play something else for us?
Mr. JOHNSON: Of course.
MARTIN: I think - what are you going to play?
Mr. JOHNSON: This is "The Road to Los Suenos," which is the dream. It's a resort actually that I stumbled upon actually in Costa Rica and I guess inspired this tune.
MARTIN: All right.
(Soundbite of the song "The Road to Los Suenos")
MARTIN: You're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. And the Marcus Johnson Jazz Trio is here for a surprise performance for our anniversary show. That was "The Road to Los Suenos" from the "Phoenix" CD. That was great. That was great. And I mention that Marcus and the trio played at our wedding. This is actually much better because I was so nervous I don't think I heard a single thing. Everybody raved about the music, but I'm like I don't know, I'm sure it was good.
Mr. JOHNSON: I was just proud. You know, one of my role models has been Billy, so you know.
MARTIN: That's great.
Mr. JOHNSON: It's been a great thing.
MARTIN: That's great. What drew you to jazz?
Mr. JOHNSON: Probably the fact that I couldn't sing and I couldn't rap, so - no. My parents introduced me early to jazz and once I showed an interest, my older sister definitely pushed me through, got me some Quincy Jones albums, George Duke, Miles Davis. And my high-school band director Ray Harry, definitely just inspired me to look at the beauty of the music. And then, jazz is the basis for everything else. I mean, I know cats that are into jazz that are actually, you know, producing cats like Jay-Z. And, people don't know that. You know, the basis of every, you know, if you ask me the basis of contemporary music is really in the jazz sequence.
MARTIN: Now, we've been having a debate on this program and on our blog about whether jazz is in trouble, you know. And whether younger audiences particularly appreciate it - whether particularly because the live performance venues in some ways are closed. And what's your take on that?
Mr. JOHNSON: It really depends on where you are and what city. I think what's wrong with - I think there is a problem. And I think that the thing that we really need to do is make sure that we don't confine jazz to, you know, a formal shirts and bowties. And when you go to where we play like every week, say at Ozio's in Washington, D.C. We have young professionals that want to move their, you know, necks back and forth. I call it the neck factor. And, you know, when you confine music, and you don't let it have its soul and you don't let it speak, then you have a problem. The other thing is introducing it and you have to go into schools. I went into a high school in Alexandria a couple of weeks ago. And a 17-year-old student came to me and said, you know, Marcus, look - can I call you Marcus or do I have to call you Mr. Johnson? Of course, call me M.J. And she was like, you know, I love Miles Davis and, you know, obviously, it was a young Arab student named Dahlia that was like I love jazz. And that blew my world. I also have done a couple of things where we've done contests. You'd be shocked by the people who win. And I think when we understand that jazz is inclusive of everybody, of all the experiences of America, I think it's a great thing. And I think jazz almost, you know, one of my friends and I debate the fact that jazz has almost transcended the genre. It's more of a demographic now. And you know, you have 17-year-olds or 16-year-olds that come to see us at Blue's Alley, you also have 80-year-olds that come to see us at Blue's Alley, or in Cannes, France, or, you know, in Paris, or in, you know, Southeast Washington, D.C. at Fort DuPont. So, I think when we start seeing that, and that we don't have to separate it we can do some great things.
MARTIN: Yeah. It's almost like Duke Ellington. People say to him he's beyond category, right?
Mr. JOHNSON: You know.
MARTIN: Just briefly, your latest CD is "In Concert for a Cause." Tell us about that.
Mr. JOHNSON: Yes. "In Concert for a Cause" is a CD where one dollar goes to the YMCA's Building Bridges campaign. I'm on the board of the Silver Spring Y. And I do all that I can to help, and I think, you know, in law school I realized after being a nerd and memorizing the constitution that, you know, there's such a thing as we the people. And that is the only thing that's going to get us out of these troubles that were, you know, we're seemingly facing right now. And that's each of us doing what we do. And it's not just every four years. It's not during the election campaign cycle, it's every day. So, if I can do my part to give a dollar and help a kid go to school, or a family that needs help, why not?
MARTIN: "In Concert for a Cause," every dollar from each sale goes to the YMCA. Marcus, this has been - and guys - this has been a terrific gift. Thank you so much. Before you play us out we're going to welcome some well wishers into the studio who come to wish us a happy anniversary. We just couldn't keep it all to ourselves. I could, but they were going to bust in anyway.
Mr. JOHNSON: Sure. We have to share, share, share.
MARTIN: And you're going to play us out on something? What do you think you want to play us out on?
Mr. JOHNSON: Well, you know, what, we actually in learning the theme song, we were like, you know, I may have to come in here and record this on the next record. So, you know, a mixture of, like, Ozio, which is on the new CD.
Mr. JOHNSON: And the theme song for Tell Me More.
MARTIN: I love it. I love it. Our guests in the studio are jazz pianists Marcus Johnson, bassist Sean Geason, drummer Dwayne Thomas. Together they are the Marcus Johnson Trio. You can check out our website, npr.org/tellmemore to a link to the trio's website. This is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Thank you for helping us celebrate our first anniversary show and we'll talk more tomorrow.
Mr. JOHNSON: And congratulations.
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