Marcus Roberts: Playing Jazz History Under Modern Guises The pianist is a jazz instructor now, but he remains a lifelong student of the music. He visits NPR's performance studio to demonstrate his own approach to the classic tunes of jazz greats, as heard on his new album, New Orleans Meets Harlem, Vol. 1.

Marcus Roberts: 'Playing The History Of Jazz'

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

Jazz pianist Marcus Roberts has experienced plenty of success in his career. He was invited to tour with the legendary trumpeter, Wynton Marsalis, at the age of 21. In 1989 he began releasing solo albums, and his first three went straight to number one on the jazz charts.

For the last five years he's added teaching to his touring and recording schedule. He's a professor at Florida State University, but he's also a student of the history of jazz. Roberts specializes in taking compositions from past giants of jazz and updating them with his own signature style.

His latest album is "New Orleans Meets Harlem, Volume 1," and it traces the history of jazz from the Crescent City to New York. He explores a variety of composers, from Jelly Roll Morton to Duke Ellington to Thelonious Monk. Marcus Roberts stopped by Studio 4A, and as he sat at the piano, I asked him to play a classic Jelly Roll Morton song as the composer would have played it and then to update it with his own style.

MARCUS ROBERTS: This is "New Orleans Blues" and it was written - Jelly Roll Morton was probably 15 or 16. It's his first composition. And we hear in the left hand this habanera type of rhythm, which he said was essential to New Orleans music, this Spanish feeling.


ROBERTS: Now, based on that, if I want to play this more according to his sound inside of my style, I might change the rhythm up a little bit and change some things. So I may say...


NORRIS: You hear Jelly Roll Morton in there, but there's much more garnish.

ROBERTS: Yeah. That's the beauty of jazz music is that we're able to manipulate and change the original version of something. But our goal is always to keep intact the underpinning of it. We don't want to change the general intent.

NORRIS: I had read once that if you listen closely to jazz and if you listen closely to the blues, what you're hearing is the meeting of the country folk and the city folk.

ROBERTS: All right now, that's precisely right. It is a music that is not concerned with just the aristocratic values or the, quote, unquote, "lower-end attitudes." It's really about the coming together of seemingly opposing things, so that tension, that syncopation in rhythm and melody and blues timbre creates, is really the essence of our whole culture struggle. It's the reconciliation of differences. So it's true. It's the city and the country, the old and the new. All this comes together in our music.

NORRIS: You know, this is almost like a travelogue. We begin in New Orleans and then we head to New York City and to Harlem. And you feature here a New York pianist, Fats Waller. You say in the liner notes that Fats Waller is the quintessential Harlem stride pianist. Let's listen to the version of "Jitterbug Waltz" on the CD.


NORRIS: And there behind you, we hear Roland Guerin on bass and Jason Marsalis on drums.


ROBERTS: When we play, we're always interested in playing the history of jazz all the time, like whatever we need to express the song or the mood that we're creating. So we need the history of our culture available to us for inspiration when we improvise.

NORRIS: Now, while we're in New York, I wonder if we can talk a little bit about Duke Ellington.

ROBERTS: Oh yeah, of course. Got to talk about him.

NORRIS: Tell me about the song that you included, "Pie Eye Blues." And I'm wondering here, when he's talking about pie eyes, is he talking about that slang word for having a - being over-served?

ROBERTS: You know what?


NORRIS: If you visited the local tavern.

ROBERTS: I actually thought it was maybe like a nickname for somebody in his big band. Honestly, to be real honest with you, I'm not 100 percent sure. I think it could be either one or both.


NORRIS: It's a rich sound. It's white-gloved jazz, but at the same time, you absolutely get the sense that people could enjoy this in a back country honky- tonk.

ROBERTS: Thank you. Definitely. He could take you to the depths or to the heights in less than one measure. And you could tell that he wanted his music to capture the full range of emotion, and passion, dignity, sophistication, raunchiness, everything. He wanted all of that to be reflected in his music.


NORRIS: Every one of the artists that you feature, that you interpret on the CD is someone who was an innovator, who improved the music by taking it, making it his own, pushing it forward, including Thelonious Monk.

ROBERTS: Oh my god, yes. Yeah. My goodness. I think his big contribution was just the modern thinking and the intellect behind his approach. But yet, it has such an earthiness at the root of it. Once I got into his playing, some kind of way, I connected to it. I don't know, you know, what that was about.

NORRIS: What did you connect to? What spoke to you?

ROBERTS: I think the rhythm. I think the rhythm and just the soul, just the modern way that he would use blues' intention. Like, he'll put two notes together that shouldn't go, okay? So he'll play...


ROBERTS: These two notes...


ROBERTS: Like, this is (unintelligible), the pretty one, this is the one that's, like, not in the key, and he just puts them together.


ROBERTS: So something about that always made sense to me.

NORRIS: As I listen to you, it is so clear that you are a real ambassador for jazz. You have studied this.



NORRIS: Inside and out.

ROBERTS: Well, you know, it's important, I believe, to be able to explain clearly to people what you do, why you love doing it and why they should care about it.

NORRIS: Marcus Roberts, thank you so much for coming to Studio 4A. It's been a pleasure to talk to you.

ROBERTS: Oh, it's been my pleasure. Thank you so much.

NORRIS: Now, would you mind taking us out with something?

ROBERTS: I would love to.

NORRIS: Can we say goodbye on the keys?

ROBERTS: You can. All right, here we go.


NORRIS: You can hear songs from Marcus Roberts' new album, "New Orleans Meets Harlem, Volume 1," at


NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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