A Jazz Man's Success Story

Marcus Roberts wins fans with his band-leading efforts. MUSIC: INTERVIEW

SIX years ago, jazz fans and music journalists alike were applauding the talents of pianist Marcus Roberts, a then-new member of the Wynton Marsalis Quartet. Today, Mr. Roberts garners respect as a solo artist and band leader in his own right.

After three No. 1 albums on Billboard's traditional jazz chart, Roberts released his fifth, entitled "As Serenity Approaches" (Novus), last month. In spite of that enviable track record, Roberts feels his success story is part of a much grander picture and gives credit where he feels it is due.

"Anybody who has led a band in the history of jazz started off playing in somebody else's band," Roberts explains, in a phone interview from Washington, D.C.

Citing historical examples of great band leaders who have produced other great band leaders, he says: "Miles Davis played with Bird [Charlie Parker], and John Coltrane played with Miles. So for me, I can't tell you how invaluable it was for me to play with Wynton for a half a decade, to really benefit from someone else's experiences."

Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, has observed the success of both Marsalis and Roberts. "Wynton has proven to be a fine teacher, and he's obviously a talent finder," Mr. Morgenstern observes. "I think in due time he, like Miles Davis, might bring a whole slew of talented players who will go on to have their own careers."

In addition to Roberts, former Marsalis group members who have gone on to become prominent individuals in the jazz community include brother Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland, Jeff Watts, Bob Hurst, and Charnett Moffett. "Marcus certainly seems to be gifted in that respect, too," Morgenstern adds. "He has a kind of charisma ... which obviously transmits itself to his sidemen. He seems to have very clear ideas about what he wants to do."

"I think the only way you can really keep something perpetuated is if you can pass on information that you have to other people who want it," Roberts says. "A band is a lot like a team. Everybody has to have the same philosophy and a certain type of spiritual connection in order for the music to resonate in a certain way."

Ellis Marsalis, who is Wynton's father, former teacher, and two-time recording partner, performs with Roberts on one tune of "As Serenity Approaches." "Both Wynton and Marcus are very good band leaders, essentially because they are both serious students of the music," he says. Mr. Marsalis describes both band leaders' styles as "authoritarian." He goes on to clarify: "Both are coming from the standpoint of having dealt with the music. So the music" and not the ego, Marsalis asserts, "becomes the primary objective."

Yet one might suspect that band leaders would feel betrayed if their members left to start their own careers. But Roberts, who made the jump and left Marsalis's group in 1990, reports otherwise: "Wynton was one of the ones who told me that it was time to do that," says Roberts. "And he certainly has and continues to do anything he can to perpetuate the direction I'm going in.

"If I walked up on his bandstand tonight, I would have no problem playing the music he wanted to play," Roberts comments.

So does the idea of his own band members leaving his group one day worry him?

"Oh no," Roberts says. "The band is also like a family: You always want your kids to do better than you, if possible, so I'm always very pleased about any progress that any of them make."

In the end, however, supportive band leaders can take a jazz musician only so far.

"The bottom line is talent and ability," Morgenstern offers. "Whatever else you get in the way of advantages and opportunities will have to be followed through. Otherwise, you become one of Andy Warhol's 15-minute celebrities. In jazz, it takes staying power to establish yourself," he says.

Ellis Marsalis and Marcus Roberts will be winding up a joint tour with performances April 11 in Mountainview, Calif.; April 12 in Reno, N.Y.; and April 24 in Madison, Wisc.

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