Jazz Great On CBS And In Montana

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Pam Linn

People often ask me why I live in Montana, as though the state is so far from civilization that it couldn’t possibly offer anything more than gorgeous scenery. 

Well, it has that, of course, but Bozeman, where I live, is also a university town and provides all the cultural amenities associated with large cities, along with all the convenience of small towns. Home to Montana State University and its affiliated Museum of the Rockies, Bozeman is small but steeped in culture. The city’s symphony orchestra, led by Matthew Savery, has tremendous support from the community and is fabulous. I’ve attended more concerts here in the past decade than I did in Los Angeles during all the years I was growing up. Traffic here is non-existent (10 cars at a stop sign is a Montana traffic jam) and one can drive or ride the bus to anything in less than 10 minutes. 

I was reminded of this while walking down Main Street a few weeks ago, spotting the marquee over the Ellen Theater announcing the great jazz pianist Marcus Roberts’ one-night concert. I bought a ticket, for that night one of the last available, wondering how a musician of his stature could afford to play such a small venue. 

The last time I saw and heard Roberts was about two decades ago at Pepperdine where I interviewed him for this paper. He was already one of the best jazz pianists ever and he has only continued to grow in the ensuing years. 

Winton Marsalis interviewed Roberts for CBS’s “60 Minutes,” which aired Sunday. What a treat. Marsalis calls him the greatest musician nobody ever heard of. 

Roberts lost his sight at five years of age from the effects of severe cataracts. His mother was also blinded by glaucoma. 

Noticing that whenever they visited a home with a piano the youngster was attracted to the instrument and picked out tunes he heard, his parents saved their money and bought a piano for him. He taught himself to play whatever he heard on the radio, including Stevie Wonder, with whom he developed a kinship because of their blindness. 

“I played with just four fingers on each hand because nobody ever told me I could use the thumbs.” 

By the age if 12, after hearing Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train,” he says he was hooked. 

“Forty years later he’s at the top of his game,” Marsalis said, noting that Roberts had played Gershwin before 15,000 people with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Seiji Ozawa. 

Marsalis asked him to mimic the styles of Errol Garner, George Shearing and others, including Thelonius Monk, whom Marsalis calls the “Picasso of the piano.” Finally, he played Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” in the style of the late, great Art Tatum. I know it’s a cliché, but when I closed my eyes, I heard Tatum. 

“It’s about the search for that higher level of virtuosity, that higher level of intimacy with music,” he told Marsalis. “If you are one of the lucky ones to be able to do what you want to do then you are blessed.” 

From Roberts’ first gig at his local Baptist church to the classical training he received in Florida at the School for the Deaf and Blind, he embraced education and was inspired by visiting musicians. He now has informational devices that allow him to access the Internet using Braille. 

Onstage at the Ellen, he consulted his tablet computer inconspicuously several times during the performance, I can only assume to look up tune lists and the appropriate keys. 

He was also kind enough to compliment the small combo of high school age players that opened for him. 

When he spoke to me at Pepperdine after his concert decades ago, I asked why he chose Monk’s tune “Round Midnight,” which almost every jazz pianist had played at one time or another. He replied, “I never play a tune unless I have something new to say about it.” 

Well, whether in Bozeman or on “60 Minutes,” we can rest assured that Roberts still has a lot to say.