By Ricky O’Bannon

Marcus Roberts’ curiosity is not easily satisfied.

The renowned jazz pianist has worked with orchestras and top jazz ensembles, and his discography numbers in the dozens. Long-time band mate Wynton Marsalis describes him as both a genius and elder statesman of the art who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the styles of the great jazz pianists who came before him, which he channels to create something uniquely Marcus Roberts.

But if you ask him, Roberts will say that at 51 years old he’s far from done learning about jazz and mastering his craft.

“The crazy thing is I still feel like I'm at the beginning,” he said. “There's so much more I want to know about it.”

Roberts and the Marcus Roberts Trio — comprised of himself, Jason Marsalis (of the Marsalis jazz family) on drums and Rodney Jordan on bass — will perform George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as part of the season-opening gala Sept. 20. The performance includes an extended cadenza, which allows the trio to improvise on Gershwin’s ideas.

“Gershwin always wrote good themes for jazz musicians … they have the sound of folk blues in them,” Roberts said. “The rhythm is always clear. The chords are fun to play on. I've always found anytime that I play Rhapsody in Blue I have a completely fresh palette of colors that I can hear and play around with.”

Marcus Roberts 350W
Marcus Roberts rehearsing with the BSO.

For Roberts, that endless curiosity developed early and helped him overcome losing his sight at age five. At eight, Roberts’ parents bought him a piano for Christmas.

“It just changed my life,” he said. “I was playing it every day after school.”

For four years, Roberts taught himself by picking out melodies and songs he heard on the radio, such as Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish.” At age 12, Roberts said he first started getting into jazz when he heard a program called Swing Time from a local station in Jacksonville, Florida.

“I used to listen to that every Friday at 6:30 p.m. They would play Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington or Count Basie's big band,” he said. “I mean, it just opened up a whole world of possibilities to me.”

Around that same time, Roberts said he started formal piano training at Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind, which is the alma mater of Ray Charles.

“I was definitely doing everything wrong. I had no idea how to hold my hands on the keyboard. I knew nothing about scales or chords or anything,” he said. “I was just learning stuff that I heard. My first teacher said, ‘Look, you don't want to be an illiterate, blind musician. So you're going to learn.’"

Roberts could already play by ear, but he learned how to read braille music and dictate staff notation so he could communicate and collaborate with other musicians. At the same time, Roberts continued to study and learn the music and history of jazz, and he is as likely to use an idea from a jazz great in conversation as he is at his piano.

“The handicap certainly poses its challenges, but as Duke Ellington used to say, ‘problems are opportunities.’ So it also gives you an opportunity to surmount the adversity or fight through it to a better place,” Roberts said. “Everybody has to do that. Everybody has things in life that you didn't need, but it's there, and the real question is how are you going to react to it? Are you going to fight it and transcend it, or are you going to become a victim of it?”

Roberts said that as a young pianist playing songs he heard on the radio by ear, Stevie Wonder was an inspiration to him.

“Knowing there was another blind musician who was that successful and that well loved, who was that intelligent to communicate with music to a mass audience… it certainly let me know that it could happen,” he said. “I never thought that we would become friends, but we have.”

After Roberts played a show in California, the two hung out and Roberts said they talked about new technology that can aid them and the importance of always staying positive. That positivity and encouragement of knowing what is possible regardless of circumstance is something Roberts said he also tries to pass on to other young musicians who have disabilities who often contact him.

“They do need encouragement and guidance and help solving problems the same way I did when I was that age,” he said. “So it's very important that we protect the development of these young people.”