Marcus Roberts and band bring democracy to life

Marcus Roberts plays at a special forum on Feb. 25. Roberts taught himself to play the piano after losing his sight at age five. (Emma Willes)

Marcus Roberts and his band “The Modern Jazz Generation” treated the BYU forum audience to a jazz performance in an effort to teach democratic principles.

The band featured Roberts on piano, Rodney Jordan on bass, Jason Marsalis on drums, Ron Westray on trombone, Alphonso Horne and Tim Blackmon on the trumpet, Tissa Khosla on baritone saxophone, Ricardo Pascal and Stephen Riley on the tenor saxophone and Joe Goldberg on the alto saxophone and clarinet. BYU English professor Greg Clark, who explored jazz and democracy in his book, “Civic Jazz: American Music and Kenneth Burke on the Art of Getting Along,” also performed alongside the band.

“Ultimately, I think democracy is about friendship,” Clark said to begin the presentation. He said responding positively to others is a choice that is dependent on learning and practicing values that sustain the kinds of relationships that help people stay together.

“What does this have to do with jazz?” Clark said. “Watch.” 

Roberts and The Modern Jazz Generation played a piece composed by Roberts, eliciting excited cheers from forum audience members. The band members continued to play music demonstrating the principles they taught throughout the forum. 

BYU professor Greg Clark performs alongside the band. (Emma Willes)

“You’ll see in here today how making this music, just like living well together, requires of all of us, equality and sacrifice,” Clark said.

Roberts said losing his sight at five years old was the first time he became aware that life isn’t always fair. “It was the beginning of understanding that, to thrive in this world, we must all depend on one another in some way.”

His band has developed interdependency by working and playing together, Roberts said. “But we’ve also learned to depend on and trust one another in order to create something greater together than any of us could have created alone.”

A desire for democracy incited the creation of jazz in the first place, Roberts said. The early jazz musicians, just a few decades out of slavery, created a democratic structure for themselves, even though they couldn’t participate in American democracy. “Through the music, they created a system of equality that allowed everyone’s voice to be heard and everyone’s talent to shine,” he said.

After a performance from the band demonstrating life’s changing circumstances, drummer Marsalis explained the unique characteristics of Roberts’ band that makes it “the sounds of democracy in action.”

There is a fundamental equality and respect between the musicians, Marsalis said. “For this to work, the leader has to share in controlling the direction of the music,” he said. “This is not true of most jazz bands because jazz musicians are imperfect, just like the rest of America.”

The band members said they have learned to value each voice in the band equally, including their own. Even with that respect, conflict still occurs, saxophonist Pascal said. “And it has to be resolved if we are going to stay together, work together or make music together,” he said. “Unresolved conflict makes true communication impossible.”

The key to resolving conflict is communication and collaboration, according to trumpeter Blackmon.

“Problems are opportunities,” Roberts said. “One way my momma taught me to cope with my disability was to always use adversity as a stepping stone to success.”

The Modern Jazz Generation performs at the Feb. 25 forum. The band relies on democratic principles to make music together. (Emma Willes)

Band members also spoke about the importance of mentorship. “Our band is a community of musicians, and we learn to play this music in the ideal way by helping one another along the way,” Pascal said. 

“It doesn’t matter how skilled you are or if you’re struggling, you’ll be given an opportunity to grow and to address your inadequacies. That’s true mentoring,” trumpeter Horne said.

Mentoring is vital to the development of character, Roberts said. “We all have the responsibility to serve as a mentor to others and to pass our support and knowledge on to the next generation.”

Clark ended the forum by expressing his hope that those in attendance appreciated the great music and gained a better understanding of democracy. He outlined four takeaway lessons: (1) acknowledge and accept everyone’s essential equality, (2) be willing to sacrifice elements of your own agenda, (3) commit to resolving conflict through listening and communicating and (4) practice these principles as you mentor others.

“What it all comes down to is this,” he said, “working together to nourish democratic character will make each of us a better person than we ever could have imagined on our own.” 

Forum audience members gave the band a standing ovation and a Q&A followed the forum.

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