Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Best Birthday Party Ever

He was born in the ghetto, on a street barely wide enough for two cars to pass. He was raised in a little cinder block shack in one of the poorest, and most dangerous, areas of the city. An area pockmarked by failed industry and Superfund pollution. Like his mother, he also was born blind.
Now a professor of Jazz Studies at Florida State University, Marcus Roberts is one of the premier jazz musicians living today.
I first met Marcus when he won the inaugural Great Piano Jazz Competition of the Jacksonville Jazz Festival. Another youngster, Harry Connick, Jr., finished a close second. We hung with Marcus all evening in the hotel lounge as the jazz jam just kept on going. The great Louie Bellson sat-in for a stint, as well as jazz legend Clark Terry. It was quite a night, one of many such nights surrounding the jazz festival over the years.
But one of my fondest memories of jazz comes not from a festival or a performance, but from the backyard of that little cinder block house up on 23rd Street.
Marcus had cut a deal with Columbia records and was playing with the Jazz at Lincoln Center band. He was getting headline attention in the jazz world. He had made good and he wanted to do something nice for his aging mother. He wanted to do something special for her birthday. He wanted her to hear him play live and wanted to bring her to New York, but she was afraid to travel. He wanted to move her into a new home, but she was blind and didn’t want to go to a new place. She knew her home intimately. She was comfortable and secure there. She knew her neighbors and they looked after her. She didn’t want to leave her church. They were her foundation.
So, since she wouldn’t go to the mountain, Marcus decided to bring the mountain to her. He had a large tent set up in the back yard and a wooden floor constructed under it. He rented a Steinway grand piano along with several dozen chairs. He hired a caterer and invited all of his friends to the party, including the band members of his band, the band he played with… the Wynton Marsalis jazz combo.
Wynton and the band accepted his invitation along with some of the hot local jazz players and a few select students and professors from the University of North Florida’s Jazz Studies program, one of the finest in the nation. That was how I got the invitation, from trumpeter Marcus Printup, a friend and totally hip and rising jazzer, himself now a member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra.
The party got started around dark and continued into the night with one musician after another joining the jam. At the time, Wynton’s band included Marcus on piano, Herlin Riley on drums, Wycliff Gordon trombone, and I believe Roy Hargrove on trumpet and Christian McBride on bass, although my memory fails me somewhat on this. I can tell you for certain that it was world-class musicianship and no better jazz to be found anywhere on earth.
Mrs. Roberts was a sweetheart. She had her place of honor, front row center, and she was doted on by everyone. She swelled with pride for her son’s accomplishments, but also that he had so many friends who obviously loved and appreciated him. Marcus wore a tux, and an ear-to-ear grin, the entire evening.
Of course, the word got around and there was a huge crowd there. Cars were parked all over the neighborhood and that is partly what made it such a magical evening. The entire neighborhood was in to it. Not only in Mrs. Roberts’ yard, but out in the street and in the yards next door. Her house backed up to a little city park and the baseball outfield was full of lounge chairs neighbors had dragged up, along with their coolers and charcoal grills. You could smell Bar-B-Q chicken for blocks around. And even though people were laughing and talking, they were also listening to the music while boogying down.
Everyone was safe in that neighborhood that night. No cars were broken into. No one was busted leaving the place, no one harassed. It was as if the neighborhood knew they had something special and they wanted to help their homeboy celebrate his mother and his success and they wanted his guests to be comfortable.
As I walked back to my car, about 3:00am, I was stopped along the way by people offering me a drink or just wanting to talk, just trying to keep the glow alive. It was a brotherhood brought together by mankind’s highest creation… music. And by what many would argue is music’s highest incarnation… jazz.


  1. Hard to be cruel in the face of such overwhelming good. Glad everyone did their best to be their best.

  2. what a fantastic story, Mr C. There's power here.

  3. Great story C...and a special memory for you for sure. I think I know the neighborhood that you are talking about...or at least near by, and back in my youth there was a black "juke joint" that my teenage musician buddies and I used to sneak into on Saturday about E. 22nd and Florida maybe (?). Can't remember the name, or if it even had a name, but there was no color in that place, just a love of music. The fact that we were under-aged never enter into the picture also.

  4. Yes Walking Man, it was impossible to do anything but smile that night.

    Thanks JenJen... As you know, I love telling stories.

    Wow JJ... I think I know the place you are talking about and I would have been scared shitless to go in there. Great to hear I was mistaken. I'll bet it's the place Ray Charles used to play in, although I saw him at The Palms on the westside.

  5. You really have had some exceptionally cool moments in your well lived life. I always love reading about things from your past.

  6. I've never kickboxed in my life. I think, as sad and devastating as it is, that you have me confused with another JenJen.

  7. Another great story. I like Jazz myself, I like any music that's been kissed by the Blues and the Blues certainly planted a big wet one, fair and square on Jazz. Jazz is one of America's gifts to world culture.

    Never heard Blue Monk played with such a boogie-woogie style. Thelonious played it like he didn't know what note was coming next, which sometimes he didn't.

  8. Thanks Heidi.. I love a good yarn and would tell more of them more often if it didn't take so much time to write them.

    Oh JenJen, please forgive me. I could have sworn I saw you on TV kicking the crap out of a Mexican midget.

    You're right on Holte. The Blues directly spawned Jazz. You know of course that the word Jazz was a New Orleans slang term for the wild thing. Marcus is a master of stride piano (Fats Waller) and he often let's it creep into his music. Really cool. Interesting thing about Fats, musicians say it is very difficult to reproduce him because his style was developed in honky tonks and bars where the pianos were so beat up that he played mostly on the black keys because they were the only ones in tune.

  9. amazing story - amazing memories! btw, I tagged you to play along ... please?

  10. What a great story! And although I'm really not a jazz fan, I liked the music, too. :)

  11. Talk about being in the right place at the right time, Mr. C!

    In the mid '80s I saw Marcus Roberts, along with Wynton Marsalis, in a rather more sedate setting (a college auditorium), but it was still a great show.

    Talk about pianist envy...

  12. Dex... thanks, been to your place to play tag.

    Jay... you didn't have to be a jazz fan to love that evening, however, had you been there, it would have made you one.

    Intelli... mid to late 80's is when this party happened. You assuredly saw the same group. They played with Wynton for quite a while.

  13. great post. great party. great player.

  14. I just love coming over to your blog, it's like going to visit one of my dear friends. Thank you so much for sharing the story and video, just wonderful.
    Since I'm late, as usual:
    Tattooing- Creepy stuff there. I think it's important to do whatever you can to stay OFF of the grid.
    Fighting Back- An effective form of fighting back is non-compliance. That's why designated non-spending days are so effective, it brings the bankers to their knees.

  15. Punch... thanks, thanks, sho nuff
    Diane... I love when you visit as well. Non-compliance... you've hit the nail on the head.

  16. nailed it. What a great story. Thanks for sharing such a positive story.


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