Monday, February 17, 2014

The Greatest Birthday Party Ever

Last night I was poking around in my jazz collection and came up with "Levee Low Moan" by Wynton Marsalis, the #3 album in his "Soul Gestures in Southern Blue" series.  It reminded me of one of the greatest birthday parties and musical events I have ever attended.  I posted about it way back when but dug it out for another airing.

Marcus Roberts was born in a Southern ghetto, in a cinder block shack on a street barely wide enough for two cars to pass. It was one of the poorest, and most dangerous, areas of the city. An area pockmarked by failed industry and Superfund pollution.  Like his mother, he was also blind.  Now a professor of Jazz Studies at Florida State University, Marcus is one of the premier jazz musicians living today.

I first met Marcus when he won the inaugural Great American 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 jazz drummer 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 Wynton's Jazz at Lincoln Center program. 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 take her to New York, but she was afraid to travel. He wanted to move her into a new home, but she was accustomed to her little house and neighborhood 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 the band he played with… the Wynton Marsalis Jazz Combo.

Wynton and the band accepted his invitation along with several 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 in, with 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 in. 

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'll 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 in attendance. 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 out and there was a huge crowd surrounding the house. 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 hastily dragged up, along with their coolers and charcoal grills. You could smell Bar-B-Q ribs and chicken for blocks around. And even though people were laughing, talking and gittin' down, they were also listening to the music.

Everyone was safe in that crime-ridden 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 to celebrate him by making him and his guests safe and comfortable. 

As I walked back to my car, about 3:00am, I was stopped along the way by people offering me a drink or who just wanted to talk, people trying to keep the magic 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. Replies
    1. It was, and is, indeed a great evening and memory. I can't believe it actually happened.

  2. A magical night and a magical memory.
    Not sure about jazz being music’s highest incarnation, though. Music moves us in mysterious ways, whichever kind it is. (Ok, some’s not so hot, but we won’t mention the crappy sort).

    1. LOL I know, you classical types.. but I agree 100%

  3. story gave me goosebumps..that's a good thing.


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