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An American in Classics

[whitespace] Marcus Roberts Rhythmic Rhapsody: Pianist Marcus Roberts is one of the jazz world's foremost interpreters of George Gershwin's music.

Leonid Grin and Marcus Roberts talk about the 'glorious noise' of George Gershwin

By Eric Johnson

'VARIOUS COMPOSERS have been walking around jazz like a cat around a plate of hot milk, waiting for it to cool off. Lady jazz, adorned with her intriguing rhythms, has danced her way around the world. But she has encountered no knight who could lift her to a level that would enable her to be received as a respectable member of the musical circles. George Gershwin seems to have accomplished this miracle. He has done it by dressing this extremely independent and up-to-date lady in the classical garb of the concerto. He is the prince who has taken Cinderella by the hand and openly proclaimed her to be a princess to the astonished world."

The gushing sentiment contained in these words, which the conductor Walter Damrosch spoke at the premiere of Rhapsody in Blue in 1926, probably shocked no one. Gershwin was the most popular songwriter in America, and it's likely that the sophisticated swells in the audience at Carnegie Hall, done up in their ball gowns and tuxedos, had on other nights, when nobody was looking, cried over "But Not for Me" or wiggled their booties to "Fascinatin' Rhythm." Gershwin was a pop genius, and the fans who came to witness his symphonic adventure probably expected to be amazed.

Still, there's no way they could have known what was about to happen. Gershwin's wedding of what he called "the most powerful American folk music" with the European musical tradition changed both jazz and classical music forever.

Maestro Leonid Grin, who will conduct the San Jose Symphony's performance of Rhapsody, along with the Concerto in F, and selections from Porgy and Bess and An American in Paris, in a concert honoring Gershwin's 100th birthday this weekend, says the composer "established the native musical language."

The art of George Gershwin, Grin continues, "is completely unique. By combining the different elements of American culture--first and foremost from African American culture--he created a monument to the century. This is the music of our souls and the music of our lives."

Since taking up the baton for the San Jose Symphony in 1992, Grin has performed Gershwin here every season. He says Gershwin represents one side of a merging of jazz and classical music, to which symphonic composers have contributed as well.

"Jazz music has laced itself truly into the symphonic world," Grin explains, citing American music influences on composers such as George Antheil and Maurice Ravel. Although he places Gershwin in a separate category from the European classical composers, he has found that symphony audiences appreciate the American pop composer who brought these two distinct musical forms together.

MARCUS ROBERTS, the celebrated jazz pianist who will appear as a featured soloist for the symphony's gala, comes at Gershwin from a point of view quite similar to the maestro's, despite their wildly different backgrounds.

Roberts started out playing the piano for his church gospel choir growing up in Jacksonville, Fla. He says his early influences included the music of Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Duke Ellington, which he heard on the radio. After studying music throughout his childhood, and in college at Jacksonville State, he was discovered by Wynton Marsalis, who asked Roberts to join his band in 1985.

Over the next decade, Roberts recorded six albums with Marsalis and several solo works. A charter member of the "neotraditional" school of jazz, he has recorded the work of Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin, as well as his own compositions. But he says that when he came to the music of George Gershwin for his 1994 release, Gershwin for Lovers, he found a completely new way of approaching jazz.

"What's hip about Gershwin," Roberts says, "is that he developed a long-form composition, where one theme can be developed for a half-hour. Learning the Concerto in F note-for-note, I developed a view of the piano, that it could function in a concertolike setting but still leave room for improvisation."

Unlike most concert pianists, Roberts must learn his entire repertoire by heart, because he is blind. This, he says, is a mixed blessing: it limits the number of pieces he can perform, but it also forces him to become very intimate with each piece. "If you don't memorize a piece," he says, "you can't really know it."

Although he faced a challenge taking on Gershwin's compositions, it was a challenge that Roberts embraced fully. His most recent release, Truth and Circumstance, is a 45-minute-long piece incorporating both scored arrangements and improvisation.

Roberts chooses the word "American" to describe Gershwin's music and refuses to compare it to the European classical masters. But even if the man who brought jazz out of the speakeasies and into the concert hall was no Beethoven or Bach, Roberts insists that he created a music that is deserving of the utmost respect from serious music lovers.

"This music goes at the feeling of life that is necessary to art, which is required of any high cultural experience," he says. "The only issue for me is, does it address enduring values? Does it have that eternal, universal quality? And if it does that, I'm on it."

Joining Roberts, Grin and the symphony for Saturday's show will be soprano Marvis Marlin and baritone N'mon Ford-Levine, both of whom are as revered in the operatic world as the maestro and the jazz pianist are in their respective fields. The sound of barriers crumbling promises to produce what Gershwin himself called "a beautiful noise."

The San Jose Symphony performs a Gershwin tribute Saturday (Sept. 26) at 8pm at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose. Tickets are $25-$75. (408/288-2828)

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From the September 24-30, 1998 issue of Metro.

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