Navigating Blindness with Marcus Roberts

Marcus Roberts playing piano with band on stage.

On the surface, I have little in common with jazz pianist Marcus Roberts.

Having worked with greats like Chick Corea and Wynton Marsalis, Roberts is no stranger to the big stage, now fronting his own group called Marcus Roberts and the Modern Jazz Generation. I, on the other hand, am a modest Indy journalist, who sits in front of a computer all day.

Believe it or not, however, there is one major similarity between my life and Roberts’ life. At the age of 5, both he and I suffered major vision loss, leaving him completely blind and me visually impaired. With this being said, our path through navigating disability is oddly similar.

Ahead of Marcus Roberts and the Modern Jazz Generation’s visit to the Palladium on Saturday, May 4, I had the pleasure of chatting with Roberts over the phone, mentioning my visual impairment to him right off the bat. Below, you can read our full conversation, which touches on music, disability awareness, and more.

SETH JOHNSON: You attended Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind — a school that Ray Charles also attended. That being said, was music a big part of the overall culture there?

MARCUS ROBERTS: Yeah, it was. But I really started in church when I was about 8. I was self-taught for about four years, which really doesn’t work too well for piano. So my parents found out about the school, and they sent me there, mainly to study music.

I remember three teachers there, and one of them gave me piano lessons every day. His name was Hubert Foster. He knew how to tune pianos. He knew how to build pianos. So he taught me piano and music theory. Then, they had another fellow (Mr. Middleton) who taught me saxophone and drums. So yeah. They had a real good program in music.

They also had a variety of things that all the children could do. I look back on it now and realize how fortunate we were. They had a guy who taught wood shop. They had a fellow who taught electrician work. They had a lot of stuff. [laughs]

JOHNSON: I personally had a few teachers that really helped me adjust to my vision growing up. Are there teachers from that school who stand out as doing the same for you?

ROBERTS: Oh man, a bunch of ‘em. My science teacher in the fourth grade was a really nice lady. She let me read ahead. So even in fourth grade, I was reading 6th grade science stuff. They didn’t hold me back or anything. And her husband was the gym teacher. They had us swimming, running, and doing all kinds of stuff. [laughs]

They did have good mobility instructors that taught touch technique with the cane. They had really high-level folks who typically had a graduate degree in rehabilitation and mobility. I was very fortunate to go at a time where I really think the level of teaching was very high.

In 10th grade, I was mainstreamed into the local high school in the morning, and then I went to Florida School for the Blind and Deaf in the afternoon for music. So it was a very preparatory period for me. When I got to Florida State, I didn’t have a lot of the issues that typical blind kids have with mainstreaming into the “normal” public.

One of the big problems is … people don’t know what’s appropriate, so they don’t really know how to help you. And a lot of blind folks, and folks with disabilities in general, don’t know how to ask for help. And even when you do, you can’t calculate what people’s response will be.

Watch 60 Minutes Preview: Marcus Roberts on YouTube.

JOHNSON: Getting back to your musical path, I’m curious to hear what drew you to piano specifically?