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Marcus Roberts picks up where he left off with the American Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall

Marcus Roberts
courtesy of the artist

Two years ago, pianist and composer Marcus Roberts was backstage at Carnegie Hall, preparing for a concert with the American Symphony Orchestra. He’d been working on new arrangements of Duke Ellington’s music, seeking a harmonious balance between classical and jazz. Then he encountered a problem that had nothing to do with music.

This was March 12, 2020 — a day the curtain fell for cultural institutions across New York, as the city declared a state of emergency in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The Metropolitan Opera, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Lincoln Center were among the organizations that halted all operations, and Carnegie Hall fell in step.

For Roberts, of course, it meant much more than the curtailing of a concert. But there’s still a sense of closure around that Ellington program, which will finally happen this Thursday night. Roberts will perform Duke’s music — including symphonic pieces that Ellington premiered at Carnegie, like “New World a-Comin’” and “Black, Brown & Beige” — in collaboration with the ASO and guest vocalist Catherine Russell.

In addition to some unfinished business, the concert reflects a cross-genre relationship that has only deepened for Roberts during the pandemic.

“After the concert was canceled, a few months went by,” he tells WBGO. “And of course, for everyone we were just trying to figure out, ‘Well, my goodness, we’ve done all this work. How do we keep people interested in what musicians are doing?’ And of course, we all had to find new ways to collaborate.” The ASO initially asked him to arrange some works in the public domain, but Roberts countered with a suggestion: why not compose new music to meet the moment? The result was United We Play – a three-part commission that Roberts and his band recorded with the ASO through virtual means, premiering it as a short film online.

United We Play: American Symphony Orchestra, Marcus Roberts and The Modern Jazz Generation

As its title implies, United We Play conveys a message about finding common ground through music. It’s a conviction that Roberts says he hears in Ellington as well.

“New World a-Comin’,” which Ellington premiered at Carnegie Hall on Dec. 11, 1943, is a perfect case in point. In conversation, Roberts pauses to read a passage from the Maestro’s autobiography, Music is My Mistress, “because I think it's very time-appropriate for the situation that we as a country find ourselves in now.”

I visualized this new world as a place in the distant future where there would be no war, no greed, no categorization, no non-believers, where love was unconditional and no pronoun was good enough for God.
Duke Ellington, 'Music is My Mistress'

“And I think that really speaks to where we are,” Roberts suggests, after reading the quote above. “The thing about music that’s so powerful — in many genres, not just jazz — is that we’re able to deal with these themes through sound. And then that way, you can get past a lot of the racial tension and sexism and all these isms. You can get past that and just deal with the universality of what these musical themes mean.”

Marcus Roberts and the American Symphony Orchestra perform an Ellington program at Carnegie Hall on Thursday.