One Of America's Greatest Jazz Pianists, Marcus Roberts, Feels The Bern
Marcus Roberts is a jazz pianist and composer. And he's blind. He is self-taught but went to the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine, where Ray Charles also studied (much earlier). Wynton Marsalis, with whom he toured, called him the "greatest American musician most people have never heard of." Ryan Lizza, writing for the New Yorker this week, broke the news that Roberts, who is also an eloquent teacher, has written songs about four of the presidential candidates, in an effort to show that art has a place in politics. He's releasing an EP, Race for the White House featuring one song each about Bernie ("Feel the Bern," which you can listen to above), Hillary ("It's My Turn"), Herr Trumpf ("Making America Great Again-- All By Myself") and Dr. Ben ("I Did Chop Down That Cherry Tree").
"Feel the Bern," according to Roberts, is meant to "show the different components of Bernie Sanders’s personality. When the piano does it, it’s laid-back and it’s kind of cool and dignified. When the tenor plays it, it starts to get a little more rambunctious. You know, maybe that’s when he tells Hillary, 'I don’t really give a damn about hearing about your e-mails anymore.' It becomes kind of aggressive, and there’s a lot of fire, like, we’re going to get to this. I think that’s why Sanders appeals to young people."
“It’s My Turn” is slower and mellower than “Feel the Bern,” and it attempts to describe the many phases of Clinton’s long career in politics. “We know that she’s undergone a whole lot of changes,” Roberts said. A Clinton supporter, he was originally going to call the song “I Guess I’m Just Overqualified,” but he decided to keep the music as nonpartisan as possible. “People have been messing with the lady for twenty-five years about this and that, so I decided we’ve definitely got to have some changes,” he said, noting that, of the four songs, it is the most complicated and nuanced, just like her campaign. “We start in D-flat minor, but we change to G-flat and then to B-flat, and we change the meter and the tempo.”
Roberts said that he wrote the songs fast, attempting to capture the candidates based on what was happening in debates and on the campaign trail at the time. “I was focussed on something that was literally occurring even as I was writing it,” he said. “I’m listening to Ben Carson on TV, and he’s talking slow. I’m thinking, well, the piece for him can’t be up-tempo.” The Carson song was written at the stage in the campaign when Trump, feeling threatened by Carson’s candidacy, had attacked Carson for some bizarre anecdotes from his opponent’s memoir.
“Carson’s telling people he did all this lawless stuff as a kid,” Roberts said. “I’m like, how can I capture that?” Jason Marsalis’s initial drumming on the song didn’t sound quite right to Roberts. “I said, ‘No, man, I need it to sound like it’s a hammer hitting something, O.K.? I need it to sound like he might be beating up one of his friends at school. It needs to sound that way.’ ” They accomplished the musical equivalent of Carson’s hammer attack with a three-beat rim shot.
Trump’s was the easiest personality to capture. “It was clear that it needed to be bold and up-front and egotistical,” Roberts said. He told Marsalis to whistle as if he were Trump surveying his vast real-estate empire from up high. “You’re rich, you’ve got pretty much everything anybody could want, and you’re just chilling,” Roberts said. A trumpet cuts in on the whistling, to show Trump’s more aggressive and cocksure side. “He interrupts himself,” Roberts explained, “almost to say, ‘I’m going to get all this great stuff done, I don’t need any help, I know what I need to do, just get out of my way and let me do it.’ It almost has a Batman-superhero vibe to it.”