Jazz legend Marcus Johnson gives exclusive eye into his talent, career and success.
By Elena Pinnen
In an increasingly arid and commercially-oriented contemporary music scene, it’s become unusual to find artists who still need to close their eyes in order to play.
Yet, it is what often happens to the hit contemporary jazz keyboardist and self-taught piano player Marcus Johnson, recently offering a series of almost sold-out holiday performances at Georgetown’s Blues Alley.
Marcus Johnson is truly a Renaissance Man: A lawyer, MBA, entrepreneur and MBA who also happens to be a NAACP Image Award Nominated Billboard Recording Artist, and director of For the Love Of Brands, a company which houses both a music and a wine label.
Marcus is a multifaceted 360-degree artist who learned to play the keyboard for the love of a girl when he was 14. Full of diverse influences and always in evolution, Marcus’ music production reflect his indomitable eclecticism.
With sounds ranging from contemporary smooth jazz (Poetically Justified, 2009) to pop-rock rearranged with a jazz spin (This is why I Rock, 2010) to the hypnotic and electronic chill out featured in his last album FLO PAKS (2011), produced in collaboration with French DJ Young Pulse.
Marcus’ perception of the arts is self-embracing and cross-sectional. When it comes to his wine/music label, he prefers to refer at it as “a lifestyle company,” which, in fact, next year he will be partnering with several high profile fashion, sports, entertainment and culinary events on the international art scene.
“We use the term ‘lifestyle’ because is what it really is.” he says. “They call it food and wine paring. I did music and wine paring. The fact is that technology is in an era of convergence, music is in an era of convergence, and the idea of lifestyle market is converging all over the place.”
Sinking his roots in the 20th century avant-garde movement and being something that other artists typically do not have the courage to jump into, such attitude to interconnection appears to be the real key to understanding Johnson’s wide range of creativity.
“Life is creativity itself,” he says. “It is creating the experience, creating opportunities. And creating is one of those things that you do everyday… The true miracle in life is getting up every morning. I hear people all the time talking about the idea of ‘I need to find this and this, I need to find out what I want to do,’ and so on. I challenge them by saying: instead of trying to find it – just create it! Because as long as you wake up in the morning you already have what you need. If you heart is beating, your lungs are breathing, your eyes are seeing, your fingers touching, tongue tasting, you can do whatever you want to do: it’s just a matter of dreaming it.”
As a “big sponge,” as he tends to portray himself, Marcus is a jazz-man whose frequent travel, especially through Europe, has had a paramount influence on his music.
“Going to different cities brings exposure,” he says. “And in Europe, the sincere appreciation of art at high level is different. In the United States often it is a matter of personality, of ‘I like him’, not necessarily ‘I like him for the sake of his art’.”
Certainly, his last journey to Paris in 2010 has dramatically changed Marcus’ vibe. Here he began working with DJ Young Pulse, under the name “Juris,” realizing small collections of songs called FLO Paks, characterized by a new Euro-Jazz sound. Kind of fusion of American Jazz, Funk, Hip-pop, dance, and European electronic beats.
Questioned about the role of technology in today’s music, particularly with regard to techno looping, or adding a full suite of urban and synthesizer effects, Marcus gave an interesting explanation. “Progress has given us more freedom of expression, allowing us to do music whenever and wherever we want to, as well as to play various virtual instruments without the need to purchase them materially,” he says.
It is thanks to these leaps in technology if, for instance, the Juris duo could not only initiate a long-distance collaborative project but also create music in transit – like on an aircraft.
“When flying towards Paris I had a keyboard on a plane with headphones and I was playing a Yamaha grand piano, putting along together the beeps and loops that we had in there and the bass-line somewhere, right there on the airplane!” he says. “Never before I have been able to do this.”
It’s the marketplace that has most been affected by new technologies, Marcus argues. “People now are able to reach the market because of Social Media,” he says. “They’re able to identify their own target and to do promotion simply at home.”
“The reason why we could sell six out eight shows in four days twice a year in Blues Alley is because of Facebook, Tumblr, Flickr, Twitter, Myspace, Pandora, Youtube, Google, and so on,” he says. “These are things 10 years ago you didn’t have. Thanks to them you are now able to take over the entire world, literally.”
Could such contemporary common awareness of the market rules invalidate the freedom of the artist? “Business is an art itself,” he argues “When I was in law school I understood that being a lawyer especially when you deal with contracts or you are in front of a jury, is art. I love both the artistic and the business side and they are inseparable to me. Do you think I’m different? I’m very different. I come from a family of doctors and lawyers, so my exposure was to making sure that you acquired the educational instruments to fight the life forward. Without that knowledge you are just blowing in the wind.”
Paying attention both to the business and redemptive possibilities of music, Marcus can be defined by an original synthesis of pragmatic self-determination values attributed to the Western culture and the more spiritual ones typical of the East. Eastern philosophies, he explained, have had a deep influence on his life and music, teaching him the importance of imperfection as well as of enjoying the present.
“When you look at time with a sense of finality it causes stress,” he says. “Instead, when playing music everybody is holding on to the next note, it’s like mindfulness, it’s here right now, it is the present. Most people have stress because they think too much about tomorrow, when you just have to relax and enjoy today.”
Both instinctive and rational, Marcus is a self-taught composer and successful entrepreneur maybe to be understood just by his gorgeously improvised music, eloquently described by him as “a real kind of ministry.”
In fact, sometimes the feeling of music is so strong that, he said, “when I play I have to close my eyes.” Which is actually happened recently at Blues Alley before an enthusiastic crowd of Marcus fans.