Notes from a self-made man

Jazz keyboardist Marcus Johnson to perform at Doleman Museum benefit

Jazz keyboardist Marcus Johnson to perform at Doleman Museum benefit

October 17, 2008|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

In many ways, jazz keyboardist Marcus Johnson embodies the self-made man.

He started off as a grad student who independently produced and distributed his own album, "Lessons in Love," which debuted in 1997. What started as a "study music CD" went on to sell 40,000 copies.

He became head of Marimelj Entertainment Group and eventually got the attention of Washington, D.C.'s ber promoters, like veteran party-thrower Marc Barnes, owner of Love night club in northeast D.C.

Johnson also gained a new business partner - BET founder Robert L. Johnson (no relation) - by simply asking him to lunch.


"It's just one of those things," Johnson said. "Being the son of entrepreneurs, it was always expected that you knew how to market yourself."

Johnson will perform Sunday, Oct. 19, at a benefit for the Doleman Black Heritage Museum. The concert is from 5 to 8 p.m. at University System of Maryland at Hagerstown. Johnson also performs Friday, Oct. 17, at Caf 611 in downtown Frederick, Md.

For more than a decade, music critics have pegged Johnson as the poster boy for contemporary smooth jazz. Eight of his prior albums have cracked Billboard's jazz charts since 1999.

Even with the national exposure, Johnson is still a major part of the D.C. scene. He grew up in Washington, D.C., on a diet of classical music and funk. He teaches at Bowie State University and is still a regular at D.C.-area venues.

Lately, Johnson has been promoting his latest FLO (For the Love of) project, a trio of albums released earlier this year: "FLO: Romance," "FLO: Standards" and "FLO: Chill." The themed albums come after "The Phoenix" in 2007, which he said was a result of his frustrations with the lack of "real" music for people older than 30.

But even with all the grumbling about the commercial decline of good music, Johnson has maintained a strong following. He says he unapologetically aims for audiences more likely to watch his show live than viewing it on YouTube - and to good effect.

About Marcus Johnson

Genre - Smooth jazz

City - Washington, D.C.

Influences - Thelonious Monk; Joe Sample; Earth, Wind & Fire

Upcoming shows:
o 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 17, Café 611, 611 N. Market St., Frederick, Md. Advance tickets, $15; $25 at the door.
o 5 to 8 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 19, University System of Maryland at Hagerstown building, downtown Hagerstown. Social hour 5 to 6 p.m.; concert is from 6 to 8 p.m. Fundraiser for the Doleman Black Heritage Museum. Tickets cost $50 and will be available at the door. For advance tickets, call Janice Kelsh, 301-797-7675 or e-mail more about the Doleman Black Heritage Museum at

Web - His label:

Q&A with contemporary jazz
keyboardist Marcus Johnson

I understand your mom played classical piano. Do you have favorite classical piece to play?
Chopin's Waltz in C-sharp minor. Chopin was one of those guys who improvised when he played. He had real strong minor structures. You get some blues in between the notes.

Now your dad played funk. You mention that first concert was Earth, Wind & Fire. I'm going to ask you something I'm not even able to answer. Do you have a favorite Earth, Wind & Fire song?
Nope. And you can put that in all caps with an exclamation point (laughing). I like about anything they did in the '70s. I used to sit in my dad's family room and listen to Earth, Wind & Fire. I was the Earth, Wind & Fire fan. And when I went to that concert, I saw them blowing up stuff with the pyrotechnics, I was like, "This is what I need to be doing."

You point to Thelonious Monk and Joe Sample as your early influences; what was it about their playing styles that influenced you?
They played on the rhythm and they maintained themselves by staying true to themselves. That's one of the biggest compliments I get, that I don't sound like any body else. I really like what Monk did. He was eccentric as you know what, but there was genius in there.

You mentioned that the 2007 album represented your struggle in building your brand in the music industry. What did you mean?
For a while, if it didn't say hip-hop or rap, it was very difficult to get people to look at it. ... I took a chance on adult music and won. It is a struggle sometimes to stay true to your passion.

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