July 15, 2009

Marcus Johnson – Poetically Justified (and interview)

Marcus Johnson’s refreshing blend of seductive, romantic, and charismatic offerings coupled with punctuations of funk in the appropriate places has been a hallmark, a musical triumph of sorts, for the accomplished pianist/keyboardist. Johnson is heralded as one of the most competent players in the field of smooth jazz, and no better witness to this fact exists than the grateful residents of the Washington, DC, metropolitan area where the Ohio-born, DC-raised virtuoso frequently pays homage. His love for and commitment to the area is truly remarkable.

Johnson’s latest project, Poetically Justified, continues the glorious journey that he embarked upon some 10+ years ago. Undaunted and unfailing in each of his efforts, this latest simply adds yet another exclamation point on an already exciting and illustrative career. The tunes here, whether fresh originals or covers, all bear the distinctive Marcus Johnson cool. Vocalist extraordinaire Maysa Leak joins Johnson on a couple of tunes here, and saxman Najee drops by, as well, just to add a flavorful touch to this delectable quality smooth jazz stew.

While the album is chock full of really smooth and harmonious vocals, catchy hooks and phrasings, and fluid keys work, some up-tempo tunes of particular note might be “Ellicott City,” a reference to a Maryland suburb of DC, the very jazzy cover of the now-late Michael Jackson’s “This Place Hotel,” and “Hold On,” a tune that’s very Maysa. Then, there are the mellower cuts like “Stand By Me” and “Cherish The Journey” that show off Johnson’s penchant for tunes that deliberately reach for and touch the soul with purpose.

All states have a few artists about which the residents love to boast. DC smooth jazz fans are certainly no exception when it comes to artists like Marcus Johnson.

I recently caught up with the artist for the following interview. Enjoy!

Ronald Jackson: Where does one begin? A lawyer turned accomplished musician turned founder, CEO, and president of Three Keys Music, which, at one point, had signed the likes of Nick Colionne, Bobby Lyle, Michael Lington, and Jaared. Couple that with having been a drive-time morning host on Washington, DC’s Smooth Jazz 105.9, and always seeming to be accessible via some local jazz happening, be it Blues Alley or some other local venue—many times even offering free concerts, and the simple question becomes: How have you done it? How have you maintained such focus and still turned out such quality?

Marcus Johnson: Well – Passion! It has been very difficult, but something happens when you follow your passion in life. When you follow your personal legend, the universe conspires to help you put it all together. Yes, that’s one of my favorite quotes from The Alchemist, but it is so true. We all have to take time out of our lives and dream. Dream the biggest of dreams. You have to have dreams that are so crazy that people can only think to smile or laugh at you when you explain what you are going to do. Then, you have to sit back and develop a plan that allows you to see exactly how you can reach your plan. Most people are good at this, and it doesn’t take passion to get this far. The execution of this plan is what necessitates passion, and I think that the reason I have been able to do a lot of what I do is based on the fact that I LOVE what I do. I love the struggles, I love the naysayers, I love the let downs (well maybe not that much). But these are all the things that one must go through on the journey of life. I love making people smile. One thing that I learned early is that we are not in the music business at all. Most musicians are in the therapy business, and they have never figured it out. We are here to make people feel better in the morning, afternoon, evening, and all of the points in-between. Thus, the free concerts; thus, the hard work to perform 4 –14 times in a week. It’s a very difficult business right now, but, when you can follow your passion and help people as you do so, it makes things a lot easier.

If you add to that a great team that makes sure that I stay focused and on point, everything becomes real easy. It’s about a flow – knowing yourself, growing yourself, and working your ass off to make sure that you realize your dream. The worst disappointment in the world is a dream unfulfilled. Mine will be, or I’ll die trying.

Ronald Jackson: Are you now actively practicing or teaching law?

Marcus Johnson: No, I never practiced law. I teach music business seminars regularly at my studio (studio8121.com) in Washington, DC. We also webcast them so that all can benefit from the discussion. I teach a music business development course at Bowie State University which is very gratifying. Each student comes in with a major field of study, they leave with a business plan – with financials and the knowledge that they are totally in control of the brand of “you.” Each last class of the semester is very touching. Many never knew that they were already young CEO’s. It’s great to see their development. Maybe I’ll get to a firm or in politics later. We’ll see.

Ronald Jackson: Some artists feel fortunate or blessed just to have made it into a studio to record. You’ve surpassed that in major leaps and bounds. What prompted your interest in actually owning a label?

Marcus Johnson: Simply put, I got screwed! I was in a development deal with one of the major labels when I was in college, and the experience was horrible. There was no guidance, no development, just “go create.” Music lacks the kind of apprenticeship that exists in other forms of art. So, on the back of a TWA 767, I vowed that I would never be on the “wrong side of the desk” again. I studied for my Law School Admissions test and was accepted into Georgetown University in 1993. After clerking at MCA/Universal my first year, I decided to listen to my parents and my upbringing and said, “Hey, if they can do it, so can I.” That was the beginning of the first day of the rest of my life (so far). Each of us controls our destiny. Some of us don’t acknowledge it, and others just give it away. That’s just not who I am. Three Keys stands for the three keys of success: spirituality, strategy, and artistry. If you take care of these three aspects of your business, you cannot help but succeed. Additionally, the spirituality component includes community. We have lost that in modern society. So I wanted to create a label that actually helped artists.

Ronald Jackson: What does Three Keys see in its future?

Marcus Johnson: Right now, we’re promoting Poetically Justified since it was just released this June, but we’re planning to create more albums for the FLO series by this year. Lifestyle CDs are the way of the future.

Ronald Jackson: Speaking of the latest album, Poetically Justified, I know that the DC scene has often been a major source of inspiration for your recordings. What is the inspiration behind this latest?

Marcus Johnson: All of my life, everyone has always told me that I can’t do music, I can’t do law, I can’t do business, I can’t do them all at the same time, I can’t produce my own CDs, and I’m too young to have a company. “Why would you do jazz? You can’t make it through the bad times; the music industry is dead,” etc. We all live with this type of discouragement. When it comes from your family, you have to know it’s out of love. When it comes from others, it’s generally from a perspective of hate or self-hate. Regardless, when we dream, it is our responsibility to follow our dreams through to the end. Is it rough? Yes. Will you have failures and obstacles? Yes. But so did Churchill, Roosevelt, Carnegie, Branson, and Winfrey. The key, as stated by author Paulo Coelho in The Alchemist, is to fall down seven times and get up eight. Then, you can be poetically justified. My latest solo album allows me to spread this good news around the world. I’m not any more special than you! This message has to be told.

Ronald Jackson: In addition to all your other activities, I understand you’ve had some involvement with MTM (Mentoring to Manhood), what is the purpose of that organization, and exactly how have you been involved with it?

Marcus Johnson: Just to mentor young men into being “real men!” There is a difference. It’s spoken and demonstrated. I’ve been involved with this, breast cancer, ALS, heart disease, education, AIDS research, and the like all my life. It makes me whole.

Ronald Jackson: There are a lot of people who enjoy tracking the very beginnings of an artist’s career. As you know, many an artist was once part of a group before spinning off and finding their individual fame and fortune. Prior to the emergence of the Marcus Johnson Project, did you ever perform as a studio musician, sideman, or member of any established group?

Marcus Johnson: Nope. It’s always been just me. I was in a wedding band when I was younger, but I don’t think that counts.

Ronald Jackson: What advice does one as accomplished as you have to offer young, aspiring musicians, aspiring businessmen, aspiring lawyers, or any combination thereof? Just tell them how they can have it all, or at least a big part of it all.

Marcus Johnson: Like what I said before, from the book The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo: “Fall down seven times and get up eight.” If I can succeed, you can too. So, do it. Just do it, and leave it all on the stage of life. Make it your goal to have no regrets on your death bed. Educate yourself as much as possible and strive for excellence. If that’s your goal, you’ll be good.

Ronald Jackson: Finally, for those Marcus fans who don’t know, and for the curious, where can one get more information about you, your music, tours, and other activities?

Marcus Johnson: They can just visit the Three Keys Music website at www.threekeys.com. Also, I am also on Facebook, Twitter, and Myspace, and they can check out updates from there, too. Or just drop an email at mij@threekeys.com.

Ronald Jackson: Thank you, Marcus. Any parting words to your fans and fans of smooth jazz in general?

Marcus Johnson: Keep the music alive in all its forms. The success of one form is the success of all forms of jazz. See ya at a show REAL soon.

Posted by Ronald Jackson at July 15, 2009 1:19 PM