by Travis Pickell
The other night Sarah and I were in Minnesota with her parents. While there we went to an amazing Jazz Club called the Dakota. The atmosphere was dark and intimate despite the large size of the club. Our table was on a second-story balcony overlooking a small stage with nothing but a large black grand piano and an incandescent neon-blue sign with scripted letters: Dakota. We ordered our food and drinks, a delicious plethora including soft-shelled crab, shrimp and crab cakes, lamb, a Gruyere Cheeseburger on toasted ciabatta bread, Guinness beer, a “Southern Gentleman Cocktail,” various wines, and a Tres Leches fruit tart. After an hour of eating and sharing, we were fat and happy.
We were hardly ready for what came next. A blonde woman in her mid-forties led Marcus Roberts, the musical guest for the night, out by the arm as he took his place at the piano. Marcus Roberts was a youngish looking African-American man with a soft high-pitched voiced and a mild demeanor. In most respects he looked and acted very ordinary, except that he was blind. When he began his first song, however, it immediately became clear that he was nothing but ordinary. He hammered away at the keys for hours while we marveled, softly debating what style of Jazz could classify him (for he could play any number of styles), or which hand we believed was his dominant one (for he was equally proficient with his right and his left).
There is something about seeing a blind musician play that inspires awe. Of course, in one sense one shouldn’t be surprised—as if a blind person had any less of a musical ear or an ability to learn an instrument. Still, when I heard Marcus Roberts pound at the keys, I couldn’t help but think of how much courage it would take to persist in learning music that you cannot read on an instrument that you cannot see. Roberts lost his sight at the age of five, and began to learn piano shortly thereafter, playing along at his local Baptist church before he ever had an official lesson!
I left the concert with three things on my mind. First, I thought about the amazing power of music to unite diverse people. When Marcus played well, everyone in the room knew it. The harmony, dissonance and resolution, which his fingers produced, moved something in each person who heard it. Second, I thought about the power of the human spirit to overcome great odds. Determination, tenacity, a genuine love of music; all of these things would be necessary to reach the level of expertise that Marcus Roberts has reached. It is rare that those blessed with sight have it in them to reach such excellence. Lastly, I thought about God’s blessings. God has blessed Marcus Roberts with a musical gift. As our family enjoyed great food and drink, beautiful music and the company of loved ones, I knew I, too, have been blessed. When Marcus was called back for an encore he played one song. It was not written by Duke Ellington or Thelonious Monk, but by John Newton: “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.”