With degrees in law and business, Marcus Johnson brings business savvy to the art of making music. 

Artist as Entrepreneur

Striking an artful balance between musical and business savvy, Marcus Johnson is the artist as entrepreneur. The pianist, who plays here June 22 as part of the Fridays at Sunset series, has built a career, and a successful independent label, on understanding what an audience wants, and having the talent to deliver it.

"What I play is not really jazz, but instrumental R&B," Johnson says. "It's a synergy of all the music I grew up with: soul, go-go, hip-hop and some jazz too. If you cut anything out, you leave yourself short."

While Johnson's music falls squarely into the "contemporary jazz" genre, his playing is more imaginative than most "smooth" players. The basic melodies with conventional song structures over syncopated synthesized groove are polished but predictable. The solos, with modulating chords and shifting melodic runs, defy the conventions of the style.

"Maybe I could sell more if I kept it simple," Johnson muses. "I'm trying to walk a delicate line, to be both an artist and businessman. I want to play music for the head but for the body too. Music today is driven by the bass and the kick drum — not to include those things is to commit commercial suicide.

"I look at Kenny G, see him invest in Starbucks, fly around in his private plane. I don't get mad at him because of his popularity. If he can sell 10 million CDs, and Boney James [who plays Fridays at Sunset June 29] can sell 900,000, then there is a business plan to be followed."

Johnson's determination to control his own destiny goes back to the very beginning of his career. After graduating from Howard University, where he studied with jazz great Geri Allen, he moved to Los Angeles. Just before his big break, a major-label release, the record company executive sponsoring him was fired and it all fell apart. "I came home to D.C." he recalls, "and studied hard for my LSATs. I got into Georgetown Law School, took a double master in business, and started my own record label."

His label, Marimelj ( a contraction of Marcus Imel Johnson) has placed several albums high on the Billboard charts, and scored a national distribution deal with Warner Brothers. It also helped with his degree — a key senior paper was titled "How to Produce an Independent CD."

Johnson views the challenges of recording and performing very differently. "When people put a CD on they are looking for one kind of experience — maybe chillin' with some cabernet .…

"In concert, we are one hundred thousand percent different. It's a show, a high-energy show. We want people to show some emotion; the louder they scream the better. There's a thing we call the neck factor. We want to get those necks moving — you get that going on and there is a groove happening. People leave the show tired, but with a smile on their face. "

Like musical hero Miles Davis (Johnson cites the late trumpeter's "Someday My Prince Will Come" as his favorite recording) the pianist recognizes the need for change to keep connecting to his audience.

"We want to keep coming up with new stuff, because music is an evolution. If people to come up after the show and say 'that was really great,' then the next time they see us we want them so say 'that was even better.'

"And if they buy the CDs, that's good too."


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