Music is a journey with little time for sightseeing. If inspiration is fleeting, then it stands to reason that creativity can’t be too far behind. One local professional musician who is keeping in time with the demands of gigging, booking those gigs, and self-promoting is Taylor Roberts.
For years, Roberts has been performing at Ocean 60 in Atlantic Beach, along with gigs in Amelia Island at The Ritz Carlton lobby bar and their acclaimed restaurant Salt, as well as the island’s March’e Burette.
This past Mother’s Day, Roberts was between daytime gigs in Amelia Island, considering taking a “power nap in the car” until his next performance. “I played ‘Arms of Woman’ by Amos Lee,” he laughs, explaining some holiday-themed tunes in his Mother’s Day setlist. “Everyone seemed to dig that.”
A Gainesville native, the early roots for the now 35-year-old Roberts weren’t tinged by jazz, but rather bleached-blonde punk locks. “I guess Green Day hit the scene when I was like 12; and I wanted to be Tré Cool. I wanted to be the drummer,” he laughs. A year later, his folks bought him a guitar. “But my parents were smart enough to buy me an instrument that I could turn down when I practiced.”
For three years, Roberts played guitar in the punk rock band, Moot. During this time, after “binging on” Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, some jazz head friends turned him onto jazz artists like Wes Montgomery, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis. While becoming increasingly familiar with some jazz, it was an album Roberts heard as a junior in high school that changed his life.
“It was A Love Supreme that did it.”
The John Coltrane 1965 release created a seismic shift in modern music, blending the saxophone legend’s technical and compositional skills with his ongoing spiritual quest, the latter, which Coltrane described in the album’s almost-equally-famous liner notes. “I had a friend burn that album onto a CD and it was the only thing I listened to for the next two weeks,” Roberts says. “That record has everything in it and is the album I would point someone toward first if they wanted to really know what jazz is.”
Roberts played in his high school jazz band. Upon graduating in 2001, he headed to Jacksonville to study jazz at the University of North Florida. He credits that school’s music program with being crucial to his musical education. “Thankfully, when I was there, I was inside of this nest of incredible guitar players like [instructor] Barry Greene and James Hogan.”
But as the local gigs increased, he left school to focus on life as a working musician. A five-year gig at Kickbacks Gastropub with trumpeter Ray Callender helped solidify Roberts’ visibility on the local jazz scene, along with countless gigs both as a sideman and soloist.
For the past eight years, Roberts has made a living solely through playing jazz. This is no small feat, considering the lightning-fast feed of trends, artists, and music that dictate what many actually enjoy. Let alone, trying to play the music through what some think is an antiquated art form. But from intimate settings to corporate and wedding gigs, Roberts is an on-call player whose reputation is backed up by his professionalism and killer skills.
Key to Roberts’ popularity is his innate ability to keep pace with that barrage of musical information, reinterpreting pop, soul, R&B, and rock tunes old and new, all explored through the jazz sonic idiom. “I find myself focusing on a whole lot of Stevie [Wonder] – he’s someone that I always go back to…just a genius,” he says. Along with covers and standards, he has dropped in original tunes (his song “Katherine” is regularly featured) and a forthcoming album is in the works.
Roberts is equally known for playing a semi-hollow-body, 7-string Benedetto brand guitar. While nu-metal popularized the electric 7-string guitar, adding a kind of sub-Sabbath low end to heavy-ass rock, in Roberts’ hands, the instrument helps him create chords and riffs that would be more difficult, if not impossible to play, on a standard six-string instrument. “From playing duo gigs, I thought a little extra low end would be cool. And it was a total leap of faith and the most expensive one I’ve ever taken,” he explains, of the custom-made Benedetto’s price tag. “But it has really paid off.”
At his gigs, Roberts has noticed the phenomenon where increasingly open-minded audiences, many of them younger, are totally receptive to his playing George Harrison in lieu of just jazz tunes by George Benson.
“I feel like there’s also a rebirth now with jazz. I have young people asking me to play Django [trailblazing jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt] – and that is just blowing my mind. I recently had a 70- year-old couple dancing to ‘Runaway’ by Kanye West and they told me they thought it was a ‘beautiful song,’” he laughs. “I’m pretty good at ‘reading’ the crowd, but those surprises are nice, too.”
Roberts has performed at the Jacksonville Jazz Festival and opened for some heavyweight players, including the late New Orleans music legend, Allen Toussaint. This past February at the Heartwood Soundstage in his hometown, Roberts was invited to share the bill with one of his all-time music heroes: Charlie Hunter. Roberts had been in contact with the elder guitarist through social media; the pair formally met in February of 2017, when Hunter led a workshop and played a gig at CoRK Arts District in Riverside.
“We stayed in contact for the next year; I’d send him videos of me playing and he’d send me advice and suggestions – and encouragement more than anything. He’s such a great dude.” A video of Roberts’ full performance can be seen on his YouTube channel: Taylor Roberts.
As jazz and pop continue to intermingle and morph, Roberts plans on staying right in the swim; improvising on, even possibly improving upon, musical styles that remain separate until the listener simply opens their minds.
“The term jazz itself I’ve stopped trying to defend,” Roberts says, of people’s sometimes-misunderstandings of the music, let alone the category. “But despite all of the music I play, that jazz accent is always there.”