Published October 27, 2021
As UB junior Marcus Lolo walked onto the stage in the majestic Lippes Concert Hall in Slee Hall earlier this month and approached the concert grand Steinway piano, he faced the familiar leap of faith that comes before he begins to play.
It’s an exercise in confidence and vulnerability, he says. It’s overcoming mental doubt that accompanies his live, organic performances while looking for that exhilaration that follows when connecting with his audience.
This time, though, Lolo faced arguably the biggest honor the university can confer on a student musician. He was the hand-chosen, hands-down choice to enhance the video shown during President Satish K. Tripathi’s State of the University address.
Lolo calls it the moment of truth, a cliff jump toward something remarkable, magical. Engage your audience. Move them with a creation that establishes this bond within that lovely room.
Spoiler alert: Lolo, a 27-year-old piano performance major who stretches the boundaries of being a student, nailed it. The ovation from those listening to Tripathi’s annual speech tipped the applause meter as much as anything that day.
“I would call it ‘knocking it out of the park,’” says Jonathan Golove, chair of the Department of Music, who along with colleague and piano professor Eric Huebner, chose Lolo to perform that day. “He was extremely poised with a sense of gravitas. He’s an undergraduate, but he comes across as a person with greater depth of experience than you might expect, one who inspires confidence.”
Before beginning his original creation that served as the soundtrack to the video highlighting 175 years of UB history, Lolo paused and gathered himself. The UB community watched and waited. Sure enough, those inner voices of doubt morphed into something else.
“The moment you are engaged — as soon as I played my first note — that uncertainty goes away,” says Lolo, who came to UB as an engineering major and vows to finish that degree when he completes his musical study.
“It’s like jumping off a cliff. Are you going to fall or fly? You have already done what you needed to do, which is play the first note. So now you are already in. You might as well give it your best shot.”
Lolo’s best shot is impressive, indeed. He gives new meaning to community-minded undergraduates. He’s the force behind a community music school filling “a pressing need in the community for artistic expression,” he says emphatically. The multi-platformed and well-conceived release of his “ode to democracy” single dedicated to Haitian musician Manno Charlemagne — a voice against the brutality of Haitian dictatorships — used local musicians and a locally produced video.
There’s more to Lolo’s resume. But anyone interested in his power to inspire should be there when Lolo finds himself at a piano and starts improvising versions of “Georgia on My Mind,” one more fluid and expressive than the other.
“I love Ray Charles,” he says.
Clearly, this is not your parents’ undergraduate experience.
“To me, it’s freeing and exhilarating,” he says a few days after his Lippes performance, which included formal wear (“I like to look good, man,” he says), no music and deep, refined bows. “As soon as you get into it, you get into the groove. With every note you play you regain your confidence in the fact you know what you are doing.”
Lolo’s mentors picked him for good reason. Golove compared the assignment to a sophisticated version of the live pianist following action for a silent movie.
With his blend of classical musical training and improvisation roots in jazz and spirituals, Lolo came well-prepared. He saw the video Monday, developed ideas Wednesday and played his original work Thursday for the rehearsal, winning approving smiles from the president’s office. The performance was Friday.
Lolo called it “Epopée Impromptue” — roughly translating to “Impromptu Epic” — paying homage to the “epic” of UB’s 175-year journey, as well as those musical roots he brings from his French Haitian upbringing. From the opening designed as “someone falling into a dream,” to building harmonic tensions between eras, to a Disney movie motif, “Epopee Impromptu” called the audience to follow Lolo on a journey reflecting the university’s, complementing the storytelling.
“I needed something that would say ‘This is where we came from and this is where we are now,’” he says. “At the end of the day, there is cohesion between what they are seeing and hearing.”
Total time it took to develop the musical theme: 30 minutes.
“It’s not like I came up with those ideas from scratch in 30 minutes,” he says. “I have the tools. I know what those chords are. I know what feelings they relay. It’s borrowing from the years of work I have done, and studying harmony and structure, and I borrowed from the theory class I am taking right now.
“Not that written music is antiquated, but improvised music is the language of the future. I am using devices from both classical education here and also my tradition of gospel and jazz. I still perform in church every week. Those are environments that prepare you to come up with creative ideas on the spot.
“It turns you into an idea machine. You have to generate new ideas and play things that are your own, or at least borrow them gracefully from other people.”
Besides playing holiday music at pre-pandemic parties at the UB President’s Residence on LeBrun Road, Lolo’s redefinition of student accomplishment goes on and on. He is music director at Emmanuel Temple S.D.A. on East Ferry Street and band leader at Macedonian Baptist Church on East North Street, considered one of the most important African American cultural centers in Western New York. Jazzbuffalo.org called him one of Buffalo’s emerging next generation of jazz artists. He is music director at the Love Supreme School of Music, 641 Masten Ave., which gives free lessons to a growing number of underserved children between 5 and 18.
The education for those students learning improvisation goes beyond music.
“They have a broader idea on how to tackle academic or general life problems by making smart, creative decisions in the moment,” Lolo says.
Just about all of it follows his parents’ example of education and music.
“Nothing gives me more joy than to watch students of mine who could barely read two notes at a time last year fly through a Bach piece this year,” he told Jazzbuffalo.
Careful to honor his accomplished UB mentors — including adjunct instructor of music and Grammy Award-winning pianist George Caldwell — Lolo calls studying piano at UB “by far one of the most defining events of my life.”
Their influence taught Lolo a lesson central to his past, present and future.
“The music in me,” he says, “was worth sharing.”
I loved this story. Uplifting. Inspiring. And the music ... well, what more can I say? Thank you, Marcus, for sharing your gift!
Arlene F Kaukus
This student was absolutely fantastic and I encourage everyone to watch his performance above. He has such a bright future ahead of him.