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Marcus Johnson has taken a little good luck a long way. When Johnson was 13, his stepfather won the “Pick-3″ in the Maryland lottery, took Marcus down to the Washington Music Center, and bought him a $900 keyboard. Since then, an uncompromising vision combining music and business has set Johnson on a highly independent course through Howard University, Georgetown University Law Center, and on to a recent stop in the upper reaches of the Billboard magazine contemporary jazz charts. Johnson’s fourth CD, “Urban Groove,” debuted at No. 18 when he released it last year. But Johnson is much more than the keyboard player of a sophisticated blend of R’n'B and jazz sounds. He owns the record label, is the composer and publisher of most of the tunes, and is developing a roster of similarly smooth artists for his D.C.-based Marimelj Entertainment Group. Those who have known Johnson for a while say his homemade success is not a surprise. “Marcus always had a very great talent, musically,” says Georgetown law professor Richard Gordon, whose entertainment law seminar was a springboard for Johnson. “But he also had such a strong practical awareness of what he was up against, and not wanting to become a sort of slave to the recording industry and its usual practices. He’s a remarkable example of someone who has integrated his legal knowledge with his purposes in life.” Johnson’s blend of artistry and achievement seems to go all the way back to that first keyboard. “My mother put a stipulation on it,” says Johnson, 29, while gently improvising over the chord changes to “My Funny Valentine” at Bethesda, Md.’s Avalon Sound Studio. “She said, ‘If you do not do well in school, there’s no way you can play.’ “ At Howard University, he majored in piano with a minor in business administration. Then it was on to Georgetown, where he more or less simultaneously pursued his law degree, an MBA, and bona fides in the music world. “First year [at law school] was crazy,” he says. “I didn’t do much in the music business, because there was no time.” But after his first year, Johnson agreed to an internship at MCA Records in Los Angeles. “I was an unpaid, broke intern,” he recalls. “But I learned a lot about record companies — I saw a lot about what they did right, and a lot of what was wrong.” He says he helped pay his way by offering $120 car washes to the attorneys and moguls of the music industry. “That was my Pick-3,” he says. Though Johnson may have been detailing cars, he was really getting details on how to make his own way in a notoriously difficult industry. He studied artist contracts, from the two-page agreement Bing Crosby signed decades ago to the 50- and 60-page deals for recording stars today, complex arrangements that address everything from international licensing rights to residual royalties for future formats. When he returned, he was one step closer to the dream. During that next school year he began landing engagements in D.C., leading a group in a Sunday brunch gig at an M Street restaurant, Geppetto. At the end of his second year, he again took an unusual turn. Offered a chance to study for the summer at Oxford, he opted to stay home and record his first CD, giving new meaning to the term “studio apartment.” When he graduated from Georgetown in 1997, he says, “I got called into the career services offices on both [business and law] campuses and was asked, ‘Marcus, what are you going to do? You haven’t applied anywhere.’ “ He wasn’t planning to. And he still has no plans to take the bar exam. Instead, he was off and running with the Marcus Johnson Project and Marimelj. “I had the faith to take the risk and try to follow my passion,” he says. To hear “Urban Groove,” his passion is an elegant but still funky take on contemporary jazz and soul. On the tracks “Plush” and “Funk Master,” Johnson maintains a cool, understated soulfulness reminiscent of Crusaders pianist and smooth jazz superstar Joe Sample. Guest vocalists add a spark to a couple of tunes, and elsewhere Johnson goes from finger-snapping streetbeats (“Down Home”) to a reflective turn at the acoustic piano (“The Puzzle”). The sound is as clean, polished, and radio-ready as anything the major labels are touting. Although one cut is called “18th Street Loungin’,” listeners are not likely to catch Johnson very often on D.C.’s local club circuit. He played a CD-release date at Blues Alley in Georgetown last year and has led the Marcus Johnson Project at Zanzibar along the city’s Southeast waterfront, and he’s currently lining up gigs for summer jazz festivals. But he tries to limit his local appearances. “I try not to play too much because I understand about saturation,” he says, seemingly always a blend of musician and manager. “What I try to tell cats is that the money is good, but if you want to make it you have to cut back on local gigs and go regional and national.” Johnson has had solid success taking his dream nationwide. “Urban Groove” stayed in the contemporary jazz top 50 for nearly six months and moved more than 20,000 discs, which is far more than respectable for an independent artist. Last year, Johnson secured a national distribution deal with Lightyear/WEA, which puts his discs in stores across the country and abroad. “A lot of stuff I learned at Georgetown was instrumental in securing the deal,” says Johnson. Nonetheless, he sensibly counts on people who actually took the bar after law school to help nail down this and other deals. He has turned to D.C. sole practitioner Rhonda Robinson and Kenneth M. Kaufman, a partner in Skadden, Arps, Meagher, Slate & Flom’s D.C. office, for help negotiating contracts, publishing rights, and licensing deals. Kaufman, who was a former general counsel for Polygram Music and was the first in-house attorney at the Kennedy Center, says he hardly has a fool for a client. “Marcus certainly has a much greater appreciation of the importance of protecting rights and negotiating appropriate contracts than many artists,” says Kaufman. “I’ve always admired the fact that he has been so devoted to following his musical and creative talents when it might have been easier or more conventional to pursue a career in business or law.” In addition to his four discs, Johnson is also the force behind “It Takes a Village,” a benefit CD that contains music by Johnson and many of his associates, as well as information and contacts for breast cancer victims. His next gig in the District will be at the D.C. Children’s Hospital Center’s annual benefit on May 4 at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. Johnson will also take part in a seminar on recording contracts at a luncheon sponsored by the D.C. Bar on April 18. “Black males get a bad rap for succeeding and not giving back to the community,” says Johnson. “I figured I’d give back this way.” Johnson has often returned to Georgetown to offer the benefits of his experience to Gordon’s entertainment law students. Speaking of one recent visit from Johnson, Gordon says, “He was very compelling. It didn’t matter if the students were black or white or even interested in music. He demonstrates a practical sense of knowing who you are, what you hope to achieve with what you have created — and the sense not to let people pull him around from his first goal: Create beautiful music and get it out to the world.”

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