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Musician, Entrepreneur Shares Notes on Success at Jax JazzFest

Marcus John

Marcus Johnson has a plan. He always has had a plan.

Johnson, an accomplished jazz keyboardist and entrepreneur, shared some insights of his success with jazz fans, AARP volunteers and community leaders May 25 at a reception and book signing honoring him during his visit to the River City to perform at the 2019 Jacksonville Jazz Festival.

Johnson’s advice, spelled out in more detail in his recent book, For the Love Of: Marcus Johnson, is detailed, many-faceted and deeply rooted in his Christian faith. But it starts with a simple acronym: DEPELL.

That stands for “Dream, Environment, Plan, Execute, Listen and Learn.”

It also describes Johnson’s life journey, from a 14-year-old who hated practicing piano to an award-winning musician and entrepreneur with 17 jazz albums, two record labels, a recording studio and a wine company to his credit.

Many people dream of what they want to accomplish, Johnson says. But too often, people put their dreams aside and focus exclusively on making a living.

Johnson encouraged attendees at the reception to do both – focus on making a living but also find a way to make their dream a reality. And it starts, he said, by honing skills and talent through exacting and persistent hard work.

Johnson may have started off hating piano, but after diligently learning his musical craft, he found that musical instruments became important in his life – almost as though they were friends he didn’t want to put aside. “It’s a relationship, and you know what happens with relationships – if you give, you get,” he told attendees at a jazz clinic earlier in the day.

At the AARP reception, Johnson said maximizing your mental and emotional health requires that you manage your environment. If you surround yourself with positive people, images, art and work, and avoid negative influences, you create an environment for success.

But even the right environment won’t produce results if you don’t have a plan, Johnson said. And by a plan, he doesn’t mean a vague idea – he means a detailed, written plan.

Johnson’s musical life branched out into entrepreneurism when he came to the attention of Robert L. Johnson, the founder and executive of Black Entertainment Television. At the time, the younger Johnson was a graduate student at Georgetown University, pursuing first a law degree and then an MBA. But he was building a growing reputation in the Washington, D.C. area as a jazz musician.

At one point, the young musician mentioned to the older business leader that he wanted to start a music label.

Many young musicians have the same dream. But Marcus Johnson didn’t limit himself to a dream. He also had a carefully honed, 70-page business plan, painstakingly edited down from 150 pages. The older Johnson recognized a business opportunity and offered to invest.

Marcus Johnson’s initial business venture with Robert L. Johnson, Marimelj Entertainment Group, became a success, followed by a music label, Three Keys Music, and then a recording studio – and then a wine business.

Why a wine business? Johnson pointed to the last two parts of his formula – Listen and Learn. He had been reading Starbucks executive Howard Schultz’s account of how he helped re-energize Starbucks by redefining the business. Similarly, Johnson envisioned music in a broader frame – not just as music, but as therapy – an art form that people turned to for inspiration, relaxation and contemplation.

Johnson also knew that his audience included many women – and from his many performances in jazz clubs, he knew women often connected with music over a glass of wine.

Once he defined his music business as therapy, and identified his target audience as predominantly women, he understood how starting a wine label was a good fit for both his business and personal goals. For many women, relaxing with a glass of wine and music is therapy.

The lesson, Johnson said, is to continually listen and learn – listen to what others have to say and learn how you can apply their lessons to your own life.

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