Reginald R. Robinson Biography
Introduced to Ragtime by Ice-Cream Truck, Befriended by Chicago Pianist, Faced Financial Problems
Ragtime composer, pianist
Reginald Robinson makes new piano music in a genre that flourished a hundred years ago. Ragtime, the music that brought African-American syncopated rhythms to a broad American public in the early years of the twentieth century, marked an important stage of American musical history. Yet in recent years it has been mainly cultivated by predominantly white musical nostalgia buffs—until Robinson, a young African-American Chicagoan, came along and extended the ragtime tradition with exciting new compositions. After years of laboring in obscurity, Robinson found his efforts rewarded with a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation fellowship in 2004.
Although he looked backward into musical time, Robinson's story is a thoroughly contemporary one: part of the impetus for his creative activity came from the often violent streets of Chicago's West and South sides, where he grew up. Robinson was born in Chicago in 1972, the year before the film The Sting sparked a short-lived revival of ragtime's popularity. The teenaged Robinson would one day find a copy of that film on video and watch it repeatedly, but as a child he and his five siblings had more immediate problems on their minds. Gunfire in the streets was a common occurrence near their apartment in the notorious Henry Horner Homes project, and one time the family returned from a movie to find burglars in the process of ransacking their apartment. "The front door had melted," Robinson recalled to Howard Reich of the Chicago Tribune. "I guess they used some kind of heating apparatus or something to get in."
Introduced to Ragtime by Ice-Cream Truck
Music provided a respite from the chaos. Robinson immersed himself in his parents' record collection, which ranged from jazz to classical music. One day his attention was snared by an ice-cream truck whose speaker played a catchy, deceptively simple tune. The melody came from a piece called "The Entertainer," composed by Scott Joplin and featured in The Sting—neither one of which Robinson had heard of. A few years later, however, Robinson was attending seventh grade at the Robert Emmet school in Chicago's west-side Austin neighborhood, and a jazz musician from a youth arts program called Urban Gateways happened to play "The Entertainer" on the piano.
"Something was really pulling me into that music," Robinson told Reich. "It's strange to me; I'm still trying to figure that out." Having learned that the music was called ragtime, he proceeded to learn everything he could about it. He collected records and watched silent film comedies that featured ragtime accompaniment. He started asking his parents for a piano and finally got a small electric keyboard and then a spinet model that a neighbor wanted to discard. Meanwhile, the net of urban violence drew closer as Robinson hit his teenage years. His classmates began carrying guns to school, and he saw several get shot. During his freshman year he dropped out and began to spend most of his time teaching himself to play ragtime on the piano. The Tribune's Reich reported that he rarely left his bedroom for three years. He hung red curtains and arranged lamps so that the room resembled a century-old brothel where a ragtime pianist might have played. "I became ragtime," Robinson told Lloyd Sachs of the Chicago Sun-Times. The isolation helped him find a very distinctive musical voice; he later reflected that if he had known at the time about the festivals devoted to classic ragtime, he would have been too intimidated to try to write music of his own.
By the time he was 16, Robinson could amaze relatives with his piano skills and original compositions. He got a job at a T-shirt printing shop (the first of many day jobs whose proceeds would go to his music) and used his earnings to take a few music classes at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago's central Loop. A professor, astonished by how much Robinson had learned without lessons, agreed to continue teaching him for a while, and he also took lessons at a South Side music store. Robinson learned to read music—ragtime, unlike jazz, was usually written down in musical notation—and gained a deeper understanding of the harmonies and forms that gave ragtime its classic sense of balance. On the side, he became an accomplished calligrapher.
Befriended by Chicago Pianist
Finally, local musicians began to get wind of Robinson's talent, and he began appearing on Sunday afternoons at the classic-jazz Green Mill club on Chicago's North Side. Stride-style pianist Jay Weber helped Robinson record a demo tape, consisting mostly of original ragtime pieces, like "The Strongman" and "Poker Face Blues," that he had written in his late teens. Robinson took the tape to Bob Koester, of Chicago's Delmark Records. "When he came in, I thought he was a rap artist, based on the way he looked and the photo of him on his tape," Koester told Sachs. "I started to get my rap ready on the kind of things we don't record. Then I saw the word 'rag' on the end of some of the titles and couldn't believe it." Robinson's debut album, The Strongman, came out on Delmark in 1993; it opened with Robinson's rendition of Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" and followed with 17 Robinson originals.
By that time, the ragtime boom stimulated by The Sting had mostly subsided. Ragtime might be heard on a reconstructed riverboat, in the home of a serious music fan interested in early jazz and its ancestors, or at a festival devoted to the music. But few composers, and fewer still who were African American, were writing new piano rags. Robinson created a sensation with The Strongman. He appeared on National Public Radio's Piano Jazz and signed a management contract with the agent who handled the show's septuagenarian host, Marian McPartland. Soon Robinson was sharing a bill with ragtime veteran Dick Hyman and releasing a sophomore album, Sounds in Silhouette (1994). He delved more deeply into the history of ragtime, discovering a photograph of Joplin at Nashville's Fisk University that showed a snatch of sheet music containing a previously unknown Joplin composition propped on a piano. Robinson performed that Joplin fragment in 1998 on his third Delmark album, Euphonic Sounds.
The title track of that album was a piece Joplin had written near the end of his life, full of unexpected harmonic turns and a freeform approach to ragtime's usually strict sectional structure. Robinson's own music often followed similar lines. At times he seemed almost able to channel the spirit of Joplin, whose music he had learned by ear as a teenager from an album featuring Joplin's performances of his own works on piano rolls. His performances of Joplin's rags resembled Joplin's own, departing from the notated music in similar ways without reproducing them note for note. And Robinson's originals were complicated pieces that seemed to push, both structurally and technically, against the boundaries of the classic ragtime language. Robinson's rags were difficult for even experienced jazz pianists to play. "God, it would take me hours—years—to learn them," McPartland told Sachs. Occasionally Robinson ventured into vocal music or recorded other music of the ragtime era; Euphonic Sounds featured his rendition of the so-called "Negro National Anthem," James Weldon Johnson's "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing."
Faced Financial Problems
Despite praise from well-known figures like McPartland, Robinson fell on hard times after his first flash of celebrity faded. His albums on the small Delmark label brought him advances of between $1,000 and $3,000, plus royalties—not nearly enough to live on even though he moved in for a time with his mother, Janet. On the more lucrative ragtime festival circuit, Robinson was a fish out of water. "When you go to those ragtime festivals you see those little group of people with suspenders and ragtime buttons jumping around doing the cakewalk," Robinson explained to the Chicago Reader. "It's different for me. I live in Chicago and when I write a rag I can hear gunshots outside." He began taking odd jobs to make ends meet: at a packaging company in Chicago's suburbs, as a porter for a downtown carrental agency.
Robinson assembled his fourth album; self-produced, it was entitled Man Out of Time. (One of his earlier pieces had been called "The Ragtime Pauper.") Those who heard the new album included Reich, who wrote that it "contains one intricate ragtime opus after another, each a world of pitch and rhythm unto itself." Robinson took the album to various labels, feeling that to agree to the $2,000 advance offered by tiny Delmark would be to sign his soul away, but he found no other takers. By 2002 Robinson had become discouraged about his musical prospects. He gradually stopped composing and even practicing. When the MacArthur Foundation called in the fall of 2004 to inform Robinson that he had received one of its $500,000 cash awards, he was lying in a West Side apartment in which the heat had been cut off.
Popularly termed "genius grants," the MacArthur Foundation fellowships are given to individuals not just in recognition of past accomplishments but to enable them to bring their new ideas to fruition. Things turned around in a hurry after Robinson received the award. "Engagements are here now that once seemed impossible to get," Robinson told the Tribune. "This has meant big respect." Looking to the future, Robinson hoped to educate younger audiences about the fascinating but often-forgotten music to which he had devoted his life. He enjoyed performing for young audiences. "Every school I play at, children are fascinated and affected by what I do," he told Down Beat. And he was an energetic advocate for ragtime's continuing relevance. "The syncopation that's in ragtime is in rap," he pointed out to the magazine. "Ragtime back then is like rap today. It wasn't considered music and it was pushed off, and now it's classic."
The Strongman, Delmark, 1993.
Sounds in Silhouette, Delmark, 1994.
Euphonic Sounds, Delmark, 1998.
Man Out of Time, self-issued, 2003.
Chicago Defender, March 30, 2004, p. 13.
Chicago Reader, June 19, 1998.
Chicago Sun-Times, January 30, 1994, p. 1; September 28, 2004, p. 4.
Chicago Tribune, November 21, 1993, p. 14; December 27, 2004, p. 1; May 1, 2005, p. 12.
Columbian (Vancouver, WA), February 12, 1995, p. 1.
Down Beat, December 2004, p. 24.
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, December 7, 1999, p. 6.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 10, 2000, p. C4; September 28, 2004, p. A2.
Winston-Salem Journal, May 19, 2000, p. E5.
"Reginald R. Robinson," MacArthur Fellows Program, www.macfdn.org/programs/fel/fellows/robinson_reginald.htm (May 3, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
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