Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Robinson, Reginald R.

Reginald R. Robinson is a pianist and ragtime composer who plays contemporary piano pieces composed in the styles of Scott Joplin (c.1867-1917), Joseph Lamb (1887-1960), and James Scott (1885-1938), which he infuses with his own vision of jazz piano, which includes influences from classical, Latin American music and the blues.

Robinson was born in Chicago on October 19, 1972. As a child he grew up hearing his parents listen to music of all sorts, including contemporary jazz, classical, blues, rhythm 'n' blues country & western, and pop. “Personally I was listening to whatever songs that were hit the radio in the 1970s and 80s,” Robinson has said.

Robinson first played music on homemade instruments, accompanying his brother Marlando on guitar, who also introduced him to big band music. He first heard ragtime at age thirteen when a traveling arts program called "From Bach to Bebop visited the Robert Emmett Elementary School, where he was a student. The program was led by trumpeter Orbert Davis, who went on to found the 55-piece Chicago Jazz Philharmonic.

After this first exposure to ragtime, Robinson he began to research Scott Joplin on his own, then taught himself to read and write music by studying borrowed textbooks, and by comparing ragtime transcriptions to piano roll recordings of the same music. “I began playing the piano in 1986, starting on a small electronic keyboard that my parents purchased as a gift for the family on Christmas. Then the following year my mother purchased a real 88-key piano from a moving neighbor.”

He dropped out of school and used money he earned to pay for lessons at The American Academy of Music and at a local piano store.

In 1992, Robinson was introduced to multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan and pianist Jon Weber, who helped him record a demo tape. Robinson then took the tape to Delmark Records producer Robert Koester, who signed the young pianist to a three-album deal and released the tape as The Strongman in 1993.

This album features Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” and 21 originals. Without divorcing rag from its historical context, Robinson’s music feels fresh: there is palpable tension between the left and right hands. Like traditional piano ragtime, there is frequently with a marching rhythm in the left and a syncopated right-hand melody. His themes can be somber, reflective, or vibrant, but all have the formal beauty of earlier rags. At the same time, the music is not an artifact from a museum. Because the rhythm is “ragged” or uneven, and the themes have a humming, joyful quality, their surprise is infectious.

In 2004, Robinson was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, a pivotal turning point in his life. “It has given me freedom to work on my musical craft with the worrying about how I am going to pay my bills or make a living. It has boosted my name from being just a young innovative creator of ragtime to a nationally respected composer of note.”

Robinson, pressed to define the border between ragtime and jazz, said he agreed with New Orleans pianist Glover Compton: “…at the turn of the century, it was called ‘Ragtime’ then later it was called ‘Jazz’ and when Benny Goodman played it, ‘Swing.’ It’s either four beats to a measure or two but it’s all one and the same thing!” Robinson is in the unusual position of being a contemporary ragtime composer. “To be a ‘modern ragtime’ composer to me means to compose music that ties directly into the traditional styles of the pioneers but that continues forward in new directions."

“My original intention was to stay faithful to the styles of my inspirators but I (not too long after figuring out how to maneuver on the keyboard and put stuff down on paper) was composing and writing chords, rhythms, bar extensions past the usual ‘16 measures a theme’ format (which is typical for ragtime music) into a newer style that the older ragtime music didn't come with.”

To this end, Robinson is like a bridge between the Romanticism of turn-of-century piano music and a 21st Century aesthetic of fragmentation, pastiche, and disassembly. He describes Joplin as a true intellectual and as a figure constantly working against post-Reconstruction stereotypes of African-Americans. Joplin’s botanical titles connect, in Robinson’s mind, the flowers and plants that are symbols of everlasting beauty to the immortal quality of the songs he was composing.

“He was moving away from the old negative stereotypes of ‘the coon song’ to an uplifting, new style of music that spoke to blacks at that time. His music was uplifting by way of the highly syncopated melodic rhythms and modern harmonies. They were serious yet joyful songs and often without warning, his music could be somewhat dark and melancholy but even then, his music is a huge step away from the negative energies that surround the many coon songs of his day. I feel he knew that his tunes were divinely sent and that they would live on forever just like the flowers and plants that he named them after. Chrysanthemum, rose leaves/ buds, sycamores trees, palm leaves, maple leaves, pineapples and fig leaves are still around today for us to see and appreciate. So is the appreciation for his work once planted in the heart of the listener.”

Although he sometimes improvises, Robinson’s compositions are through-composed and arranged for sight reading, but composed with improvisation in mind. “Sometimes I ad-lib on any one of my tunes if I’m in the mood,” he said. For the most part, he works out his fingerings at the beginning, but sometimes changes them “to add variety to a tune.”

In the summer of 2007 he reunited with Orbert Davis to perform “Concerto for a Genius” with the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic Orchestra, which included four of Reginald’s original compositions arranged for full orchestra.

The four compositions were taken from Robinson's self-released 2007 recording, Man Out of Time, reflects a variety of composing strategies. Sometimes the ending theme is composed first, then backwards until Robinson reaches the beginning. Other times, he composes the middle section first. He also occasionally composes the whole piece over a period of years, humming it to himself, then never writing it down until much later.

“The 19th Galaxy,” the last piece from this album, shows off Robinson’s skills: with quick runs, Tatum-like sequences of many notes, all while a bass line pumps behind intense right-hand chords, the piece is an exuberant example of what made ragtime popular a century ago. It is a lightning-quick act of finger-busting athleticism. Besides its speed, the ideas spin and morph off the previous ones in a kaleidoscopic, yet clear way.

“Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” a tongue-in-cheek meditation on the end of the world, begins wistfully, but evolves into a complex, savory mélange of classical and jazz elements. Not unlike Marcus Roberts’s experiments with earlier styles or Kyle Gann’s cut-and-paste studies for Disklavier, Robinson seeks a kind of post-classical statement of chords, tremolos, and allusions to modernism.

“The Amethyst” has 19th century allusions, with nods to even Chopin etudes. Conjuring gas lamps and lace, the piece is both somber and whimsical. “Dance of the Sea Creatures” has elements of Rachmaninoff and Fats Waller in overlapping amounts. Without the vigorous blood flow of blues and the freedom of improvisation, Robinson’s music instead has a carefully constructed chamber atmosphere. “Naomi” is a reflective ballad; its rosy optimism is underscored by a wistful blues-like feeling of homesickness.

Robinson’s next project, Reflections, is slated for release in 2009 and ias planned as a 3-disc an anthology of his original music. Among his ongoing projects are a series of interviews he has conducted with people connected to ragtime for a documentary he intends to also release publicly.

Select Discography

The Strongman, Delmark, 1993

Sounds in Silhouette, Delmark, 1994

Euphonic Sounds, Delmark, 1998

Man Out of Time, 88PLAYA Music Inc., 2007

Contributor: Sean Singer