Brand New Rag

Making a loving study of history is one thing; burying your head in the sands of time is quite another. Chicago ragtime pianist Reginald Robinson says he finally figured out the difference in 1992–and accordingly, he removed the derby from his day-to-day wardrobe. He was all of 19 at the time. Now clad innocuously in jeans and a sweatshirt, Robinson still sounds wistful as we walk around campus at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he sometimes practices even though he isn’t a student. He points down a street where ragtime icon Scott Joplin used to reside. “Joplin, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Chauvin,” he says, “they all lived in this area, but no one knows or cares.”

If anyone’s ever had an excuse to dream himself into another era, it’s Robinson, who grew up with two sisters and three brothers in a series of projects and cramped apartments on the west and south sides. He still lives with his mother, Janet, near Englewood. Ragtime may seem a strange outlet for a young man like Robinson: though the once vital black music is a cornerstone of jazz, it’s now the province of mostly white scholars and moldy old figs. But since Robinson was 13, it’s guided his every move.

When he was in seventh grade, Robinson and his classmates at the Robert Emmet school in the Austin neighborhood were treated to a demonstration of ragtime by the Urban Gateways program. That very evening Robinson started rooting through his mom’s old encyclopedias for more information. Each new tidbit he unearthed miraculously fed into the next. “One day I was sitting in my bedroom and I heard ‘The Entertainer’ coming from the TV in the next room,” he says. “It was an ad for The Sting, which I’d read about but never seen.” He pestered his mother constantly for a piano, and for Christmas that year she broke down and got him a small keyboard. Before long he was pecking out Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” by ear.

Shortly after the family left Austin for its current home, in 1987, Janet Robinson procured an old spinet from a neighbor who was moving out. Around the same time, despite his mother’s protestations, Reginald dropped out of Tilden Edward high school–but not simply to throw himself into music. “People’s attitudes were totally different from where I had grown up on the west side,” he says. “There were lots of gangbangers and I wasn’t used to that. The teachers didn’t care if you did your work or if you paid attention.” By the following year he’d composed 15 original rags and had taken to wearing vintage suits and a derby around the neighborhood.

But Robinson was still playing by ear, unable to read music or transcribe his own work. So with money earned from a job at a T-shirt printing company, he bought three lessons at the American Conservatory of Music, in the Loop. When the money ran out, his impressed teacher continued to give him pointers. Soon Robinson switched to doing grunt work at a Field’s piano store on the south side, where other employees gave him further informal lessons. At home he refined his rudimentary education by listening to Joplin recordings and comparing them note for note to the sheet music.

Robinson’s 1992 conclusion that his quaint outfits were “crazy” is emblematic of other sensible decisions he made that year. Much to his mother’s delight, he began taking classes through Jobs for Youth with the intention of getting his GED. One of his teachers there recommended him to local pianist Jon Weber, who arranged a gig for the young man at the Green Mill and helped him record a demo tape. Robinson gave the tape to Jazz Record Mart owner Bob Koester, who also runs the Delmark label, and Koester quickly signed him.

The six original songs on Robinson’s recently released third album, Euphonic Sounds, reinforce his reputation as one of the most important voices in contemporary ragtime–a talent more concerned with pushing the boundaries of the genre than pleasing revivalists–though the album as a whole is actually more reverent than either of its predecessors. The Strongman (1993) and Sounds in Silhouette (1994) both featured almost exclusively original material. The first record swept Robinson up in a rush of celebrity–he was even invited to play on Marian McPartland’s long-running public-radio program, Piano Jazz. But after the second, Robinson says, he found himself excluded from ragtime festivals he’d played the year before. “When you go to these ragtime festivals you see this little group of people with suspenders and ragtime buttons jumping around doing the cakewalk,” he says. “It’s different for me. I live in Chicago and when I write a rag I can hear gunshots outside.”

Still, within its first minute Euphonic Sounds is bound to elate more than a few of ragtime’s most conservative fans: the album opens with a snippet of a song by Joplin that no one else, including the master himself, has ever recorded. Examining a 1947 photo of Joplin’s piano in one of his books some years ago, Robinson tried in vain to read the sheet music propped up on the stand. When he came across a larger reprint of the photo more recently and still couldn’t identify the tune, he called on a fellow ragtime nut, Jimmy Corrigan cartoonist Chris Ware, whom he’d befriended in the piano practice rooms at Harold Washington Library Center in 1993. Robinson asked Ware to blow up the photo on his computer; Ware obliged and even worked out a bit of the music, which he played for Robinson over the phone. “My eyes started watering immediately,” Robinson says. “I kept asking him to play it over and over again.” The two tracked down the original photo at Fisk University in Nashville and eventually were able to decipher the 30 seconds of music Robinson plays on the album.

Though ragtime remains his first love, lately Robinson has been exploring slightly more contemporary styles, playing revisionist stride and swing with Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire. The band’s been performing every Friday and Saturday night at the Mercury Theater on Southport, and the three solo pieces Robinson plays at the end of the first set are a highlight of the show. The run will probably end either this weekend or next; call 773-486-7767 for more information.


If you weren’t looking for it you probably didn’t notice that the second annual MOBfest takes place this weekend. That’s because the acts performing at the various talent showcases around town are no different from what you’d find in Chicago on any given weekend. And since MOB is an acronym for “music over business” it’s interesting that in its Reader ad last week the festival touted its business seminars without ever mentioning the shows. Also, the registration fee has been hiked, from last year’s $35 to $50 this year.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Reginald Robinson photo by Nathan Mandell.