Interview with Reginald Robinson: Man Out of Time

Reginald Robinson
Reginald Robinson, Ragtime Musician and Composer.
Courtesy of the artist.

Ragtime pianist and composer Reginald Robinson spent the last 10 years working on his latest CD, Man Out of Time, which includes 20 new piano solos. At age 13, after hearing Scott Joplin's The Entertainer at a school concert, Robinson began teaching himself ragtime on a portable keyboard, and he was determined to compose his own songs. In 1992 with the help of school teachers and a fellow musician, he later went on to record his first demo and was immediately signed by Delmark Records. His recordings include The Strongman (1993), Sounds in Silhouette (1994), and Euphonic Sounds (1998). In September 2004, Robinson received the MacArthur Fellowship Grant (popularly known as the “genius grant”). Robinson has performed in Europe and across the U.S., including such venues as the Chicago Jazz Festival, Ravinia, Gilmore Keyboard Festival, Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation Concert Series, and The American Perspectives Program, sponsored by the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago Symphony, and Poetry Foundation.

Lady of Honor Excerpt from Man Out of Time. Courtesy of Reginald Robinson.

Robinson's greatest work to date, Man Out of Time, documents his mastery of form and maturity of gesture on every track. From the nobility of the title tune to the sublime lyricism of So Deeply, from the epic sweep of Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to the dizzying technical feats of The 19th Galaxy, Man Out of Time shows how deeply Robinson has taken his investigations into ragtime. – Howard Reich (Chicago Tribune Jazz Critic, 2007)

ArtStyle: For people who are unfamiliar with ragtime, how would you describe it?

Reginald Robinson (RR): I usually try to explain it in the simplest way I can. Ragtime is nothing more than syncopation against a steady beat. For those who don't know what syncopation is, I try to explain it using claves (pronounced klah-vays).


Usually I bring the claves with me, and I explain about rhythm and beat. I'll play a familiar tune on the piano that everybody knows, like The Entertainer (theme song for the movie The Sting), and then I'll play it without syncopation. I read Scott Joplin's The School of Ragtime, published in 1908, where he explains what ragtime is note for note and where syncopations fall in the score. It's a book intended for amateur musicians who want to learn how to play his music. Reading the book was part of teaching myself how to play ragtime.

For someone who really has no idea even what that means, I'll explain it with the modern music that we listen to. In hip-hop, the hop is the syncopation. It's an anticipated rhythm over a steady beat. It jumps ahead and that's what makes it cool and hip. Rhythmically, hip-hop is the same as ragtime. They both are under- layered by a steady beat and over-layered with an uneven beat. One significant difference is that ragtime uses syncopated melody, and hip-hop uses syncopated words.

ArtStyle: What is the importance of ragtime?

RR: Ragtime was the first popular music out of America to become popular in other countries, and it has influenced all other American forms to follow — blues, jazz, and gospel. The origins of ragtime's syncopated rhythm are direct from Africa. The melodic as well as harmonic theory is European.

ArtStyle: How long did it take you to learn ragtime?

Piano Notes
Piano with Labels

RR: It took me 3 years to master the intricacies of the music (and I immediately started trying to compose) after my mother purchased a little keyboard when I was 13. My parents couldn't afford piano lessons for me, so I started creating charts from two school music books that my two older brothers didn't use any more. I didn't know anything about music, but I learned about it from studying those two books and listening to recordings that I purchased of Scott Joplin's music. I studied the scores from a book of Joplin's complete piano works. And I was able to listen to a piano roll of The Entertainer and followed the notes until I finally caught on. My mother bought me a real piano in June, 1987. It had little stickers on each key with the names for each note.

ArtStyle: When you started taking piano lessons, what did your instructor say?

RR: I told my mother I wanted to go to the American Conservatory of Music. She finally called and talked to a teacher there, and he explained how much the lessons were. Afterwards she said she couldn't afford it. I got a job at a place around the corner from where I lived, which enabled me to take lessons for the last three weeks before music school let out for the summer.

Music Sheet

The instructor gave me all of these advanced exercises (in every key on the piano) to take home and study over the summer. I was hard headed though; I didn't use the exercises for practice. I used it to learn the accidentals so that I could write in the many different keys I was composing music in. Outside of that, I wrote charts out from the books I already had at home.

ArtStyle: What happened after the lessons?

RR: For years to follow, I would make weekend visits back to the school to show the teacher some of my new pieces, and on his breaks between students, he would listen to me play. I played pieces that would be recorded later for the Strongman CD. I would ask him questions like, what do you think about this part right in the score or that part. He would say “They're great! I don't want to change anything you've written.” He could have changed notes and chords if he wanted to in my music but he didn't, and I respect him for that.

ArtStyle: At what point did you feel that you were ready to get your work published?

RR: In 1989, after learning about how to copyright my music from an elderly woman who lived not too far from me, I sent my scores to the Library of Congress. I then tried to get them published with Carl Fisher (music publisher), but they said “We're sorry, but we can't use this music.” I never tried to get it published after that anywhere else.

ArtStyle: How did you get your first CD produced?

RR: I continued to compose from 1989 through 1992. I wrote a lot of music, well over 20 compositions. I went back to school to try to get a GED in 1992. I met some of the faculty at the school. Mac Olsen, a faculty member, was a musician himself, and he found out that I composed and played ragtime, and he said he wanted me to meet his music teacher. So I went to meet Mac's music teacher, Laura Hoffman, who taught piano at a violin shop on Wabash in the Loop (I believe it was named Kagan's Music right next door to Rose Records on the 3rd floor). Every Saturday, there would be a jam session there, and she played piano at these sessions. All of these musicians (some from out of town) would come in and really cut loose. I could never sit in because I didn't know what they knew (jazz).

Scott Joplin
Scott Joplin

She offered to give me lessons in jazz, and she tried to teach me whatever she could but I soon lost interest. I was really interested in playing and composing ragtime. At one of the Saturday jam sessions, I met a guy named Ira Sullivan (a friend of Mac Olsen), who happened to be in town. After everybody finished playing, I sat down and played Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag and one of my compositions Good Times Rag. Ira wanted me to meet Jon Weber, a musician who played downtown at the Four Seasons Hotel. He was the first person I met who played ragtime music in Chicago other than me.

We met at Mac Olsen's house, and I played some pieces for Jon and he was blown away by them. I played for about an hour or more. I played all the pieces that I knew at the time. He asked me if any of my music had ever been recorded. And I said, outside of my home recordings, no. He said we have to get you in the studio. He paid for me to go into the studio, and I went there and recorded everything I knew at the time. This was the summer of 1992. He then set up my first public concert at the Green Mill Jazz Club. Jon played, and I played for an hour, and then we played on two pianos to finish the evening. One thing I will never forget and always thank Jon for was him telling me (before my first performance, when I was nervous about the whole thing), “Don't worry about it. Nobody knows your music except you. If you make a mistake, just keep playing.” That gave me a lot of confidence.

I sold the cassette demo tapes at the performance and that was it. Two to three months before the end of the year, I started thinking about what to do with the recording to get it out to the world. Mac Olson had told me about a record company, Delmark Records, here in Chicago that specializes in traditional jazz and to speak to Bob Koester, so I took the demo over to Jazz Record Mart on Grand Avenue. Koester thought I was a rapper because of the way I was dressed. He looked at the cassette tape and noticed that some of the pieces had rag at the end of them. I said I was interested in recording. He said he would listen to it and let me know something by Tuesday. When I came back on Tuesday, he said you're on, and he wanted to do a recording.

ArtStyle: How do you compose?

RR: The simplest way is I might be listening to some music and I want to make something with the same feeling, heart, and spirit that the piece I'm listening to has. I'll just sit down at the piano and try to figure it out, make new chord progressions first, and then I make a melody over the chords.

Old Piano

I write everything down as I go. At times, I used to take the shade off my lamp so that it would cast shadows on the wall to create an old time candle or gas light effect (like playing in the early 1900s) to give me inspiration. Sometimes music comes to me in dreams. Sometimes a melody would come to me out of nowhere. Everything would be already fully composed. It would emerge in my mind, and I would rush to play it and work the piece out at the piano. I would then put it down on paper afterwards.

ArtStyle: What happened after you did your CD?

RR: My recordings were not making a lot of money. I tried to find a regular 9 to 5 job. Family members said, I told you so. I knew that I didn't get into music for the money anyway. It was always for the love of music. I moved out of my mother's house (the only place where I was truly free to create music), where I didn't have to worry about bills and could just focus on my music all day, everyday. I moved from there and stayed with a friend and things didn't work out after a while, so I moved into my own place and that's when I realized I got inspiration to create music from being around family. I never knew that until I was alone.

I told myself I have to get out and get a job. I didn't mind having a job as a janitor (which I preferred) as long as I could make a living. I didn't have to be rich. I just wanted to be able to live. I wasn’t able to get much work, and I became depressed, and I stopped writing music for a couple of years. As I'm talking to you now, I'm still trying to get out of the musical depression.

ArtStyle: What happened when the MacArthur people called?

RR: I remember praying a lot and I believe a higher power helped me. On the day they called me (it was a Monday around this time of year, September), I remember thinking, why is my life so hard? I'm putting in all of these applications and nobody's called me back. And then I get a call from the MacArthur Foundation, and my life changed right away.

ArtStyle: What are you working on now and what are your plans for the future?

RR: Right now, it's all about investing in myself and getting people to know more about this music that I write and perform. Hopefully, in time to come, my work will be known through orchestrated works for film and theater.

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