Not every production boasts a certified MacArthur genius as an accompanist. But trust the Old Town School of Folk Music to know a musical talent when they see one.
Jazz pianist and composer Reginald R. Robinson, 39, plays piano and contributes a few of his own neo-ragtime compositions to the school’s first excursion into theater, Keep a Song in Your Soul: The Black Roots of Vaudeville. Opening tomorrow and running just through Sunday, the piece is set during the Great Migration, 1910-1930, and looks to be a hand-clapping, foot-stomping good time.
When Robinson got the $500,000 award, in 2004, he was flat broke and considering quitting the business. A Chicago native, he’d grown up too poor to afford music lessons. He dropped out of school at 15 to teach himself to play piano—a decision aided by his new neighborhood and high school in the Back of the Yards.
“I was sort of pushed,” Robinson says. “I could stay in school at that point and risk getting shot or jumped on. There was a lot of bad things happening in the school, in the area. And I was like, ‘Do I wanna continue to go through this? Or do I want to stay home?’” Sounds like a no-brainer, though quitting school isn’t usually the best way to pursue a career.
“My parents strongly objected to me leaving school,” says Robinson. “You know, they were typical caring parents: they did not want me to drop out. But I’d be getting to school late, and all kinds of stuff…. So I stayed home and mastered the music I wanted to play for the rest of my life.”
“I didn’t realize it would turn into anything like this. I just went along, doing the music, and one thing led to another.”
When Robinson went back to school to get his GED in 1992, some of the faculty noticed him writing down music in the hallway. One of them, musician Mac Olsen, invited Robinson to meet his piano teacher, who worked in a violin shop that hosted a jam session every Saturday. One day when Robinson was there, horn player Ira Sullivan came in.
“I couldn’t sit in with the other guys,” says Robinson, “cuz they were reading from charts. So I sat and listened, and after they finished, after about an hour and a half, I got up there and played some solo piano—‘Maple Leaf Rag’ and one of my own pieces, ‘Good Times Rag.’ And Ira Sullivan was like, wow. He said, ‘I know ‘Maple Leaf,’ but what’s that other piece? Is that Scott Joplin?’”
Sullivan introduced him to stride pianist Jon Weber, who paid for Robinson’s first demo and introduced him to Delmark’s Bob Koester. Robinson’s The Strongman came out in 1993; two other albums on Delmark followed. But sales weren’t great. The MacArthur grant enabled Robinson to self-produce Man Out of Time in 2007, made up of pieces he’d composed over the preceding decade; Reflections came out in 2010.
Asked whether the MacArthur award inspired him, Robinson says, “It confirmed what I knew, that my music was worth something. From that, receiving the award, things became easier. It’s like a magic carpet—it helps you go into places that you wouldn’t normally be able to go.”
Fortunately, being a bona fide genius hasn’t gone to his head.
The award, Robinson says, “is like the song, ‘Keep a Song in Your Soul.’ It’s about remembering where you come from. And it’s about the music. It wasn’t about the title. Nobody called me a genius before I got the award. I told myself I was a genius—in the privacy of my own room. ‘Hey, this is a good idea!’ I’d say it in a joking way. ‘This is perfect! Man, I like this!’”
“It was always about the music. Through it all, that’s what kept me going. Whether it’s good times or bad times, always writing music. My story before the MacArthur: it was music!”
Directed by Andrea J. Dymond, Keep a Song in Your Soul is a collaboration between Robinson, Grammy-winning string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Chicago choreographer Reggio “The Hoofer” McLaughlin, all of whom also perform.