Perry Robinson 1938-2018

The clarinetist helped establish a place for his instrument in jazz’s more exploratory corners

Perry Robinson
Perry Robinson (photo: Peter Kuhn)

Virtuoso clarinetist Perry Robinson, one of the last remaining voices of the 1960s New Thing, died peacefully at a Jersey City rest home on Dec. 2. He was 80. Robinson had undergone heart valve surgery earlier in the year and never fully recovered.

Though not a high-profile player, Robinson was a musician’s musician, and he made serious contributions to jazz and its derivatives for 60 years. On the timeline of freely improvising players, Robinson was the leading exponent on clarinet after Jimmy Giuffre and before John Carter. Time and again he fell away from the New York jazz spotlight, only to turn up in another city, playing in a new format. He recorded over 120 albums in his career.

The son of labor union songwriter Earl Robinson (“Joe Hill,” “Ballad for Americans,” “The House I Live In”), Perry Morris Robinson was born in New York on Sept. 17, 1938, and his family moved to Los Angeles when he was five. He took up the clarinet in school and studied with Kalman Bloch, principal clarinetist with the L.A. Philharmonic. Back in New York, he attended the Music and Arts High School and gravitated to jazz, though the influence of folk legends like Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly, whom he’d met through his father, never left Robinson. A folk quality was always part of his playing.

“Tony Scott was my mentor,” Robinson declared in 2015. “He had the biggest sound of any clarinet player and he would play with anyone—even free players.” A move to Spain put Robinson in pianist Jon Mayer’s band, with bassist Chuck Israels and drummer Arnie Wise. They were the country’s first resident jazz band. “Perry played his personality,” Mayer recalled in 2015, “playful, fun-loving and inquisitive.”

Time spent at the Lenox School of Jazz ignited Robinson’s interest in free playing. There seemed to be little room for the clarinet in modern jazz, but he brought the language of the saxophone—via Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane—to the instrument. His first album as a leader, Funk Dumpling (Savoy, 1962), established him as the clarinet voice of his generation. His sound was expressive and his imagination was fluid, with melodic contours.

Saxophonist Peter Kuhn was inspired to take up clarinet after he heard Robinson on Henry Grimes’ The Call (ESP-Disk’, 1965), and he studied with Robinson. “Perry made incredible sounds,” Kuhn says, “but it was all an extension of human speech. He played free but he could play changes like nobody’s business.He also had a deep knowledge of traditional players. I’d heard Pee Wee Russell, but Perry knew all of his different periods, and he also knew the music of others like Johnny Dodds.”

Robinson played with pianist Burton Greene in many configurations, including the latter’s Klezmokum band. “Perry and I were very close,” Greene relates, “especially because of the intense and varied music we shared together at different times over many years. He was and is an indomitable spirit whose music, like his spirit, will live on for the generations to come!”

The 1970s were a watershed period for Robinson. He was part of the Jazz Composers Orchestra, played on Carla Bley’s opera Escalator Over the Hill and Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, and was a fixture at Environ, John Fischer’s space during the New York loft jazz boom. But Robinson was also part of keyboardist Darius Brubeck’s band, which melded into Two Generations of Brubeck. That took the clarinetist to some of the biggest concert stages in the world. “Perry liked anyone who had something to say on their instrument,” Kuhn says.

Intriguingly, Robinson had a parallel career as a magician—a passion since childhood. That spun off into a study of numerology, and he gave readings to wealthy clients. “Perry wore these special shirts everywhere,” his longtime friend Lydia Saltzman reports, “and they had pockets sewn into them. He kept magic tricks in them and he’d pull them out anywhere—even during a music performance. He always amazed people with how good he was.”

“Perry was all about love and forgiveness,” Kuhn maintains. “I’ve seen him give away three different clarinets. He was the coyote spirit. He had more talent and knowledge than anyone I’ve ever known.”

Robinson never married and has no known survivors.