Ragtime pianist and composer Reginald R. Robinson is one of 23 recipients of the 2004 MacArthur Fellowship, also known as the “genius grant.”
The fellowship, awarded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, includes $500,000 in support paid out over the next five years. There are no rules regarding how this money is to be spent. The fellowship is designed to highlight the importance of the creative individual in society and fellows are chosen based on their originality, creativity, and their potential. Nominees are never informed of their nomination and the winner only finds out after he or she receives the official phone call.
Robinson, 31, said he plans to reach out and educate the public, especially children, about ragtime and its place in American history, touching on a point of personal importance. Robinson’s history with music began at the age of 13, when he dreamed of being a ragtime pianist after a group of musicians came to his Chicago grade school and played “The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin. After repeatedly asking his mother for a keyboard so he could learn to play ragtime, she finally bought him a little toy electronic keyboard to get him started. At the same time, he was regularly making trips to the library to read about the music and research other African-American music.
He soon traded his simple keyboard for an old, beat-up spinet and continued to teach himself to play by listening to recordings. “It was all by ear. I taught myself the major scales-I was playing in every major key and right away I started composing. I couldn’t read or write music, but I would dream of writing music. I would look at books of music and be really depressed because I couldn’t read or write music,” Robinson said in a press release.
When he was 15, he bought the record that served as his first inspiration-Joplin’s “The Entertainer.” “It was very complicated music for two hands,” says Robinson. “I used to listen to the records and play along with my hands in the air. At first, because it was a poor recording, I only heard the bass note in the left hand. Then I got some better recordings and I learned what the left hand was doing. One of the songs I learned by ear was “The Weeping Willow Rag.”
That same year, he enrolled in the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago and as he became more experienced, he began writing scores of compositions. The inspirations for his compositions come from a variety of sources. He said that when he wrote “The Scamp,” he “was thinking about someone who wore a black top hat, like a villain in a silent movie. I could see the guy tying a lady down on the tracks-one of those kinds of guys with a cigar. I wrote ‘Knuckle Fingers’ after I heard about a piano player in St. Louis during the ragtime era named Knuckle Fingers.”
Robinson’s talent was immediately recognized after he released his first demo in 1992. Chicago label Delmark Records signed him and has released three of his albums: The Strongman (1993), Sounds in Silhouette (1994) and Euphonic Sounds (1998). Since he signed to Delmark, Robinson has performed throughout Europe and the United States, including the Chicago Jazz Festival, the Ravinia Festival, and the Gilmore Keyboard Festival. More information on the MacArthur Foundation and Reginald Robinson can be found at www.macfdn.org.