Ragtime great Reginald Robinson combines education with syncopation

By Joe Riina-Ferrie

Reginald Robinson recreated a musical era in front of a full Fulton Hall on Thursday night with “Rediscovering Ragtime.” The renowned Chicago musician not only performed his own music and that of many other ragtime musicians but also gave an overview of the history of the music and the lives of the composers who created it.

The mood was relaxed as Robinson, 33, sat nonchalantly at the piano and addressed the audience as though engaged in casual conversation. For a well known musician and recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant, he was extremely humble and laid-back.

“Everyone hears about how George Washington Carver invented the peanut; what about Scott Joplin?” asked Robinson, explaining that ragtime should be discussed as an important part of black history and music history in general. He painted a comprehensive picture of that important musical period and genre through a combination of colorful anecdotes, PowerPoint images, and music samples.

“I try not to play the pieces too slow,” said Robinson, after an energetic rendition of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.” “I mean, to each his own, but that just ain’t cool.” His performances of classic ragtime selections were effortless and enjoyable, but most exciting was the prospect of hearing this self-taught musician—who composed his first piece of ragtime music at the age of 13—perform some of his own music.

Unfortunately, the portion of the program dedicated to pieces written by Robinson was too short. As interesting and significant as the historical background of ragtime is, the stronger reason to attend was a demonstration of the talent of Robinson himself, not the musical legacy behind him. Educating people about ragtime is an important part of what Robinson does and it shouldn’t be downplayed. However, while Robinson plays well, there are other people capable of playing piano ragtime and talking about its origins. Robinson’s composition, on the other hand, is unique to him. With this in mind, the program seemed a little too heavily balanced toward history and away from Robinson’s own music.

Robinson played only five of his own pieces, including two of his first and one of his most recent. What he did play was impressive. His earlier pieces were astonishing in their complexity and maturity. He wrote them between the ages of 13 and 16, having taught himself how to play the piano and compose, but they sounded as though they could have been written by one of the ragtime musicians that he had been playing in the first segment of the program. According to Robinson, everything he wrote at that time also served as an exercise to help him learn a new aspect of piano playing.

“I didn’t have exercise books, so I made my own exercises,” he said.

His later works were expressive in a way that is rarely heard in ragtime music. The two pieces that followed his earliest works had extremely lyrical, Spanish-influenced melodies that were brilliant in their simplicity. His last piece, “Footloose,” combined the melodic quality of those works with the playful energy of his early ones to create a ragtime sound that was at once tuneful, dancing, and emotional.

Robinson’s music expands on the foundation of the ragtime music of a century ago, adding and changing melodies and rhythms with a more modern sound, but the influence of the great ragtime musicians of the last century is still clearly audible behind his innovations.

“I give respect to all those guys, because one way or another, I was listening to their music and was influenced by it,” said Robinson.

The free event was the first musical performance sponsored by the Chicago Society, a student organization dedicated to increasing student interaction with leading figures from the University and around the world.

“I was very pleased to see that the full auditorium contained a great mix of students and community members converged in one spot on campus to learn about and experience ragtime,” said Dan Michaeli, president of the Chicago Society.

“Rediscovering Ragtime” was enjoyable for both its musical and educational aspects. The audience learned about a fascinating and oft-overlooked period of musical history and got to hear some of the influences of that musical history on the works of a great contemporary musician.