Ragtime revival


Toward the end of composer and pianist Reginald Robinson’s 90-minute ramble through ragtime’s history and music—punctuated by dizzying renditions of seminal songs and a digital slideshow of genre greats—the 2004 MacArthur “genius” award winner tried to describe ragtime’s rapturous hold over him: “It’s just something I had to play,” he said. “I wanted to play ragtime before I knew I wanted to play piano.” Seated at Fulton Recital Hall’s grand piano last Thursday night in a Chicago Society–sponsored event, the 33-year-old offered a full house of listeners a presentation that was half-concert, half-lecture. Sketching the contributions of ragtime composers like Scott Joplin, Louis Chauvin, Jelly Roll Morton, Eubie Blake, and James Scott, he explained ragtime’s particular rhythm, its use of syncopation, and its journey from New Orleans’s Congo Square to brothels and dance halls across the country and, later, onto concert stages. He argued for the continuing significance of ragtime in a hip-hop era. “This is music that black people created and then forgot about,” he said. “We tend to make music and then move on, but if you talk about the blues, jazz, hip hop, you’ve got to talk about ragtime too. I hear ragtime in hip hop every day. During Black History Month, everybody wants to talk about how George Washington Carver made the peanut. What about Scott Joplin?”

Robinson was 13 when he wrote his first rag—a short, simple piece he played for the audience. By 16, his work was more sophisticated; that year he wrote a song called “Just Trying to Escape the Devil.” As a grade-schooler on Chicago’s West Side, he’d been entranced when a group of musicians came to his school to offer a demonstration that included ragtime. “I’d heard this music on the ice cream truck plenty of times,” he said. “I thought [Joplin’s 'The Entertainer'] was just the ice cream song.” When he found out it was serious music, he began pestering his mother for a piano. All she could afford at first was a tiny keyboard. “Just two octaves, with small keys,” he said. “But I didn’t care. I didn’t know what an octave was anyway.” Piano lessons were out of the question, so he taught himself, learning to read and write music by using a songbook to follow along with a Joplin recording. “Each piece I composed I tried to make into an exercise,” he said. In 1992 he took a demo tape to Delmark Records, where the producers immediately signed him. Today he gives lectures and concerts across the country. “I’m trying to put ragtime and Scott Joplin’s legacy in front of people.”


Photo: Robinson discusses, and plays, ragtime.

Photo by Brian Morris.

February 27, 2006