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Pianist Tries To Revive Ragtime

December 1, 1999

CHICAGO (AP) _ He calls himself a man out of time _ this dapper young pianist who sits at a baby grand playing ``The Maple Leaf Rag,″ a tune Scott Joplin published a century ago.

It may seem that Reginald Robinson is a man out of place, as well.

Raised in some of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods, the 27-year-old pianist often steals away to play ragtime music in a hidden faculty lounge at a technical college on the city’s South Side.

What many may not realize is that he isn’t out of place at all. Just blocks from this makeshift practice room is the intersection of 35th and State streets _ once the center of ragtime in a city more often associated with blues and jazz.

``We might be sitting in a place where they actually played it,″ Robinson says of Joplin, Louis Chauvin and other ragtime greats who once resided nearby and whose work Robinson has included on his three compact discs.

It’s not that he’s trying to play the part of a reincarnated Joplin.

``It’s just the music I love and really cling to,″ says Robinson, one of the only black musicians who play and compose a style of music that has a small but largely white following, despite its roots in the slave plantations of the South.

``People don’t appreciate it nowadays,″ he adds.

Actually, Joplin _ whose music was often dismissed as simple and even trashy during his lifetime _ felt much the same way.

``What is scurrilously called ragtime is an invention that is here to stay,″ Joplin wrote in 1908, nine years before his death and 68 years before his work would be recognized by the Pulitzer Committee.

Ragtime saw a modest revival in the 1940s but was largely forgotten until the movie ``The Sting″ sparked a comeback of Joplin’s music in 1974 _ when Robinson was in diapers.

His own introduction to ragtime came in 1985 when a group of musicians played Joplin’s ``The Entertainer″ at a junior high assembly. Almost immediately, Robinson was hooked and set out to dissect ragtime’s three parts _ two played by the left hand.

``The bass note is carried like on a tuba or a trombone or a bass fiddle. ... And the middle, that part is like a banjo strumming,″ Robinson says.

The right hand adds the melody.

``To get that, I was doing like this at first, kind of just getting the rhythm,″ Robinson says, patting the notes on his thighs as he did when he first started copying what he saw on TV and heard on records.

``Then when I got to the piano, it was actually easier to play,″ he says.

Getting a piano was the hard part.

Robinson’s mother bought him a small keyboard when he was 13 _ then a larger one the following Christmas. When he was 15, a departing neighbor gave them her piano so she didn’t have to move it.

``I mean, a real piano,″ Robinson says, his eyes widening at the word ``real.″

``When she brought it in, my brothers and sisters and people in my family were trying to sit down and hog the piano. Everybody was hogging it.

``I guess I won that battle,″ he adds, still grinning at the victory.

Even now, Robinson has a hard time explaining exactly what it is about ragtime _ especially Joplin’s music _ that touches him so deeply.

``What is it? Some sort of brain defect?″ he says, laughing.

The obsession even sent him and a friend to Nashville’s Fisk University to dig up a photograph of Joplin sitting at a piano with a handwritten piece of music in front of him. After enlarging the photo, they could see page two of a previously unknown composition.

That music fragment _ 28 seconds in all _ is the first cut on Robinson’s latest album, ``Euphonic Sounds.″

Edward Berlin, one of the country’s foremost experts on ragtime, says he’s heard Robinson play at ragtime festivals for at least five years.

``He’s really coming into his own,″ says Berlin, author of several books, including a Joplin biography. ``He is truly an imaginative and talented musician.″

Robinson’s penchant for pushing the envelope has, however, raised a few eyebrows, including a rag/rap piece he played at the renowned ragtime festival in Sedalia, Mo., another Joplin haunt.

``People were shocked by it because it was an older crowd,″ he says, explaining how other of his compositions might incorporate a bit of Latin or classical music _ or even some John Lennon.

``Or I might come from a different angle _ mix blues, mix gospel in one piece,″ Robinson says.

His willingness to take chances has drawn praise from music critics, including the Chicago Tribune’s Howard Reich.

``Far more than just a proficient imitation of historic ragtime forms, Robinson’s rags sound as fresh, real and vital as the Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Chauvin originals that inspired them,″ Reich wrote in one review.

Despite the critical acclaim, making it as a musician hasn’t been easy. To make ends meet, Robinson plays with a jazz band called Bowl of Fire. He’s also held jobs at a dollar store and a silk-screening shop.

``I really hate jobs, I really do _ nine to fives,″ says Robinson, who still lives with his mother in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood.

His distaste for regimented schedules doesn’t surprise folks at Delmark, the Chicago-based record label that has produced Robinson’s CDs.

``He’s just the kind of artist who is so involved with his art that other things don’t really occur to him until later,″ Delmark spokesman Doug Engel says.

That includes the fine art of self-promotion, which Robinson tends to avoid.

``It’s not an ego thing. I don’t want to be a big star and all that stuff,″ he says. ``I just want my music to be heard, that’s all.″

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