#ChiStories Podcast: The Ragtime of Reginald R. Robinson

Reginald R. Robinson can only write sad when he’s happy.

On this week’s episode of “Chicago Stories,” Mayor Emanuel welcomed ragtime pianist, composer, and scholar, Reginald R. Robinson, to hear about his unlikely career as a self-taught artist, the highs and lows of his creative process, receiving the MacArthur “Genius” grant, and ragtime’s place in American music. He also treated Mayor Emanuel to a rendition of one of his own works, “Sweet Envy.”

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Reginald R. Robinson shares about his life with Mayor Emanuel. (Photo credit: Brooke Collins)
“Ragtime demands attention.”

Reginald is known for being a self-taught artist, but that wasn’t by design.

“I was not trying to be self-taught — I wanted a teacher — but my mom and dad couldn’t afford it,” Reginald told Mayor Emanuel.

Born in 1972, Reginald grew up in Chicago’s West Side and South Side Neighborhoods, and first encountered ragtime after hearing Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” during a 7th-grade school presentation called “From Bach to Bebop,” and was immediately hooked.

Fortunately, Reginald’s mother managed to get a small keyboard for her son, and then later a full-sized piano.

“I was so happy about that, because it was 88-keys,” Reginald recalled, “I was like, ‘man, I’m really going to teach myself.’”

A stirring rendition of “Sweet Envy.” (Photo: Brooke Collins)
“I can’t write music in the dark.”

Reginald may have the seal of a MacArthur “Genius,” but like any artist, his career has seen its share of highs and lows.

In fact, prior to receiving the MacArthur Grant in 2005, he was struggling to make ends meet, going so far as to put out applications and look for “steady money” jobs.

“I was here in the city, trying to make a living in music, and said ‘I’m not getting jobs that I think I should be getting,” Reginald said, “but I understand because the kind of music I like that is coming from my soul, a lot people — you really have to be a fan of that kind of music.”

Reginald has also gone through creative slumps.

“I’m not one of these types of musicians that can write the blues when I’m having the blues — I have to be happy to write sad music,” Reginald said. “The way for me not to be in a slump is to be happy, then I can write all kids of music.”

Mayor Emanuel with Reginald R. Robinson, who performed at this year’s “Pianos in the Parks” kick-off. (Photo credit: Brooke Collins)
“What I’m really interested in is finding the unknown. Finding musicians that are forgotten or obscure, stories that have been long-forgotten.”

In addition to being a performer and composer, Reginald has also become one of the country’s preeminent scholars of ragtime. Naturally, he’s “self-taught” at that as well.

“What I’m really interested in is finding the unknown,” Reginald told Mayor Emanuel. “Finding musicians that are forgotten or obscure, stories that have been long-forgotten.”

Through his career as a scholar, Reginald has found musicians who were operating in Chicago and traveled the country as Vaudeville performers.

“These are black musicians, they traveled around the country, even had music published and did theater, but they are long forgotten,” Reginald said.

Part of the problem is that — while their music was recorded by popular singers — as composers they themselves weren’t given credit.

To help change that, Reginald delves into the newspapers from the day in Chicago and around the country.

“When you look at newspapers, you see where this composer, that song is listen under their name,” Reginald said. “That’s how I find out about and…uncovered some long-forgotten musicians.”

Listen to the full episode as Reginald and Mayor Emanuel discuss:

1:20—The Role of Ragtime 
6:55 — MacArthur “Genius”
11:20 — Writing Happy and “Sweet Envy”
16:24 —Unintentionally Self-Taught
19:05 — Ragtime Moves

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