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A Fireside Chat With Perry Robinson


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It was all amazingly beautiful and I could see his old energy coming back and now, he is just powerful. We did a three hour live recording. We?re going to be going out as a trio now.
—Perry Robinson on Henry Grimes
Admittedly, I had forgotten about Perry Robinson prior to listening to William Parker's Bob's Pink Cadillac session. Certainly, Robinson wasn't silent pre-Parker Clarinet Trio. The clarinetist has been on record with Lou Grassi as a member of his PoBand since the late Nineties and Gunter Hampel during the early Eighties, but it was Bob's Pink Cadillac that helped me fully appreciate his recordings for ESP and Savoy ( The Call, Funk Dumpling ). As interesting as Perry Robinson's music is, his life is even more so. So it should be no great surprise that Robinson has a book chronicling his journey. Life and music, Robinson touched on both, as always, unedited and in his own words.

Fred Jung Let's start from the beginning.

Perry Robinson: My father was the composer, Earl Robinson, Fred. My father was a famous American composer. He wrote 'House I Live In,' the song that Frank Sinatra made famous. They made a movie of that and he wrote the music to that. He came from Seattle. He was a composer that graduated from the University of Washington and came to New York in the Thirties and joined up with Woody Guthrie, that whole group, the whole socialist, working group at the time.

So I grew up with my father as a musician. I had all kinds of music in my house, from folk music, classical, and jazz. I was just born with it. I started on piano when I was about seven or eight for a couple of years. I had problems reading on the piano. I started clarinet at about nine or ten and that was it. I started listening to Benny Goodman and all the music that my dad had and of course, I knew Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, all these people were childhood remembrances. They all used to come to the house. My father also wrote, did you see the Woodstock movie? He wrote 'Joe Hill.' He is a famous American composer. He died in '91. He did a lot of stuff through the years, 'Ballad for Americans,' Paul Robeson.

That is how I got into music. My grandfather brought me a clarinet when I was about nine. I had problems reading on the piano and there was a bunch of stuff that happened. Then I switched to clarinet at that time because my grandfather brought me and my cousin, who was Alan Arkin, the actor. He is my first cousin. I studied acting with him. I was born in New York, September 17, 1938. When I was four or five, my dad got, because of all the famous songs he wrote in those days, he got asked to go to Hollywood and so we moved out to Hollywood when I was four or five. I lived there until I was twelve and my dad was writing for films there.

Then the blacklist came, McCarthy and he was part of that whole thing. My dad was a Communist in the Thirties with Pete Seeger and all those guys. I grew up this way with him being blacklisted. I was young and didn't fully understand it. Then we moved back to New York because he wouldn't comply with all the stuff. They wanted him to give names. It was a very heavy time. This was in the late Forties, early Fifties. We came back to New York and moved to Brooklyn and my dad gave up his writing.

Anyway, Alan Arkin is on my mother's side, my Jewish mother's side, Russian Jewish. He is my mother's sister's son. His brother, Bob Arkin is a jazz bassist living in New York, a wonderful player. So I studied acting with Alan when I was young in Los Angeles. I started studying right away as soon as we got back and then I went to the Music and Art high school, which was very important A lot of great musicians went there like Pete La Roca, Eddie Gomez, Shorty Rogers way before, a lot of great musicians came from there. So that was a great influence for me. That is where I met my first friend. Do you know a pianist named Jon Mayer?

FJ: He lives in Los Angeles.

PR: He is my dear friend from high school. He is one of my closest friends from high school. We've been in contact. We had a reunion. I went to the Lennox School of Jazz in 1956. I met Jon in high school. We were the closest of friends. We played together all the time. We had a group.

FJ: What was your approach to playing an instrument largely defined with swing?

PR: What happened was that I played clarinet classically for many years. Then in high school, I also had an infatuation with the sax. My dad knew Charlie Mingus when he was in L.A. and my dad took me to jam sessions. The first time I saw Buddy Collette, I was about ten or eleven. I had been playing clarinet a couple of years and then I saw Buddy Collette at this jam session with Charlie Mingus and he was on alto and I just liked the look of the saxophone. So I actually went to the sax for a while and played a bit with it and kind of gave it up. Then when I went to the School of Music and Art, I started playing sax in the band just for gigs. Still, the clarinet was my main thing, but I saw that on sax, I was getting more work.

After Benny Goodman and all the early stuff that I had heard, somebody brought me the first Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Chet Baker, the very first. That was the very first modern thing that I heard and that really changed me around. That got me into a whole other way of thinking. It was right before I came to New York or right after. I would listen to the radio and I remember being infatuated with the 'cool' sound. I would hear Lee Konitz and Stan Getz. It was a whole Swedish thing going on at the time. There was a point in high school and I was playing sax and everything and my dad and the whole family was saying that I should play sax and flute so I could work a lot.

But there was one moment where I decided that I would give up the sax and make the plunge and just go for the clarinet. Then I started searching out modern clarinetists and things. I decided that I was just going to play the clarinet. There were enough saxophones. Then a friend met Tony Scott in New York and he told Tony about me, that I was playing clarinet modern. By that time, I had gotten into a little bebop. Tony Scott gave him a record to bring to me, the first record of Tony Scott on Brunswick, Tony Scott Quartet, fantastic. Before that, there was a point where I wanted to hear what modern clarinetists there were out there in the world at the time. Who was playing with the modern sound?

That is where I got the Swedish thing. There was a Swedish player named Putte Wickman and then I would listen to Sam Most, anybody that was playing anything modern. I found Buddy DeFranco before Tony. I was into Buddy a lot, with all the quartet stuff, the early stuff. That was a real influence. He was playing bebop and I was listening to all that stuff.

But then this Tony Scott thing hit me. I was sixteen, fifteen and that got me completely off. Tony turned me onto the sound that he had. So I met him and started hanging out with him. That kept me going and then my first album, Funk Dumpling.

FJ: With Henry Grimes .

PR: You know all of this. Henry Grimes was a big part of this whole thing. You had that big article. I am going out with him again now. This is a fantastic thing. We've been having these reunions. He is on my first album and I am on his. What I did after hearing Tony and all the clarinetists and everything was that I wanted to get a bebop style, with a saxophone conception, but to get it on clarinet. So I started listening to the saxophones, Sonny Rollins, Coltrane, everything. But Hank Mobley was a big influence. I took a solo off a record of Hank Mobley, one chorus of 'Pennies from Heaven.' Within that one chorus, I learned all the basic bebop patterns. I still remember it by ear. It was just an amazing lesson in basic bebop patterns.

Of course, in those days there weren't many transcriptions of solos, so a lot of stuff I would just take off of records. It was good training for the ear. But I really wanted to get a saxophonic swing on the clarinet. Even Buddy DeFranco, the way he swung, I felt was more of a swing kind. I think I achieved it on Funk Dumpling. That record was in '62. I think I achieved the basic concept of what I wanted to achieve in terms of a certain kind of swing. It is interesting. There is a whole evolution of clarinet.

Then the free period came in and that was a wonderful thing. So I did the first record, Funk Dumpling, with Henry and Paul Motian and Kenny Barron. That was an amazing trip and then three years later, doing the record with Henry, The Call, you could hear the change of music. Of course, I was in the Army during the interim. I went into Panama from 1963-65.

FJ: How did you come to play with Grimes?

PR: Henry was a big influence. We've been doing these things with Henry here. I met Henry at a jam session in '57. He went to Juilliard and I met him in '57 at a session and we just hit it off right away. Then I started going over to his house and jamming with him and hanging out and playing. At the same time, he was working with Sonny Rollins, but we had a really strong relationship through the years.

I was living in Brooklyn at the time. I met Tom Wilson, a famous producer, who was working with Savoy at the time and Tom came in as the producer and he got me the date. Of course, I used Henry and I asked Henry who we should get for a quartet and Jon Mayer wasn't there at the time. I was going to use him, but Henry got Kenny Barron and Paul Motian, he got, which was great. I had known Paul through the years from playing with Tony Scott with Bill Evans. But we got Paul and that was how the quartet came together. I must say, Fred, it has held up through the years.

FJ: How did you go from Grimes to Brubeck?

PR: I met Brubeck through another clarinetist, Bob Fritz from Boston. I met him through Gunter Hampel. I met Gunter Hampel and Darius Brubeck all around the same time. This clarinetist Bob Fritz introduced me to Gunter and then he moved to New York for a while and we would hang out. Muruga and Darius had a group and Bob called me up one day and told me that he was playing with the Darius Brubeck group. When they came back here to do a gig, they wanted me to sit in with them because Bob Fritz just got a job as a composition teacher in Boston and he was going to leave the group. He passed it on to me.

I met Darius there and we both played together. We recorded an album called Chaplin's Back, based on Chaplin's music. Then I joined Darius' group and I was in his quartet. The rest of the kids came at one point and then they asked their dad (Dave Brubeck) to form one big family group and they did that. Chris Brubeck had a rock group and Darius had a jazz group that I was in and then we added Jerry Bergonzi, the saxophonist. It was just Dave playing with his sons. Later, he got the quartet to travel with him, his quartet and then Mulligan came on. It was terrific. By that time, Danny Brubeck had taken over on drums.

FJ: Once a fan of Mulligan and you find yourself playing with him years later.

PR: Yeah, that is the great thing about life. I told Mulligan. Subsequently, in my book, I write about stories of me and Mulligan. He was drinking a bit at that time. He had been off drugs a while. We had some out scenes in hotels. In New York, we hung out. It was a great thing to play with him. We hung out. Then Paul Desmond came on.

FJ: Recently, you can be found collaborating with Lou Grassi in his various PoBands.

PR: Oh yeah, Lou and Po is a wonderful thing. That has been a wonderful group, Po. Of course, Wilber Morris just passed on. In fact, I just talked to Lou now and what we're trying to do, I haven't even told Henry this yet, but we want to get the next Po group with Henry Grimes as guest. We've been having these guests.

FJ: Joe Jarman and John Tchicai.

PR: Steve Swell was in the first group. In fact, I have a duo with Steve coming out on Drimala. It is a duo we did that is coming out. You've got the scoop on this, Fred. We didn't even talk to Henry, but it is a natural thing to do the next Po album with Henry. When Wilber died, Lou was saying what bassist could fill his shoes and that might be the end of Po, but now with Henry, at least we can do another one and get him in there and it would be a very spiritual thing. I think this will happen.

FJ: So you have been playing a good deal with Henry of late.

PR: Yes, I flew out to California. I was one of the first people of his old friends. Marshall called and when he called me, I almost fell off the stool. In my book, Henry is a whole chapter. Just before the book was finished, we heard a rumor that he was homeless in L.A., but there were so many rumors through the years.

I called Henry. I was the first to speak to him. His playing is powerful, Fred. It is getting better than ever. Nobody can believe it. After thirty years of not playing, he got this bass from William Parker and when I went out, I went out to California four months ago, and I played with him. He was strong and beautiful. We didn't even play any tunes. It was all free playing. It was all amazingly beautiful and I could see his old energy coming back and now, he is just powerful. We did a three hour live recording. We're going to be going out as a trio now.

FJ: Who is in the Grimes Trio?

PR: It's Andrew Cyrille and me and Henry. I am the only one who ever recorded his compositions.

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