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A Fireside Chat With Perry Robinson

AAJ Staff By

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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.

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