Thursday, May 03, 2018

HERE'S TO YOU MR. ROBINSON: Jeff Robinson And His Trio Wed Poetry To Jazz

( Jeff Robinson Far Left)

***An article I wrote some years ago that appeared in the all-poetry edition of Spare Change News.

Jeff Robinson, founder of THE JEFF ROBINSON TRIO, holds court every Sunday Night at the LIZARD LOUNGE in Cambridge,Ma.. In the basement of the Cambridge Common restaurant , he performs a sort of wedding ceremony. This is a musical and lyrical ceremony in which poetry and jazz are paired and they make a perfect match. With Robinson on sax, Blake Newman on bass, and Jerome Deupree on drums, Robinson infuses the poetry of such local poets as Marc Goldfinger,Carla Schwartz, and Joyce Cuhna, with the Be and the Bop of Jazz. Robinson's expansive talents are not limited to one medium or simply the local scene. He has performed nationally with such poets as Amiri Baraka, and Quincy Troupe. He has written, acted in and produced his own play, LIVE BIRD, which dealt with the mercurial and brilliant life of the jazz saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker. I talked with Mr. Robinson, amidst the wafting aroma of Turkish coffee, at the Cafe Algiers in the heart of Harvard Square.

DH: Jeff, could you tell me a little about your musical background and how you founded the JEFF ROBINSON TRIO?

JR: I started playing music when I was in the sixth grade. My first musical experience was with a singing group. Three friends of mine ( in my neighborhood in St. Louis) formed a group called the STARLIGHT THREE. We played Motown stuff...Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5, etc... Our first performance was at a local talent show. I played the guitar. When I went to high school the jazz band didn't need a guitarist, so I played a flute, ( my mother encouraged me to do this.) Eventually I graduated to the saxophone and other instruments. I studied at the BERKLEE COLLEGE OF MUSIC in Boston, after high school.

The JEFF ROBINSON TRIO has been around seven years,and five years at the LIZARD LOUNGE. The LIZARD LOUNGE is our home. When we got there, it was a turning point. We finally had a home. They are very supportive,and very good for us. I would like to think it has been good for both of us. We have hit our stride there.

DH: What gave you the idea to wed poetry and jazz?

JR: I actually have been performing with words and poets for years, way before I formed the Trio. I'm actually an actor,...for nearly twenty years now. The first part I ever got was in an Amiri Baraka play (in Boston), THE DUTCHMAN. After my first audition, the director asked me to come back with my saxophone. I came in, did another audition, and he wrote a part for me as a street musician. The play is set in a subway around 1960. There were references to Bessie Smith and Charlie Parker in it. I recited a poem in THE DUTCHMAN, that had references to these figures. I played music in the background( during certain segments), while actors recited their lines. I added something to Baraka's words. This was the first time I have performed music with poetry.. I ended up writing a play based on this poem I read.. It was called, ALLEY CAT. The drummer in that play was Dwight Hart. He was the original drummer of the Trio.. It sort of bridged from there. So- I acted and performed in a lot of plays with music and seemed like a natural progression. It wasn't a formal idea.

DH: Are music and poetry a good fit?

JR: Music and poetry have been around for a long time. We aren't doing anything that hasn't been done already. Song is poetry; poetry is song. You can write a whole series of books on it; but simply put songs are words, that are repeated in a certain way. I try not to make it complex. People are not doing it exactly the way we are doing it. It's carrying on a certain tradition, as far as the spoken-word genre is concerned.

DH: Can you talk about some of the local poets you have worked with?

JR: We've been at the MIDDLE EAST for awhile and the PLOUGH and STARS. It's hard to talk about local poets, because we are bound to leave someone out. We've been at the LIZARD LOUNGE for five years now. Every Sunday we average 20 poets on the open mic. So you do the math, that's a lot of poets. That gets into the thousands...several thousand. We've backed up poets, time and time again. Locally it would be unfair to list poets, because we have to cut too many. There area couple of poets we are working with right now, like: IYEOKA OKOAWO. She's from Nigeria and lives in Roxbury. We are working on a CD with her. We are also working with Askia Toure and Reggie Gibson. I'd like to start a label, but that is probably more work than I can handle right now. I might bring the idea to the table with these poets.

DH: You wrote and acted in a play, LIVE BIRD: AN INTIMATE PORTRAIT OF CHARLIE PARKER, that has been performed around-the-country.. How did this idea bear fruit? Why did you choose Parker as opposed to Lester Young, or Coltrane to use a couple of examples?

JR: I've played the part of Martin Luther King in a play entitled: THE MEETING. It concerned Malcolm X and MLK. I have been doing it for 14 years. I was impressed with the writing, and the reception of the play. Every Black History Month we go on tour. I was thinking I would like to have a vehicle like that. I wanted to write a play about musicians...about what I know. Charlie Parker popped up because he was an extremely influential musician, as well as extremely dramatic. His life lent itself to me, a lot easier than some other people I was considering. Charlie Parker was larger than life, in the sense that his intellect really merits his music. He was very charismatic, well-read, and outgoing. He was a person who really needed a voice. I don't think he really got his due, in the sense that Miles Davis has gotten. Parker died very young (34) and was really just getting started.

DH: You recorded a CD with local poet and acting editor of SPARE CHANGE, Marc Goldfinger, entitled: GETTING FIXED. This concerned the poet's heroin addiction. Did the music compliment the poetry? Did the poetry compliment the music? Can the use of drugs enhance one's work?

JF: Everybody has to deal with that on a personal level. I have my vices, that I try I try not to get in the way of my work. I try to make sure my vices don't effect my performances, and I think I succeeded with that. As far as the CD is concerned, Marc can speak better on the heroin part of it. I think the music and the poetry compliment each other very well. The CD was a child of my Charlie Parker play. A lot of people wanted to see more heroin in the play. Some very prominent New York producers, were interested in the play, but wanted to see Bird on the "other side" They wanted the gore. That wasn't what I wanted to write. I wasn't going to rewrite it. Parker's widow, Doris Parker, loved the play and told me I had captured her husband. So I wasn't about to change the script for a producer who wanted more heroin and gore. Therefore, I looked for other avenues for that heroin theme, and the CD helped. My friends turned me on to Marc Goldfinger. We were playing at the PLOUGH and STARS. In comes Marc, he recited a poem about heroin. After he finished we stopped playing. We talked to Marc and we started our relationship then.

DH: You have worked with such prominent Black poets as Quincy Troupe and Amiri Baraka. What appeals to you about these mens' work? What was the result of your work with them?

JR: With Bakara... we performed with him in the South End ( Boston) at Afrocentrics. They invited him to perform and we were the house band. We only performed a couple of things with him. This was sort of full circle for me. He was, sort of, the very first poet I performed with in the Play, THE DUTCHMAN. I was playing behind his words. So it was a great feeling, because he was and still is a great inspiration.

With Troupe...I had read his book on Miles.(Miles Davis) Miles basically recited the book to Quincy. The book just grabbed me. ( Miles: The Autobiography). That was my first introduction to Quincy Troupe, the writer. And Miles loved that book. I got introduced to Quincy through a friend. A friend had recommended him and myself to perform at the LANGSTON HUGHES CENTENNIAL last Feb. in Joplin, Mo. This was the first time the Trio performed with Quincy. We brought him to Cambridge for the Cambridge Poetry Festival. He turned out to be a good friend.

DH: From reading your credits I see that you performed at a benefit for the Beat writer, William Burroughs.

JR: We did that event for the Boston Phoenix's "Best Of" issue. They had a poetry stage, and asked us to perform. It was a celebration of William Burroughs. We got up and did our own thing.

DH Do you have a special affinity for the Beat Generation writers?

JR Yes, of course. Kerouac...I dived into a lot of other people who he turned me on to. I am a third or fourth generation Kerouac fan--ON THE ROAD--that's how I got into it. I said: "This is good!" " Who is this guy?" I've been into poetry and music for ages. I read up on Kerouac. he improvised a lot. His writing is free-flowing...improvised at the moment.

DH: You just completed the third annual CAMBRIDGE POETRY FESTIVAL sponsored by the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. How did you start all this?

JR: The TRIO had performed with performance artist/poet Patricia Smith. She encouraged us with regards to poetry/music. Deena Anderson ( who works at the Cambridge Center) asked me if the Trio would like to do more stuff at the Center. I said it would be really nice to have a poetry festival. Ironically, there isn't a big poetry festival in the Boston area... with all the literary people here... She felt it was a great idea, and we fleshed it out.... 

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