Perry Robinson Biography


by Michael Fitzgerald
March 1993-September 1996

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Perry Morris Robinson was born in New York City on September 17, 1938 (not August 17, 1938, as listed in many reference works). His family moved to Los Angeles, California when Perry was five. His father was his first musical influence. Earl Robinson (died 1991) was an important composer in the realm of folk music and was an associate of Pete Seeger, Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie. He composed and co-composed many songs including the labor movement song "Joe Hill," Ballad For Americans," "Black And White" (a hit for Three Dog Night) Perry began playing the clarinet at age nine (in 1947). He studied with Kalman Bloch, clarinetist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Perry was immediately exposed to jazz (Benny Goodman) and his father took him to see jazz artists in California. He returned to New York City at age 12.

Perry attended New York Music and Arts High School during the years 1952 to 1956. He met several musicians there including drummer Pete LaRoca and saxophonist George Braith. At this time, Perry was introduced to the music of Buddy DeFranco and Tony Scott, two bebop clarinetists. Tony Scott would be a great influence on Perry and he would later informally study with Scott. Perry felt that Tony Scott had the biggest sound on the clarinet, a significant aspect of technique, especially in relation to competing with saxophones, trumpets and trombones. Robinson did play saxophone during high school, but was more interested in transferring the saxophone styles that he loved to his own instrument. He tried to play Sonny Rollins' and Charlie Parker's music on the clarinet. As early as 1955, Perry was on the jazz scene in New York, hanging out at Minton's Playhouse.

After graduating from high school, Perry studied for a year at the Manhattan School of Music, as well as with Ernie Simon of the Mannes School of Music. It is notable that Robinson uses the French method of clarinet playing known as "double embouchure" that involves the placing of both the upper and lower lips on the mouthpiece, as opposed to the more common single embouchure that uses the lower lip and the upper teeth. Perry feels that this double embouchure is a very important aspect of his very personal style. It allows for his characteristic bending of notes. He began playing with the single embouchure, but after a fantastic jam session in the late 1960's he switched to the double embouchure after realizing that he had been playing that way for the entire session.

In 1959, Perry was playing with pianist Jon Mayer, bassist Chuck Israels and drummer Arnie Wise. It was with a tape of this group that Perry was awarded a scholarship to the Lenox School of Jazz. This very new and radical summer program involved many of the greatest names in modern jazz. The line between the teachers and students blurs as Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, who came to study were soon instructing. Other teachers included George Russell, the composer and theorist, who taught his "Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization" and Herb Pomeroy, the trumpeter, who led the big band at Lenox. Pianist Bill Evans, drummer Max Roach, trumpeter Kenny Dorham as well as the entire Modern Jazz Quartet were in residence. Students at Lenox that year included future jazz educators trombonist/cellist David Baker and bassist Larry Ridley.

After Lenox, Robinson traveled to Spain with the same group with Chuck Israels. It was here that two of his compositions were written ("You Are Too Good" and "Margareta"). At the Whiskey Jazz Club in Madrid, Perry began applying the freer sounds that he had been exposed to by Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry. He lost his job soon after. Subsequently, he met the blind Catalonian pianist, Tete Montoliu. Perry worked with him for a number of months.

In 1962, Perry traveled to Helsinki, Finland to the World Youth Festival (because Cecil Taylor and Archie Shepp would be there). It was there that he was first heard by Shepp. At Helsinki he played with Shepp and trumpeter Bill Dixon. His association with Archie Shepp would culminate in the 1966 album Mama Too Tight (unreleased material from this session did exist but he believes it to be lost).

He recorded his first album as a leader in 1962 in Newark for Savoy Records with a very young Kenny Barron on piano, bassist Henry Grimes, and Bill Evans Trio drummer Paul Motian. The album is a landmark in the history of jazz clarinet as it takes the work of Coleman, Coltrane and Evans and applies it to the clarinet-led ensemble. He recorded with Grimes again in 1965 for the ESP label in a trio setting. Henry Grimes has quit the music scene and has found religion, currently he is a preacher in the American Northwest.

Perry worked with the Jazz Composers Orchestra in the early 1970's and a number of recordings have been issued. He also participated in the related Liberation Music Orchestra, led by bassist Charlie Haden.

In 1973 and 1974, Robinson was involved in the Darius Brubeck group, which came to be engulfed in the larger "Two Generations of Brubeck" ensemble with Dave, Chris and Dan Brubeck as well. Two albums were released on Atlantic and this has been a highlight in terms of Perry's exposure to larger mainstream audiences. He also worked in a freer group known as INTERface with keyboardist John Fischer, who ran the performing space Environ in the mid 1970's. Longtime Robinson associate Mark Whitecage was also in this group. They recorded a number of albums for musician-run record labels.

Since the early 1970's, Perry has been working with the German multi-instrumentalist Gunter Hampel. There exists a loose aggregation of musicians that work under the title of the "Galaxie Dream Band." These have included vocalist Jeanne Lee, drummers Martin Bues and Steve McCall and wind players Mark Whitecage and Thomas Keyserling. Hampel has released many albums on his own Birth record label. The band is mainly known outside of America, although they do not play here infrequently.

Perry has been leading his own groups as well and has had many different formats for them. The Perry Robinson Quartet has released two albums on the West Wind label. This band includes Russian-born pianist Simon Nabotov, bassist Ed Schuller (son of musicologist Gunther Schuller), and German drummer Ernst Bier. This band works frequently in Europe and occasionally in the United States. Other groups have been less conventional. For a period in the 1970's Perry's band was called Baghdad and featured belly dancers as well as musicians. He has also had singers Judy Niemack and Janet Lawson in his band Pipe Dreams. He was a member of the Clarinet Summit with Alvin Batiste, John Carter and others, but did not record with them. He led his own clarinet band known as Licorice Factory with up to seven clarinets (of different varieties). His most recent ensemble is known as the Space-Time Swing Band, which originally included Mark Whitecage and swing drummer/singer Frankie Fame and now has trombonist Steve Swell and drummer Lou Grassi. He has also recently joined a klezmer band in Amsterdam headed by pianist Burton Greene.

A clarinet concerto has been written for Robinson and it was premiered in 1985 with the composer, Gary Schneider, leading the Hoboken Chamber Orchestra (now the Hudson Chamber Orchestra). It has subsequently been performed several times, although never recorded. Robinson reports that plans to record it are in the works. The concerto is a one-movement composition that is heavily influenced by the work of Leonard Bernstein. It involves "windows" of clarinet improvisation that flow seamlessly into written sections. There is a solo cadenza in the middle of the piece where Robinson improvises and also introduces material that will return in the second half of the composition.


Read an interview of Perry by Florence Wetzel.

Read a review of Perry Robinson Quartet concert by Matthew Snyder

Read a review of Perry Robinson/Steve Swell concert by Chris Kelsey

Read the press release regarding the recently released new album with Solar

See how Perry did in the Down Beat International Critics Polls

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