Remembering jazz great Perry Robinson, Hoboken's 'most famous non-famous person in music'
Updated Jan 16, 3:55 PM; Posted Jan 16, 3:54 PM
Perry Robinson's friends, family and fellow musicians will memorialize the world-class jazz clarinetist at a private event in Hoboken on Sunday, Jan. 20, where they will remember a man who not only changed the course of popular music, but also one who enriched the lives of thousands in the process.
"Perry was the most famous non-famous person in music," Robinson's close friend and collaborator Gary Schneider, who organized Sunday's memorial, said. "He played with everybody, but he always remained on the margins. He was amazingly gifted, with astounding musical ability, and recorded on hundreds of albums; but he really was not a person who ever worried about business things or promoting himself.
"With Perry, I found I could play free, it wasn't just a matter of playing tunes," Schneider continued. "The idea of the free jazz movement, which Perry came out of, was to basically just compose on the fly. Play and let things happen. And it was an eye-opening experience playing with him that way."
In 1985, because of their friendship, Schneider wrote "Concerto for Jazz Clarinetist and String Orchestra" for Robinson, a piece that has been performed by symphony orchestras around the world.
Robinson died last month at age 80.
"Robinson was a real 'musician's musician,' very sought as a member of bands and possibly the clarinetist of the early free jazz movement in the '60s," The Free Jazz Blog's obituary said.
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The son of union activist and songwriter Earl Robinson, Perry grew up in a left-wing household where the likes of Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly and Pete Seeger often visited as guests or couch surfers.
Earl Robinson's compositions included the folk standard "Joe Hill," the Frank Sinatra hit "The House I Live In," and "Ballad for Americans," popularized by civil rights icon Paul Robeson.
Perry Robinson's 60-year career spanned the birth of the free jazz movement in the '60s with Charlie Haden and Archie Shepp. He toured with world with Dave Brubeck and played behind Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and poet Allen Ginsberg. He made Downbeat Magazine's list of top jazz musicians seven times between 1967 and 1984, headed a Middle Eastern music band, led the Perry Robinson Quartet, and soloed with the Chamber Symphony of Princeton, the Hoboken Chamber Orchestra, and the American Composers Orchestra.
His clarinet belonged to the world, but in the early '80s, Robinson settled in Hoboken, spending the final years of his life in Jersey City. He toured concert halls throughout Europe, but found himself equally at home at the kitchen hootenannies of the Hoboken folk scene in the '60s and '70s, and frequently played in Mile Square City bars like Court Street and the Brass Rail.
"Shortly after I moved to Hoboken in 1980, I met Doris China, and at a party at her house, I witnessed the spark being planted," Schneider recalled. "She always had an interesting array of people at her parties, and she wanted me to meet Perry."
There was a piano in the basement, so Schneider played a bit while Robinson accompanied him on clarinet, and an instant connection happened.
"Doris' son Emilio, who was very young at the time, was studying violin, and he wound up playing with us," Schneider said. "I'm not sure if that was the same party or a later one, but I remember Perry told him, 'Don't worry about notes, just play.' I really think that was a turning point, and I know that Perry had a huge influence on him."
Emilio Zef China would go on to form the Sweet Lizard Illtet, the Hoboken funk band that signed to Warner Bros. in the early '90s, with his childhood friend Mike "Ill" Kilmer. Since then, both China and Kilmer have enjoyed successful careers as musicians.
"Hoboken was an easy place for our parents to find musicians for their children to engage with and at one party, when Emilio and I were 12 or 13, Doris had Perry Robinson and Mark Whitecage at a party," recalled Mike Kilmer. "They rolled their own cigarettes, said 'man' a lot, and Perry treated us as peers. That night he taught us how to play 'free jazz,' which on my bass was basically an E minor scale.
"We would show up at Court Street Tavern and participate in the set breaks, which at the time was a lot more greasy and deserted than it is now. "Eventually Perry invited us to sit in on a set with Walter Perkins from Charles Mingus' band on drums."
Robinson's interests spanned far more than just music, Kilmer recalled.
"Perry always honored shamanism and was also a key participant in the O Roe Arts Space family of artists, through whom my brother Ben, Emilio's brother Claudio, and a crew of us were guided on our philosophical, spiritual and psychedelic journeys," he said. "There was a really scary trip once at a house on Sixth and Bloomfield Street during which I guess I 'forgot who I was.' Emilio and our band's singer at the time ran up to Court Street and brought Perry down to the house. I was sticking a guitar cable into my belly button and Perry was like, 'Yes, Michael! This is who you are.'"
China added: "Perry referred to the guitar cable in your navel as 'an umbilical cord to the universe.'"
Robinson also had a large influence on Jeffrey Lewis, the anti-folk singer from Greenwich Village, who was a cousin.
"He was a totally weird unique part of our extended family, good buddies with my dad since their childhood," Lewis wrote after Robinson's death. "He was a jazz clarinetist of some renown, especially in the free jazz world. Whenever people would say to me or Jack, 'Oh, both you brothers play music, you must come from a very musical family!' I would say, 'Not so much … but there is our cousin Perry.' He was the major musician in the family. He always looked like the textbook image of the scrawny jazz beatnik, with goatee and beret and little glasses. I was always happy to see him, and very proud that he was part of my family."
Robinson played on Jeff Lewis' third album, 2005's "City and Eastern Songs."
"I don't know if Perry knew of the eventual existence of the low-budget music video for 'Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror,' a track which features his clarinet playing throughout," Lewis added. "It's probably my most-watched/heard music video on Youtube (with over 400,000 views)."
Jack Lewis' cartoon sketch of Perry is in the liner notes of the "City and Eastern Songs" album, which was just released on LP this past year.
"Dang, I should have given Perry a copy! Didn't cross my mind," Lewis continued. "Maybe he didn't have a record player. Apparently he lived an extremely spartan life. My dad was always expressing admiration for Perry's 'true zen' lifestyle and fun-loving way of existing, free of cumbersome belongings and obligations."
Robinson was generous with his talents, added Gene "D. Plumber" Turonis.
"He was a really high level player would could play with anyone," he said. "But what I found so endearing is that he would play with anyone. If you wanted to play, Perry would play with you. He was a warm and friendly and open person, he never had an attitude about how good he was. He called everybody 'Maestro,' but he was the maestro. He just elevated everyone around him.
"After I came back to Hoboken in 1980 after a year in Nashville, I started playing Court Street. Perry used to hang out with a guru in New York, and I played once at the guru's loft in New York City, and the guru said that Perry and I had a special connection. So Perry started playing with me. Jack Talbot, the owner of the Brass Rail, had bought this place, the Court Street Tavern, which frequently smelled of sewerage because there was a cracked pipe or something in the basement. There was a gas heater in the front that heated the whole place, and a little kitchen."
Despite those challenges, Talbot transformed Court Street from "a funky little shot and a beer joint" into a successful restaurant and music venue, Turonis said.
"I played there on Friday nights for five years after that," he said. "I had lots of people play with me, but the most famous and the outlandish and the best was when I had a country trio, where we'd play the rhythm, with Mark Whitecage and Perry Robinson playing the top end. They were jazzers, what we called 'out music.' As Perry said to me one time, there are no wrong notes. There's just notes.
"It was very difficult to describe what we sounded like back then. Some people compared us to the wackiness of Spike Jones. Peter Stampfel (of the Holy Modal Rounders) played with us sometimes. The whole group of us just drifted together and in a year or two it became Gene & The Plumbers."
Luke Faust, a member of the Hoboken band The Insect Trust (who released two albums on Columbia in the '60s) also fell into Perry's orbit.
"We had a little thing going for a while that Perry called a 'jug jam," he said. "Everybody was playing free jazz and I'd play on a jug, which was the only instrument where I could keep up.
"Perry could play anything with anybody. He was a real, honest-to-God, out there musician. Music was music to him. It was an amazing thing to watch."
Robinson suffered a heart attack while performing on tour in Germany and returned to the United States to have open heart surgery.
"I talked to him the day before he died," Faust said. "He really seemed upbeat. He was about to be sent home and he said he was looking forward to picking up his clarinet and see how things were. And the next day he was gone."
Anyone wishing to learn more about the extraordinary life of Perry Robinson should start with his autobiography, "Perry Robinson: The Traveler," which is available from online booksellers. Robinson's breakthrough album, "Funk Dumpling,'' as well as "Perry Robinson Trio: From A to Z" can be found on online streaming sites. Gene Turonis is having a cassette of the album he cut with Robinson entitled "Court Street" remastered and hopes to make it available later this year.