Art, history live on in ragtime musician

Tuesday, October 12, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:09 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 30, 2008

Sometimes the good guys do finish first. And that’s exactly what happened a couple of weeks ago when the young, black, ragtime composer, Reginald Robinson of Chicago won a $500,000 MacArthur “genius award.”

Columbians who attended last June’s ragtime festivities had an opportunity to see and hear Robinson perform. The 31-year-old composer and pianist first heard ragtime at school when he was 13 and began trying to play the syncopated music. He has been devoted to ragtime, to researching, writing and performing it ever since.

I first met Reginald Robinson five or six years ago when he walked up to me and introduced himself. Since then, I have attended many of his performances and usually talk or spend time with him at least twice a year. People who have attended the Scott Joplin festivals in Sedalia know that there are few African Americans in attendance and rarely more than two or three of them are performers, so Reginald is well known.

In the 30 or so years of the annual event, I have been asked nearly every year why hardly any African Americans participate in the festival. For two years, I was president of the committee that sponsored it and I make it a point to say that I am not a spokesperson for the African American community, and the people I have spoken to have their own reasons.

First of all, though Scott Joplin was a black man and the festival is held in his honor, the sponsors and the majority of the performers are not black, so it does not qualify as a minority event. As a general rule, young African Americans usually prefer whatever musical form contemporary to their times, and older people tend to favor other music. In my case, as a history buff familiar with the times in which the music was written, I hear the music differently than other members of the audience and seldom attend the concerts. The music reminds me of bad times in black America. I often find it painfully sad and I refuse to apologize for that. Occasionally, excerpts from Joplin’s opera “Treemonisha” are performed in dialect with non-black performers, which considering the subject matter, I find to be tasteless and insensitive.

Reginald Robinson and I have discussed this issue many times, and I appreciate his devotion both to Scott Joplin and to the music. Members of the Scott Joplin family and I have also shared our views on this subject. I have written a couple of small books about ragtime musicians and undoubtedly someone will ultimately write a book on this subject. In the meantime, I’m sure that with this award, the world will hear more of Reginald Robinson.

On a related subject, the past few years have been hard times for the arts as the state has had a difficult time meeting budgetary responsibilities. Unfortunately, many communities do not appreciate the relationship of art to business; when money is scarce, the arts get wiped off the drawing board. The humanities suffer, as well. Much great art and great writing derives from times of want and despair. I’ve always thought it short-sighted that communities don’t take advantage of these opportunities to stage art extravaganzas as a way of nurturing the human spirit during such times.

Whenever I think of art and business, I always think of the great partnership formed by the late Joyce Hall of Hallmark and his decision to build Crown Center in Kansas City. When I visited that attraction regularly, I marveled at the man’s genius and imagination. Since most people don’t have a problem looking at wars as financial opportunities, it is too bad they can’t see such opportunities in peace and beauty.

Fortunately, we do have some people who view life through a different lens. I have acquaintances who universally dislike wealthy people. They seem to feel that anyone who acquires millions more than they could possibly need are “evil.” In the case of people like John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur, I find such an attitude unfathomable. John D. MacArthur owned among other businesses, Banker’s Life and Casualty Co. He and his wife began their foundation in 1978 and since that time have awarded more than $3 billion in grants. Under its MacArthur Fellows Programs, which was its initial grant-making program, it usually selects between 20 and 25 fellows each year. These fellows are selected for their “originality, creativity, and the potential to do more in the future.” They receive the $500,000 grants spread over the next five years without restriction. Those chosen have been described by officials of the program as “bold and risk-taking people who are changing our landscape and advancing our possibilities.”

Once upon a time, a few people of talent occasionally found a patron willing to help them advance their careers. This doesn’t seem to be a role many people are willing to play these days. So, unless a person can make it on his or her own, he or she could well fall between the cracks. That’s why I find it exciting that such grant-making foundations such as the MacArthurs’ continue to make major contributions to our world.

Certainly, creative people are no better off today than they have ever been. The world is never a safe place for dreamers. Some people work, scrimp and save for years hoping for the opportunity to satisfy a lifetime desire. There’s something uniquely satisfying, when a person who is willing to struggle against all odds to hold on to a dream is given the opportunity to possess it.

Congratulations, Reginald Robinson.

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