Justin Robinson: Alto Extraordinaire
The biggest problem now is that, just as in corporate America, they can put money behind artists without regard to their credentials, who he's worked with, or what he plays. They can bill anybody as the best thing since sliced bread. You know, how some kid comes along who may be able to play a little bit who's still wet behind the ears. All of a sudden he gets exploited and is billed as the next genius.
Native New Yorker Justin Robinson was born on August 14, 1968. He credits early
exposure for his love of jazz. "It was the only music played in the house," he
reflects. "My parents love jazz." He chose the alto saxophone because he found
the instrument a challenge to play, because he couldn't even get a sound out of
it, at first.
Justin attended the prestigious High School of Performing Arts, studying with
Frank Foster, George Coleman, Frank Wess and others. He says that a key
ingredient of his musical education was the experience of attending concerts and
sitting in with such seasoned artists as Woody Shaw and Wynton Marsalis.
In 1988, he appeared on The Harper Brothers' debut CD, later recording with
them again on their next two albums. He also played on a couple of CDs by
pianist Stephen Scott, along with such esteemed company as Joe Henderson,
Christian McBride and Roy Hargrove.
Robinson demonstrated his own versatility on "Justin Time," his 1991 debut
album, arranging, composing and performing for the recording date. His
follow-up, "Challenge," was equally well-received. All told, he has 19 CD
credits to his name, reflecting an enviable range of jazz genres.
In addition, he has appeared on The Tonight Show twice, once with The Harper
Brothers, as a guest soloist opposite Bradford Marsalis on the other occasion.
Presently, he tours primarily as a member of trumpeter Roy Hargrove's band,
though he remains in demand for other gigs, like with the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni
All-Star Band. Justin continues to hone his craft, studying with the legendary Barry Harris, while giving lessons, himself, both privately and for free through the
inner-city Jazz Mobile program. He and his wife, Paula, currently reside in New
Jersey where they are raising their young son, Jeremy, and a newborn baby girl,
BSN: Where do you see yourself right now, musically?
JR: "Excellent question. That's one of the best questions you could ask. I see
myself as a diligent student of music."
BSN: Why so?
JR: "Because, usually, the greatest of musicians were also the best of students.
So, I strive to be a great student."
BSN: Do you have a favorite sound?
JR: "Well, I've always leaned towards Charlie Parker, who was my first and my
longest influence. But I've been influenced by a variety of stuff. Lately, I've
been listening to a particular classical conductor, Leopold Stokowski, and his
arrangements of different works. Also, Claude Debussy's Clare de Lune, and some
transcriptions of arrangements for orchestra by Leopold. I bought a couple of his
EMI classic recordings on-line really cheaply, so I've been listening to a lot
of him. I'm really into this guy. And I've been listening to a number of
classical flute players, in particular Julius Baker, his recitals."
BSN: Sounds like your heavy into classical music right now.
JR: "I really don't put categories on it. It's all music, good or bad. Even if I
hear a simple folk song, I'll listen to it and enjoy it for what it is, as long
as it's a genuine effort, and I can appreciate what's happening harmonically and
lyrically. I really don't pigeonhole music. I think categories are just a crutch
created to help lay people describe it. An F major doesn't change from
Tchaikovsky to Charlie Parker to Carly Simon or whomever, because an F major's
going to be an F major."
BSN: So, what types of gigs are you doing nowadays?
JR: "Mainly, I'm working with Roy. And also some with the Dizzy Gillespie Big
BSN: Which is a more important skill for a jazz musician, technical chops or the
ability to improvise?
JR: "I'd say, being able to express yourself. So, to me, improvisation would
probably be the more important of the two. But sometimes, playing music that's
been written down enables you to be a part of something that's very beautiful
and very special. It can be a very fulfilling experience t hear all the
harmonies together and how your part influences a particular movement. Every
facet of the experience of music is very important to me."
BSN: Tell me about your CD, "Justin Time,"
JR: "That was my first endeavor. It being a major label, Polygram, I didn't have
the freedom in choosing material that I would have liked to have had. But I
learned a lesson from my experiences in dealing with both my labels,
actually, in terms of the creative aspects of it."
BSN: Do you prefer playing in the studio or performing live?
JR: "Nothing is more fulfilling than playing in front of a live audience. But
being a part of a special recording date can be very rewarding, too."
BSN: How is it dealing with the business side of jazz today?
JR: "The biggest problem now is that, just as in corporate America, they can put
money behind artists without regard to their credentials, who he's worked with,
or what he plays. They can bill anybody as the best thing since sliced bread. I
think the policy behind all of that can be the most unfulfilling aspect of the
business. You know, how some kid comes along who may be able to play a little
bit who's still wet behind the ears. All of a sudden he gets exploited and is
billed as the next genius. That part is really hard for me to watch."
BSN: How much travel is there involved in your career as a jazz musician?
JR: "Let's put it this way: on American Airlines, I became a Gold Member in less
than a year. And that was on just one airline. The traveling can easily exceed
100,000 miles a year."
BSN: Is there a health regimen a jazz musician needs to follow to deal with all
the stresses associated with travel and jet lag and having to perform?
JR: "For longevity, we really have to watch our diets. Otherwise, there's no way
youâ€™re going to survive into your later years. In terms of the diet, I certainly
eat very little sugar, stay away from fatty foods, and junk food garbage, in
BSN: How do expect growing up around music will affect your kids?
JR: "Positively, I hope. I want them to choose to participate on whatever level
they prefer, even if as a patron, just for the joy of the Arts. The Arts are so
important in terms of the psychological impact on kids' creative process and the
development of their minds. I see The Arts, in general, as one of the saving
graces of mankind."
Justin Robinson will be appearing with Roy Hargrove's Group on Friday, April
29th at the Tilles Center in New York on the campus of Long Island University,
on a double-bill they're sharing with the sultry singer Diane Reeves. The show,
the latest in the Reckson Jazz Series, will be followed by Sonny Rollins on
Saturday, May 21st. For ticket information, visit: http://www.tillescenter.org/eventdetail. or call (516) 299-3100.
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