Let the trumpet sound: Jazz musician talks about life decisions

Published 11:28 am Tuesday, February 27, 2024

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By Stephanie Williams Dean

For the Enterprise

Playing at tempo moderato, Clemmons resident Joe Robinson, jazz trumpeter extraordinaire, is taking a breather to reflect on the high and low notes of his life.

These days, Joe still takes time to practice his music. And while he continues to listen to lots of tunes, one thing has changed. His grown kids are introducing him to a wide range of new songs and alternative genres he’s never heard.

With five children, all musically talented like their father and mother, Alfreda – the high note of the musician’s life has been family.

Joe never imagined girls playing in bands and clubs, and he was looking forward to teaching a son to play music. But each daughter has proven their father’s vision to have been blurry. All three girls and two boys are musically talented. Each has played an instrument at one time or another – and all are successful in their own right.

One daughter became a cheerleader and dancer. She eared a scholarship to the University of Kentucky.

Now married more than 60 years, Joe met Alfreda in the high school band where she played clarinet. She still plays to this day. Joe didn’t share the score with notations on how to achieve the marital harmony he’s enjoyed , but he did hit a high note with strength and good tone quality.

“The biggest thing is that I lucked out and got the right one. She could deal with the music part of my life.”

Born at home in an area just north of downtown Winston Salem,  known as the Boston (Thurmond) neighborhood, Joe was one of five children. He describes his childhood as normal, as judged by visiting other folks’ homes,   spending many nights with friends, family and cousins.

As most do, Joe has strong memories of his Mama.

“One thing I’ll never forget was her meat loaf and her greens. I haven’t had meatloaf or greens that good since.”

Another good cook, Joe’s grandmother made a wonderful potato salad and peach and apple cobblers.

“I would hurt myself when she cooked those dishes.”

Joe relishes those recipes now prepared by the good cooks in his family. Especially at Christmas and other holidays, he enjoys the foods his kids and wife “do pretty well making.”

With vintage family recipes written down for preservation, Alfreda has passed them down to her girls. And one son is about to become master chef material when it comes to outdoor grilling.

Two things this family loves are delicious food and some bebop, blues, or boogie-woogie.

While Joe doesn’t credit his parents for his musical career, it’s safe to say at least one apple didn’t fall far from the tree. With a father who played piano, that ability to hear music passed along as sounds of rhythm and blues in the son’s head.

Joe’s prelude to music began with an old bugle. He took it to school in the fifth grade, but at that time, there were no music teacher for his age group. Later, after playing the instrument for a while, Joe set his heart’s desire on a trumpet.

But there was no money.

So Joe told his grandmotherl; in fact, he told her several times about a new trumpet hanging on the wall of a pawn shop in downtown Winston-Salem. The cost was $69 and some change.

“Back then, you’d go downtown to get your groceries. You’d get a cab or catch the bus to get there. You could do any kind of shopping downtown near 4th and Cherry. Kids all over sold shopping bags. I worked my way from selling bags from 4th and Church all the way through town to the city market. We sold shopping bags 2 for a nickel or a nickel apiece.

“I had a spot there. The trumpet was hanging on the wall of Empire Loan, so I’d camp out there selling shopping bags and then go in just to look at that thing. It was brand new.”

Then Joe’s grandmother stepped in. And that day changed everything.

“She told my grandfather, in a voice I’d never heard her use before, ‘Go down there and get that boy that horn’.”

So off Joe went with his grandfather. With a new trumpet in hand, Joe was filled with so much excitement he couldn’t even wait to catch a bus home.

“I walked from downtown to 18th Street and it was on from then, that was one of the happiest moments of my life.”

By the time Joe was exposed to a music teacher, he was going into the seventh grade and already well on his way to playing on his own.

“I was just attached to that thing. All I did was worry the neighbors, my parents and everyone else.”

When school started, Joe could play the school song, so he went to band rehearsal, telling the director that he wanted to play with the group. The band leader left the room and came back with a piece of music.

“I didn’t know nothing about no music.”

But he could play that song because it was in his head.

“That was the beginning of a whole new world when I got that trumpet. I forgot about basketball. It took all my time and I loved it, because I was playing songs.  I just learned the melodies and would play them.”

Joe fell into his favorite musical style, jazz, by accident. A family friend who lived four doors up from their home came to visit. Joe was practicing upstairs.

“He came upstairs and began playing some jazz for me, and I thought, this is it. I just fell in love with it and started buying jazz records.”

But music wasn’t the only field in which Joe found success. His work didn’t always revolve around music. He worked several small jobs and then, after a few years into his marriage, he got a job at Hanes Hosiery. Later, Joe’s friend, who was also a musician and worked for Sun Chemical, referred Joe to the same company.

Joe worked for Sun for 32 years. They made printing ink for RJ Reynolds and other products. When Joe was first hired, he worked for a year as a custodian, climbing the ladder to become the head of quality control.

Then his musical career exploded.

But it didn’t pay the bills.So Joe continued to hold down a job while performing music gigs, playing in a top 40, rhythm and blues band for about five  years on weekends. Sometimes he’d get with other guys to play private events.

“An older man, Clarence Gore, would come and get me and dress me up to look older because I was too young to be in certain places. I’d put on a hat and a pair of shades and stay in the back where I wouldn’t be seen.”

A proud moment was when he was hired to play for the first time under his name only, Joe Robinson.

Another high-pitched moment in life was when Joe made his first recording. “I recorded an entire album right here in town in Winston-Salem. I was 50 and had built up a little following at the downtown on Marshall Street, at Bistro 900 – and that’s where I was getting asked for a tape. So, we got the band together and recorded what we played down there. Nothing original – just what the patrons enjoyed every weekend.”

As far as Joe was concerned, the recording was highly successful, and so much so that now and then, he still gets requests.

A humble man, he almost forgot to share another milestone in his musical career – when the City of Winston-Salem chose to hang his picture in the Benton Convention Center.

“There are three of us, on the wall downstairs and memorialized because we’ve been around for so long, have played for and contributed to many community events.”

Along the way, he has always advocated for young, fledgling musicians.

“I’m a private person. But I used to meet a lot of young musicians, and these guys would seek me out. Very good young players. They’d want to sit in with me on jobs and some would come in the door with their horns.

“One night I had three trumpet players in Greensboro. These kids just showed up. That was the main spot before the Bistro opened up in Winston-Salem. It was always High Point and Greensboro until we got the hotel in downtown Winston-Salem. We’d have little lessons, and some of them have done very well, especially the trumpet players.”

He played music up until the last two years.  “I’ve had a good life playing music so it hasn’t really bothered me. We’ve been pretty blessed, We always say that about ourselves to this very day. Over half the people we grew up with – mostly musicians – are already gone.”

When Joe first started playing jazz, he wanted to be like Miles Davis or Dizzy Gillispie – until he got a chance to go to New York a couple of times.

“I had a friend who knew these musicians I admired. I became friends with them, and that killed my dreams of becoming a famous musician playing jazz because I didn’t like their lifestyle. It can be really rough. After I saw how some lived in terrible apartments, and had to leave their families for weeks at a time, I thought no, no, this is not for me.”

And he wouldn’t dream of putting his sweet wife through all that.

“I had met Alfreda, and I thought she can’t go through this, she was so sweet.”

“I still feel that way today. The normal success with record deals and TV and all, I wanted some of that, but it was too costly. And then we started having kids. And the kids wouldn’t know me, so I thought I’d just stay in WS, play music, work, buy a house, and see my kids every day.”

What he’s most proud of is how he and his wife have held their marriage together and raised their kids.

“They just really show me how much I mean to them.  They accompany me to every doctor’s appointment. I can drive, but one of my girls told me, ‘I don’t care what you and Mama say, I’m going.’ They all talk and make plans for us.”

Lately, Joe’s been sharing secrets with his kids. One day, two or three of their kids were at home, and the couple began to tell their story.

“They were amazed because we’ve never sat around and talked about it – how we met – our love story. And I don’t know how many days we got left – but lately, I’ve been telling her a lot that I love her.”

While Joe’s a believer, you won’t find him sitting on a pew every Sunday. When he was younger, he was more into church, but after getting older, Joe found spirituality in other places. Now and then he even listens to a good sermon on TV. But with a couple of kids deep into their spiritual life, recently the family’s been sharing in a Wednesday night Bible study.

“We are reading the Bible from beginning to end. There are five or six of us on the internet, they’re trying to reel me back in.”

At the end of my talk, I asked him: “Well, how is it with you and Jesus?” He answered the same way many of us would. “Not where it should be.”