Jazz history is not necessarily written by its winners, yet they still manage to dominate the narrative. There are certainly landmark musicians whose influence merits greater attention. Yet erudite scholars and passionate fans alike often present these stars as the whole story. Their contemporaries get squeezed out of the conversation, leaving a lot of music out of music history.
Prince Robinson is a puzzling example of the star system’s limits. The tenor saxophonist and clarinetist played with the likes of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. His concise discography demonstrates an assured and flexible musician with a unique style. That in itself would warrant attention. But even though the stars themselves admired Robinson, he remains little known outside of jazz insiders.
Personal and Musical Background
Little is known about Prince Robinson’s family or upbringing. “Meet the Members of the Red Allen Band,” written by Thurman and Mary Grove for Record Changer magazine in April 1954, provides the lengthiest direct quotes from him. Yet Robinson doesn’t discuss his background other than mentioning his birthplace of Portsmouth, Virginia. Public documents and ancestry records provide a few hints.
Robinson’s signed draft card indicates he was born on June 7, 1902. It also lists Annie Robinson in Portsmouth as his next of kin. The 1940 census shows him living with an Ethel Burnett in New York City. Robinson’s relationship to Burnett is illegible. Her occupation is “housewife,” and her marital status is “widowed.” The 1910 census for Virginia’s Norfolk county contains a “Prince Edward” of roughly the same age Robinson would have been at the time. This little boy was the adopted son of Dave Henry and his wife, Julia. Henry’s stepdaughters were Annie and Ethel Robinson, 17 and 11 years older than the family’s newest member. The last name “Edward” in the 1910 census could have been an error or the youngster’s legal name. By 1920, the Portsmouth census lists “Prince Robinson” as the nephew-in-law of Thomas Burnett. Thomas’s wife Ethel was presumably née Robinson. His sister-in-law Annie Robinson and mother-in-law Julia Henry (now a widow) also lived in his home.
Maybe after Annie and Ethel’s father died, their mother Julia married Mr. Henry and the new couple adopted little Prince Edward. Young Prince may have eventually taken the last name “Robinson” after the two older adopted sisters that helped raise him. Other than these guesses, Robinson’s childhood remains a mystery.
Robinson stated that by 14, he was occasionally studying with a tutor but mostly taught himself to play the clarinet. At some point, he got his professional start with a bandleader named Ben Jones. From 1919 to 1921, Robinson played with Lillian Jones’s Jazz Hounds in Norfolk. Norfolk native and future jazz arranging legend John Nesbitt also played with Ms. Jones.
He then played with pianist Quentin Redd’s band in Atlantic City during 1922 before heading to New York City in 1923. In New York, he played with Lionel Howard’s Musical Aces, a band from Washington, DC that shared a bill with pianist Willie “the Lion” Smith at The Capitol. Advertisements indicate Robinson was already doubling clarinet and tenor saxophone.
Quickly Building A Reputation
By 1924, Robinson was playing with cornetist June Clark and making his first records with a group called the Seminole Syncopators on Okeh. Robinson shows himself to be an energetic but sympathetic ensemble member. On “Blue Grass Blues,” his clarinet obbligato gives a wide berth to Harry Cooper’s trumpet, mostly sticking to rhythmic figures that accent rather than decorate the lead. His brief solo plays to popular taste with laughing effects and humorous smears and staccato.
Rex Stewart recalls that when he joined banjoist Elmer Snowden at the Nest Club in the fall of 1924, Robinson was already in the band. This was a respected group at a popular spot in a national musical capital. According to Stewart, “real people in the know made the Nest their playground.” Robinson must have already made a name for himself. The cornetist adds that Robinson was “next to Coleman Hawkins at that time” in terms of tenor saxophonists, describing him as “an outstanding clarinet and tenor sax man who never received the recognition his great talent deserved.”
In his seminal study The Swing Era, musicologist Gunther Schuller says that “Robinson sounds impressive on such recordings as ‘Keep Your Temper’ (1925), recorded twice…and plays with the same kind of rhythmic drive and energy that marks the early Hawkins.” These two recordings both appear to be cornetist June Clark’s group under different names for different labels. The tenor solo on the Gulf Coast Seven’s “Keep Your Temper” for Columbia contains aspects of Coleman Hawkins’s arpeggiated style but with a lighter tone, less aggressive attack, and more relaxed lines. Historian K.B. Rau actually doubts Robinson’s presence here, finding the style “rather pedestrian and show[ing] nothing of Prince Robinson’s style [with Duke Ellington] or of his playing later on.”
In a later interview with Storyville magazine, Coleman Hawkins replied that during the mid to late twenties, “I listened to Happy Caldwell and Prince Robinson…and I thought Happy and especially Prince were very good. I could pick up a few ideas from them…” Hawkins goes as far as to say that Robinson preceded him. “Before I’d really started making records and everything,” he told Leonard Feather, “there was Happy Caldwell in Chicago and Stomp [sic] Evans out of Kansas City, and Prince Robinson…no, I certainly wasn’t the first [jazz saxophonist].” Robinson was two years older than Hawkins, and Schuller points out that “[Hawkins] played with Mamie Smith’s Jazz Hounds in 1922-23 [and] Robinson played with Lillian Jones’s Jazz Hounds in 1919-21.” Yet Hawkins debuted on record nearly three years before Robinson. Happy Caldwell told interviewer Stanley Dance that he believed Robinson came “in later years” after Hawkins, Stump Evans, and himself!
John Stubblefield met Hawkins a month before his death in 1969. In describing the encounter for Coda magazine, the younger saxophonist apparently spoke with him long enough to realize that “Hawkins loved a guy named Prince Robinson.” Coleman Hawkins casts perhaps the longest shadow over saxophonists. He was also famously competitive and not generous with compliments. That makes his praise for Robinson remarkable. Beyond parsing out influences or analyzing who did what first, Robinson made an impact on one of the most influential musicians of all time.
Duke Ellington was another Robinson admirer and was eager to hire him. Stewart describes how “[Ellington] and Elmer Snowden carried on a tug-of-war over the services of Prince Robinson, who was about the best clarinet and tenor sax man in the city.” Stewart’s description alludes to Robinson outpacing Hawkins as a multi-instrumentalist. Doubling at that level may have made Robinson even more appealing to Ellington. Stewart explains how Ellington would approach Robinson “every time [Snowden and Ellington] exchanged places on the Kentucky Club bandstand.”
Robinson also made a personal impression on Stewart. When Louis Armstrong first offered Stewart his chair with Fletcher Henderson, the cornetist was incredulous. He told his bandmates that “some joker who said he was Louis Armstrong” had just phoned him. Relating the story decades later, Stewart was sure to point out that Robinson and Snowden were the only two people who didn’t laugh and understood the talented cornetist had earned this opportunity.
In April of 1925, Robinson finally joined Ellington at the Club Kentucky. His first of four confirmed record dates with Ellington was in September. His spiky clarinet breaks and obbligatos fit the early Ellington band’s brash, showy aesthetic. He also offers some resounding breaks on tenor within Otto Hardwick’s alto solo. The music may not rewrite the genesis of jazz, but it’s hard to assail Robinson’s stomping sound or hot melodies. Mark Tucker, author of Ellington: The Early Years, also singles out Robinson’s “gutsy” clarinet solo on “Trombone Blues.” Unfortunately, Robinson isn’t audible on his second and third dates with Ellington. The clarinet on “Parlor Social Stomp” is likely guest Don Redman.
For his last session with Ellington, Robinson pulls out a driving tenor solo in the middle of Hardwick’s alto chorus on “Animal Crackers.” His work on “Li’l Farina” is just as assured and breathless. On his website The Harlem Fuss, K.B. Rau singles out Robinson’s “honking” tenor on these titles, perhaps a reference to the repeated notes and syncopated phrases. This period also includes the sessions with June Clark and another with blues singer Clara Smith. On clarinet, Robinson provides some animated instrumental commentary as Smith scolds her beau’s short temper.
We know Robinson was busy at this time, but there are still gaps in his activity. Discussing late 1925 with historian Len Kunstadt, Robinson recalled subbing for Coleman Hawkins in Fletcher Henderson’s band. Walter C. Allen’s mammoth Hendersonia says Robinson and Happy Caldwell may have occasionally joined the Fletcher Henderson band—for example, on a November 16, 1925, dance at a Manhattan casino advertising an “augmented band.” Tucker also says that Ellington’s reed section between fall of 1926 and spring of 1927 was uncertain; Robinson may have still been playing with the maestro. Rau also places Robinson on four sessions with Clarence Williams in 1926 that usually list an unknown player or Coleman Hawkins.
Robinson seems to have left Ellington by July of 1926, perhaps to stay in New York while the band played gigs outside the city. That year, his old friend and bandmate John Nesbitt contacted him about joining the expanding McKinney’s Cotton Pickers in Detroit. Robinson said that “[he] couldn’t leave right then,” but not why. He may have simply been over-committed in New York! After Ellington, Robinson joined Billy Fowler’s band at the Cameo Club on West 52nd Street near Broadway. When interviewed by Peter Carr and Al Vollmer for Storyville, Saxophonist Gene Mikell also mentions Robinson being a full member of the Joe Steele band around this time, explaining they played at the Nest for two weeks before leaving due to insufficient tips and going back to the Bamboo Inn.
Robinson joined Leon Abbey’s band just in time for a six-month tour of South America starting in May of 1927. Robinson is listed on a May 25, 1927, session with the Snowden band under trombonist Te Roy Williams’s name. Yet as Rau points out, he was already on a boat. The Abbey band proved incredibly popular in Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and other South American cities. Trumpeter Demas Dean would still fondly recall teaching the Charleston dance to locals in a 1972 conversation with Pete Carr of Storyville!
Growing Fame With McKinney
Exactly when or why Robinson joined McKinney’s Cotton Pickers is uncertain. In his bio-discography McKinney’s Music, John Chilton says Robinson joined right after arranger/saxophonist Don Redman in the summer of 1927. But ship records confirm the Abbey band and Robinson didn’t get back to New York until October of 1927. According to research into Glyn Paque’s life by Kurt Mohr for Jazz Music, Robinson seems to have played with Henri “Spain” Saparo at Harlem’s Bamboo Inn in January and February of 1928 alongside future McKinney sideman Langston Curl, future Ellington star Harry Carney, and Jimmy Archey among others. Adding to the confusion, pianist Freddy Johnson told Walter Allen that Robinson might be in the unidentified personnel for King Oliver’s Brunswick sessions!
Whatever else kept him busy, Prince Robinson was in Victor’s Chicago studio on July 11, 1928, for the McKinney band’s recorded debut. The inaugural session of this soon-to-be renowned band provides another glimpse into Robinson’s personality from drummer Cuba Austin as he related in Shapiro and Hentoff’s Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya:
We had a lot of troubles with the engineers. In those days everybody took off their shoes and had a pillow under his feet so the thud from beating the rhythm didn’t ruin things. Well, on “Milenberg Joys” the band was beating a fast rhythm and then, bit by bit, the pillows kept sliding away. We ruined several takes that way. Now the worst of all was Prince Robinson. Don (Redman) hit on the idea of lashing Prince’s ankles and knees together with rope to hold him steady. We started another time and things went smoothly ’til Prince started a solo; then he began to bob up and down with his feet tied together, and finally gave up in the middle of it—looked up at Don and said, “Aw, Don, I can’t play tied up like this.” But finally we got by with a good one.
Austin never specifies whether Robinson got used to playing while tied up or the band just let the man tap to his heart’s content. Either way, he sounds free and swinging on the McKinney band’s inaugural session. He’s one of the few instrumental soloists on the first title cut that day, “Four or Five Times,” which is devoted chiefly to spoken and scat vocals from different band members. Robinson would stay with McKinney and regularly record with the band through September of 1931. He made dozens of sides with this big band, by far his most significant legacy on record.
On the opening bars of “Milenberg Joys,” Robinson’s tenor bursts out of extended chords from the band into rapid-fire runs. “Birmingham Breakdown,” with the McKinney band recording as the Chocolate Dandies on Okeh, is another foray into a confident high register. His full chorus on “I’ve Found A New Baby” is as remarkable for its curves as the groove it inspires from the rhythm section. Throughout, his tenor is lighter and less aggressive than Hawkins. Robinson’s phrasing is more declaratory. He also integrates clarinet-like fills between his punchy, at times trumpet-like ideas.
In his analysis of tenor saxophone soloists from 1917 through 1939, jazz archaeologist Jan Evensmo singles out Robinson’s tenor solos on “It’s A Precious Little Thing Called Love” and “I’ve Found A New Baby” as “some of the very best tenor sax of the twenties.” He also points out how varied Robinson’s solos are between takes, indicating improvisation rather than routine. Even Gunther Schuller—no easily satisfied listener—praises Robinson’s solo on “Crying and Sighing”:
Here the excellent tenor player, Prince Robinson, holds forth for three-quarters of a chorus, easily demonstrating why Coleman Hawkins and other musicians thought so highly of him… Robinson’s solo is remarkable not only for its driving energy but its high tessitura, sounding almost like an alto until the final diminished chord low B. [The following transcription] demonstrates Robinson’s superior sense of structure.
Schuller also adds Robinson was “[not] quite as consistently energetic as Hawkins [but] could at times match him in inventiveness.” What Schuller hears as a deficiency in energy could have just been a difference of approach. Robinson’s solos do not have the same type of momentum, but they certainly don’t lag. It may have also been a difference in personality. By most accounts, Hawkins was fiercely competitive, which may have been reflected in his aggressive style. The few personal descriptions of Robinson hint at someone who took his music but not himself too seriously.
In Max Williams’s Jazz Talking, pianist/arranger Mary Lou Williams singled out Robinson when mentioning the “very fine jazz orchestra [that] came to Pittsburgh,” namely McKinney’s band:
At [The Subway club on Wylie] I heard a lot of Prince Robinson, and have never forgotten his excellent tenor. He was one of the outstanding jazz players of the generation. Prince would refuse to jam with inadequate musicians, waiting until he could round up some other out-of-the-ordinary players to make the session inspirational or at least worthwhile.
Williams describes “jam sessions” and not “cutting contests.” The two terms may have been synonymous, but her use of the word “inspirational” is telling: Robinson wasn’t seeking musicians to best but people to learn from and enhance the overall musical setting.
Robinson’s tenure with McKinney also introduces a discographical mystery. He had doubled clarinet and tenor throughout his career. Chilton lists Robinson for almost all of the clarinet solos with McKinney, but historian Phil Schaap says unequivocally that “Prince Robinson is not responsible for any of the clarinet work on McKinney’s Cotton Pickers recordings.” Schaap identifies Don Redman as the clarinet soloist on “Cherry,” and this soloist does sound like the one heard with McKinney before Benny Carter and Edward Inge’s arrival.
For comparison, during his time with McKinney, Robinson was also recording with Clarence Williams’s small groups—more work by Robinson that Jan Evensmo praises for its invention and energy. Robinson’s clarinet with Williams sounds different than the one heard on McKinney’s records. On “Where That Ol’ Man River Flows” with the Lazy Levee Loungers for Okeh and the Columbia recording of “Shout, Sister, Shout” by Clarence Williams’ Washboard Band, the clarinet is intense as opposed to playful. Its rapid arpeggios and short intervals sound more influenced by Buster Bailey. Adding to the confusion, Tom Lord’s monumental discography of Clarence Williams has several notes about Robinson possibly being on dates instead of others. Robinson may have just been a gifted studio musician who could try on different styles according to the session. Regardless, the clarinet work with McKinney is bright in tone and feeling, providing yet another distinct voice to this band.
The McKinney band—with Robinson and other great soloists, Redman and Nesbitt’s arrangements, and its tight sound and sheer swing—became one of the Jazz Age’s top ensembles. Alyssa Mehnert’s doctoral dissertation, Reconsidering McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, 1927–34: Performing Contexts, Radio Broadcasts, and Sound Recordings, explores the band’s extraordinary popular and creative impact. They were a hit at their base in Detroit, maintained a busy radio schedule that gave them a national reach, toured throughout the country, and benefitted from Victor’s records and marketing. Ballrooms and homes across the country were listening to this band.
The McKinney band’s huge audience magnified Robinson’s reputation. In Stanley Dance’s The World of Count Basie, saxophonist and “Texas tenor” Buddy Tate said, “My main influence on tenor [when I started] was Prince Robinson. I loved that cat! He was doing some things that were complicated. I always remember him on McKinney’s Cotton Pickers’ records…He was a pioneer…out there with [Coleman Hawkins], and his modulation on [the McKinney band’s recording of] ‘Zonky’ used to knock me out.” According to Dance’s The World of Earl Hines, during Ben Webster’s early days with Jap Allen’s band, the tenor saxophonist would perform Robinson’s McKinney solos as transcribed by arranger Clyde Hart. Trumpeter Buck Clayton’s autobiography said that his friend Pete Kinard’s “favorite soloist on tenor sax was Prince Robinson…[Kinard] would learn all the solos of Prince Robinson’s that he could play.”
It’s no exaggeration to say that Robinson’s work with McKinney made him a close competitor to none other than Coleman Hawkins. Saxophonist Budd Johnson described Robinson to Stanley Dance as “runner-up to Hawk at that time…everybody was asking ’Who’s the best? This guy or Hawk?’” Johnson told Ira Gitler that Robinson was “the threat to Coleman Hawkins at the time. Everybody was saying, ’Wait a minute. Who is this cat? Damn, you sound almost as good as Coleman Hawkins.’” As Hawkins himself later recalled in Down Beat, by the late twenties, “gangs of tenors would be coming into New York all the time from bands on the road. They used to wake me out of my bed to come down and cut people [at jam sessions]. Tenors like Prince Robinson, for example.”
Hawkins’s Ascent and McKinney’s Decline
History is rarely partitioned into neat junctures, but at some point, Hawkins definitively outpaced Robinson among their peers. For reed player Eddie Barefield, it came down to one night:
I remember times back in the years with the Cotton Pickers when Prince Robinson was the featured tenor player…and everybody was beginning to say then, “well, he’s cutting the Hawk, he’s cutting the Hawk.” So in 1930 when I was with Bernie Young at the Savoy Ballroom, they had a battle of bands between the Cotton Pickers and Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington at the Colosseum, I think in St. Louis. I took off to go to hear it. And Coleman Hawkins just ripped everybody to pieces that night.
When interviewer Ira Gitler asked Barefield, “[Hawkins] took care of Prince Robinson?” Barefield’s response was firm: “He took care of everybody.” Barefield also provides another insight into Prince Robinson on a personal level. He recounted to Stanley Dance how a fight broke out between him and the McKinney band after they refused to pay him due to his not giving timely notice. Barefield had to point out that Robinson and Roy Eldridge were the only two members of the group who did not attack him.
For Tate, Hawkins’s historic solo on Fletcher Henderson’s recording of “The Stampede” put him on top. As he explained to Gary Giddins:
I love the way [Robinson] played. He never got the recognition that was due him… He played some things that were very exciting, and we used to listen to him quite a bit because actually, Prince was smoother than Hawk at that time. He didn’t have as big a sound as Hawk, but he was a little smoother than Hawk in his executions and things like that and we used to listen to him. He got over that horn…Hawk [then] made “Stampede” and we forgot about everybody in the world. He wiped out everybody in the world then after he played “Stampede.” We all said “no, here’s where it’s at, with that big sound and everything…” But Hawk liked [Robinson], too. He said a lot of nice things about [him]…I knew [Hawkins] was with Fletcher and I had listened to him…he wasn’t my idol…as much as Prince was, you know, until, of course, after [“The Stampede”].
The Henderson band also supplied another nemesis for Robinson. In a New Yorker interview, Red Allen mentions that by 1929, drummer Alphonse Steel started taking the trumpeter to jam sessions at the Rhythm Club in Manhattan. At some point, “the St. Louis clarinetist Thornton Blue…took on Prince Robinson and Omer Simeon and Buster Bailey. When Buster got going on ‘Tiger Rag,’ that sealed it up.” A defeat at the hand of Buster Bailey or Coleman Hawkins is nothing to be ashamed of, but being able to go up against both of them on their respective instruments is worthy of legend.
Dr. Mehnert details how the Great Depression, issues with William McKinney’s management, and Victor not renewing their contract all combined to put stress on McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. In May 1931, they began a two-month residency at Sebastian’s New Cotton Club in California, and the band was growing restless due to insufficient compensation. Redman received an offer to lead a band at Connie’s Inn in New York City, and Robinson was one of the McKinney members he wanted to take with him.
Hendersonia and Chilton state that Robinson stayed after receiving a raise, which would be another indicator of his value. Yet Robinson said he was actually ready to leave McKinney. “I figured to go with Redman and his new band,” he explained, “but got tired of waiting [while the spot for Redman’s band at Connie’s Inn opened up after a delay], so I came in again with the reorganized McKinney group under Cuba Austin.’” Robinson notes that by late 1933, after McKinney was ousted and the band assumed the name The Original Cotton Pickers, their popularity had plummeted. “This group fell apart, and I continued with a third band containing mostly unknowns.”
The Swing Era
Robinson seems to have stayed with the declining McKinney band until it broke up in Boston in 1935. He joined vocalist Blanche Calloway while recording on the side with others. This spare recording period still illustrates Robinson’s versatility. On record with Calloway, he gets two charging tenor solos on “Louisiana Liza” and a more laid-back but still swinging 16 bars on the “King Porter Stomp” contrafact “I Gotta’ Swing.” In a brief solo on Lil Armstrong’s “You Mean So Much To Me,” he crafts well-correlated phrases and audibly fires up the rhythm section. On Armstrong’s backbeat-driven “Lindy Hop,” Robinson honks and rolls like a proto R&B player. “You Mean So Much To Me” showcases Robinson in some beautifully ornate lines, even at the fast pace.
During this time, Robinson also added more giants to his resume. He’s on two of Billie Holiday’s Brunswick sessions backed by Teddy Wilson and other leading jazz lights of the thirties. His tenor reveals a richer tone and more languid phrasing reminiscent of Chu Berry on “My Last Affair,” “The Mood That I’m In,” and “Sentimental and Melancholy.” On clarinet for his other session with Holiday and Wilson, Robinson shows his appreciation for Buster Bailey’s cascading silvery style, especially his chorus on “My Man.” His obbligato behind Holiday on “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” adds swing and harmonic variety while staying tender and unobtrusive. Despite clearly hearing and appreciating Hawkins, Berry, Bailey, and even some of Lester Young’s fleetness, Robinson maintains his unique sound.
Even though he’d later call Calloway’s stage performances “a gimmick” and “nonsense,” Robinson put up with them for two years before decamping to vocalist Willie Bryant. Billed as the “colored Guy Lombardo” for his creamy sax section, Robinson pointed out the band also had “splendid swing arrangements.” There isn’t much tenor to be heard on Robinson’s four sides with Bryant. “Neglected” has a brief, somewhat generic introduction. Jan Evensmo hears two different soloists on the other tracks. He believes it’s Robinson playing the eight bars on “You’re Gonna’ Lose Your Gal,” which he hears as “a slightly more old-fashioned style than ‘On The Alamo.’”
After playing with Bryant for 18 months, Robinson joined trumpeter Roy Eldridge’s band. The Eldridge band had been hired to play New York’s Arcadia for two weeks and ended up staying two months. Eldridge began to appreciate Robinson’s musicianship on multiple levels. “The first Sunday we played there, the first week, I had to play the tango compositions. And I never had no dealings with tangos, but my brother [alto saxophonist Joe Eldridge] and Prince Robinson did, because they had been in New York, and they played dancing schools and they knew all about that.”
Live recordings from the Arcadia and one August 1939 session on Varsity of this Eldridge group are mostly fast, high-energy numbers. Robinson’s section mate Franz Jackson recalled Robinson playing the tenor solos for this group. As Jackson told Stanley Dance, “Prince had a very good style on clarinet. I liked to hear him better than I liked to hear myself. I liked that jumping style he played, the way he kicked it.” Recalling those days, Eldridge gently interrupted interviewer Dan Morgenstern to comment on Robinson:
And you know who was a helluva musician and a helluva clarinet player…never really got any recognition in later years, was Prince Robinson. Oh, he was marvelous. People don’t even know how much he played, man, you know? And he played the Albert system [clarinet], too. Yeah. This is the one that’s the hard one to play! He was a good tenor, too. You know, at one time it was, like, Coleman and Prince Robinson.
After Eldridge, Robinson joined Louis Armstrong at the height of his popular appeal. On record, Robinson starts with Armstrong in one of the few small groups the great artist waxed from this period. “Ev’rything’s Been Done Before” has some brightly shaped and downright lovely clarinet before and behind the vocal. Smoky tenor obbligatos color “Do You Call That A Buddy?”—an unusually dark tune for Armstrong. The fluttery clarinet on “Yes, Suh!” shows Robinson’s gift for structure in phrases that connect and answer one another.
Robinson’s time with Armstrong’s big band brings up another discographical uncertainty. Many, including Schuller, assign all of the tenor solos to Robinson. Yet jazz journalist Jack Sohmer says that Garland was the designated tenor soloist with Armstrong. The 1944 movie Jam Session featuring Armstrong and his band also shows arranger/musical director Joe Garland as the tenor soloist. Garland’s solo does sound like the tenor heard on several records from before Robinson joined the band: more rolling and less forcefully articulated than Robinson’s work. While still praising Robinson in Barry Ulanov’s A History of Jazz in America, Armstrong described him as an old school cat, possibly meaning his age but perhaps referring to Robinson’s style. Buddy Tate also said that Robinson “was a pioneer, but he didn’t keep up.” These descriptions are at odds with the modern style of tenor influenced by Don Byas and Ike Quebec that Schuller hears on the Armstrong records.
Garland and Robinson may have split the solos with Louis Armstrong. On “I Used to Love You,” Armstrong biographer Ricky Riccardi says Garland takes the tenor solo on the bridge. But he agrees with jazz writer Michael Steinman that it is Prince Robinson on “A Zoot Suit” playing the solo “straight out of early Hawkins.” Riccardi notes that “Leap Frog” has “short solo spots for Prince Robinson’s clarinet and Garland’s tenor saxophone.” While there isn’t an abundance of solo space for other musicians on Armstrong’s big band records, these tenor(s) turn out melodic and swinging solos. Critics’ comments aside, none of these soloists are unfortunate detours from Armstrong or signs that he was behind the times.
Robinson also collected possibly his one composer credit during this time: cowriting the 1943 song “Apollo Jump” with Ernest Puree and “Lucky” Millinder. Nat Shapiro’s Popular Music: An Annotated Index of American Popular Songs lists Millinder’s record of this tune as a best seller. While sources claim Robinson played with Millinder during 1942–43, Robinson doesn’t mention his time with the band. As for his time with Armstrong, he later said, “I liked it swell.” He kibitzes with Armstrong during the spoken introduction to “A Zoot Suit.” Guitarist Larry Lucie told Storyville that “The two guys in the band who used to act up and fool around on stage were [trombonist] George Washington and Prince Robinson.” Robinson was willing to do what was needed for a good show on or off the stage.
Robinson left Armstrong after four years “because of the impossible travel difficulties during the war [and then] jobbed about New York playing clubs like Café Society and in pit bands for musicals.” Robinson’s period as a freelancer is surprisingly well-documented but sadly under-recorded. He played with Benny Morton at Café Society Downtown in the fall of 1944 and recorded four titles with the trombonist. Robinson sounds like he’s having a ball sailing over Sammy Beskin’s piano on “Boogie.” He alternates bluesy statements and chordal runs on the boppish “Williephant Willie.”
He also played on records with Leonard Feather’s Hiptet backing singers. On tenor behind Helen Humes, Robinson provides some appropriately big-toned purring and growling befitting the late-night blues atmosphere—more evidence of Robinson’s ability to adapt to each session’s needs. The Feather dates would be his last recordings for the next five years. He was still busy even when he was just trying to relax! The McGill University Daily of January 16, 1945, says that “Bad weather having prevented the arrival of the scheduled New York performers, last night’s Jam Session was filled in brilliantly by a group including Prince Robison, sax and clarinet star of Louis Armstrong’s band, vacationing in Montreal.” Among others in the pickup band, “great local piano virtuoso” Oscar Peterson was also on hand.
Robinson then went on tour with pianist Claude Hopkins from 1947 to 1952. This quartet may have had a lot of work on the military circuit: they’re reported accompanying acts for a veterans’ hospital show, and Robinson is listed on several manifests for flights in and out of Westover Air Force base to Canada and Germany. Once back in New York in 1950, he recorded four sides with Hopkins accompanying rhythm and blues singers for the short-lived Big Nickel label and one session in 1951 with pianist Freddie Washington. Robinson also gets billed right alongside Henderson, Bud Freeman, James P. Johnson, and others in an ad for a concert presented by Bud Maltz at the Stuyvesant Casino on November 17, 1950. Lee Morse of Billboard singled out Robinson’s “exciting solos” with Hopkins at Café Society in March 1952.
After Hopkins, Robinson apparently played a little bit of everything: “bop and rumba…Some weeks I play Dixieland, some weeks bop. I’ve played all kinds and believe in keeping active. It’s all fun to me.” That need to keep active speaks volumes about Robinson’s personality as well as talent. Curiosity alone didn’t earn him all of this work.
He then replaced Eddie Barefield in Red Allen’s band at The Spa in Baltimore, Maryland, around mid-1953. Robinson is reported to have fit in just fine and had a good time doing it. Covering the Allen band, Thurman and Mary Grove were moved by Robinson’s playing and humor singing “When the Saints Go Marching In”:
“[Robinson] sang one chorus straight then continued a second one by omitting a word here and there while the band raced ahead. As if seeking to catch up he started skipping, slurring, and mumbling his words in a scat style that lazed along behind [Sonny] Greer’s incessant beat…Prince seemed shocked by the sudden outburst of acclaim. Shyly, but obviously pleased, he retired to the background…”
From there, Robinson’s professional path on paper goes in a few different directions that probably don’t capture everything he was doing. Record Changer reported him rejoining Claude Hopkins in New York during 1954 after a tour with Red Allen. Another issue of the same magazine says that by January of 1954, Robinson was a regular clarinetist at the Stuyvesant Casino alongside guests like Tony Sbarbro, Elmer Schoebel, Wild Bill Davison, Bobby Hackett, and Pee Wee Russell. During 1955–59, he played with Freddie Washington’s Dixiecrats in Bayside, Long Island.
By 1957, Robinson was apparently gigging on weekends in Long Island playing clarinet and tenor sax with his own band. This listing in Jazz Music magazine is the only reference to his acting as a leader on record, and he never recorded as one. Robinson may not have had the opportunity to do so or simply had no desire. He may not have wanted the stress. Maybe he preferred just to play music rather than have to manage it. That’s understandable, but it also helps explain his obscurity. Even an occasional leader doesn’t get buried in discographies as much as a sideman! It may also point to an easygoing personality.
In 1958, Robinson appeared with the Fletcher Henderson reunion band and may be the clarinetist on a few sides with trumpeter Louis Metcalf. He may have continued to play in Broadway pit bands, and it’s interesting to consider what other instruments he may have doubled “all in a day’s work.” His last records in the fifties, with Hopkins and Freddie Washington, are difficult to find. Even his presence on a 1958 session with Louis Metcalf for the Stere-o-Craft 45rpm label is uncertain. Gene Sedric is given as another option for the clarinetist on this date (even though the two players had very different sounds).
Robinson’s last record date was on December 1, 1959, playing clarinet in Andy Gibson’s big band for “Blueprint.” The session was organized by Stanley Dance and included Vic Dickenson, Dicky Wells, Paul Gonsalves, Kenny Burrell, and Milt Hinton. It’s an incredible lineup that managed to cut a cohesive and swinging 16-minute side in less than three hours, even though many of the fifteen musicians had never played together! Dance later said that Robinson “sounded fine, but he was rusty…He hadn’t played the clarinet, you know, so there were squeaks, but what he played was very nice.” Robinson probably also played clarinet in the ensemble parts, leading saxes and brass in his sopranino range with fine intonation and blend.
Robinson may have sounded “rusty” due to illness. John Chilton’s Who’s Who of Jazz says he spent the last few months of his life hospitalized for cancer. Death records show Prince Robinson passed away on July 23, 1960, just shy of age 58. He is buried in Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. It doesn’t look like he married or had children. Like the earliest parts of Prince Robinson’s life, his last days are a mystery.
More to Learn And Hear
Exploring Prince Robinson’s life and career doesn’t explain his relative obscurity. It actually raises more questions. Researching this article during a pandemic meant that many physical libraries were temporarily inaccessible. Scholars may find information to fill in or correct the record—which would be both welcome and refreshing given Robinson’s modest place in jazz history. The facts point to someone worth knowing and, more importantly, worth listening to.
By all accounts, he performed exceedingly well. He also had a sound of his own that impressed and influenced some now-legendary colleagues. Robinson’s playing may not have reached their astronomic heights, yet not being an innovator is a long way from having nothing to say. What might all those other obscure names in personnel listings have to offer?
Andrew J. Sammut has covered music for All About Jazz, The Boston Classical Review, The Boston Musical Intelligencer, Early Music America, The IAJRC Journal, and his blog The Pop of Yestercentury. Andrew also works as a freelance copyeditor and writer. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with his wife and his dog.