Before pianist Reginald Robinson’s Sunday performance at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, the crowd murmured about the lack of an actual piano. Onstage sat a small keyboard with an impressive amplifier behind it. Whispers went up that ragtime requires something with a little more wood and a few more strings. The room was muted in the dim golden light from the ceiling lamps, as its heavy curtains were closed against the gray rain outside. Large glasses, for fashion or necessity, seemed to be a prerequisite for attendance. The scene bore little resemblance to a swinging ragtime club of yore.
The age distribution of the crowd suggested that the star himself would be an elderly figure, venerable in his much-acclaimed musical dexterity and virtuosity. Instead, Reginald Robinson was cool. He wore a newsboy cap and corduroy jacket and spoke to the crowd like a neighbor, including points where he stopped, looked up, and told the audience, “Sorry, I’m still getting used to this keyboard. I love it though,” or, “This piece is a little more expansive, but I’ll see what I can do.”
Impressively, the keyboard didn’t impede Robinson from showcasing the beauty and vim of ragtime in the name of expanding the crowd’s understanding of the Oriental Institute’s Pioneers to the Past exhibit, which celebrates the story of the museum’s founding. His fingers ran lightly over the keys, and he offered up love stories, futuristic themes, and mix-it-up dance tunes. He wove in short reminiscences of his own Chicago childhood and ties to the South Side between the brief pieces, and his feet danced joyously over the pedals. The crowd gave him a standing ovation, which he accepted with a gracious chuckle, and it was clear that as far as they were concerned, he had no need to apologize for the keyboard.