The brilliant tones of music legend and trumpeter, Joe Robinson

Published 12:07 am Thursday, February 29, 2024

By Stephanie Williams Dean

For the Clemmons Courier

CLEMMONS — A legendary musician lives among us. 

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. 

And the beat goes on — a fanfare resounding. These days, Robinson 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 before.  

With five children, all musically talented like their father and mother, Alfreda, the high note of the musician’s life has been family. However, before his children were born, Robinson never imagined girls playing in bands and clubs. 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 terrific dancer, and she went on to earn a scholarship at the University of Kentucky. 

Now married more than 60 years, Robinson met his wife in the high school band where she played clarinet, and she still plays to this day. Robinson didn’t share the score with notations on how to achieve the marital harmony he’s enjoyed throughout the marriage, 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, Robinson 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 of us do, Robinson has some strong memories attached to his Mama, especially a few food memories. 

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

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

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

With his Mama’s food legacies living on, Robinson 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 already 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 to go along with it.

While Robinson 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. 

Robinson’s prelude to music began with an old bugle he found and began to blow. He took it to school in the 5th grade, but at that time, there were no music teachers for his age group. Later on, after playing the instrument for a while, Robinson set his heart’s desire on a trumpet. But there was no money.  

So Robinson told his grandmother — 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 and 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 Robinson’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 Robinson went with his grandfather who walked right into that store and bought the shiny instrument off the wall — paying cash for it. With a new trumpet in hand, Robinson 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 Robinson was exposed to a music teacher, he was going into the 7th 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, Robinson 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.” 

Robinson fell into his favorite musical style, that of jazz, quite by accident. A family friend who lived four doors up from their home came to visit. Robinson 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 Robinson 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 good job working for Hanes Hosiery. Later, Robinson’s friend, who was also a musician and worked for Sun Chemical, referred Joe to the same company. 

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

After that, Robinson’s musical career exploded. 

However, even though the musician always loved jazz, he couldn’t make any money from it. So, Robinson continued to hold down a job while performing music gigs — playing in a top 40, rhythm and blues band for about 5 years on weekends. Sometimes he’d get with other guys to play private jobs.

“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.” 

During Robinson’s lifetime, this renowned musician has consistently hit high notes in his music career. One was when he was hired to play for the first time under his name only, Joe Robinson. What a proud moment that must have been — to be good enough to book a gig in his own name.

Another high-pitched moment in life was when Robinson decided to make his first recording — so many people kept asking him if he had a cassette tape of his music. He was still working a job, so the time was around the mid ’80s. 

“I recorded an entire album right here in town in Winston-Salem. I was 50 years old 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 Robinson was concerned, the recording was highly successful and so much so that now and then, he still gets requests for it.

A humble man, the acclaimed musician almost forgot to share another milestone in his musical career. This high brassy note came after the city of Winston-Salem chose to hang his picture in the Benton Convention Center — for life. 

“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.”

What a great way to commemorate the horn player’s musical contributions to the city. Over his lifetime, Robinson has continued to play the same melody — always advocating for young, fledgling musicians who had a desire to learn music.

“I’m a private person. But I used to meet a lot of young musicians especially after the album came out — we made three — 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 — the Adams Mark. We’d have little lessons, and some of them have done very well, especially the trumpet players.”

When responding to any low notes in his career, Robinson has been fortunate. There have been no lows. And he’s continually played up until the last two years — a time when he’s moving to a slightly slower beat. 

“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.” 

But even so, not all the famed musician’s dreams have come true. 

When Robinson 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.”

Sometimes we have to make choices or give up some good things to have a better life. And even though Robinson is proud of the musical success he’s enjoyed, there are some feelings he still works to overcome. 

“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.” 

Some days, Robinson feels surprised at the levels achieved in his career. But the tone of this man’s life resonates in both quality and character. And what he’s most proud of is how he and his wife have held their marriage together and raised their wonderful kids. 

“They just really show me how much I mean to them.  They accompany me to every doctor’s appointent. 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, Robinson’s been sharing some love secrets with his kids — things they didn’t already know. 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 Robinson is 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 has 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,” Robinson said.

At the end of my talk with Robinson, 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.” 

We’re all on the same journey Robinson is on — walking one day at a time. And blessed we’ll be when finding ourselves in our heavenly home. But for now, I reckon that the rewards or sufferings of the present times aren’t worthy to be compared to the glory that shall be revealed to us one day. 

For we are saved by faith. And those who have faith in that which we see not, then do we with patience — wait for it.  

Meanwhile, our community will continue tootin’ Robinson’s horn — lifting high this talented, legendary horn player and giving thanks for his music.

For God knows we need awesome trumpet players right here on earth as we will in heaven.