In this episode, Gerald interviews Donald Robinson, a Grammy Nominated Producer, Songwriter, Arranger, and Studio Owner. During this interview, Donald shares lessons he learned from Groover Washington Jr. and how Groover set the example for his band in life, music, and connecting with the next generation of musicians.
To learn more about Donald Robinson Studios go to https://donaldrobinsonstudios.com/
Well, welcome to Workplace Jazz, How to Improvise. We’re your trusted resource for creating high-performing agile teams and learning the secrets used by today’s jazz musicians and their professional ensembles. I’m your host, Gerald Leonard. Today I have with me, Donald Robinson. Now, Donald is an established presence in the music industry. He has spent seven years as a keyboardist and music director for Grover Washington, Jr, and he’s played keyboard jazz with jazz artists such as Gerald Albright, Kirk Whalum, Kim Waters, Chuck Loeb, Najee, Stevie Wonder, Will Downing, Rick Braun, Walter Beasley, Eric Marienthal… Should I say more? I mean, the guy’s been around the block, and he’s done a lot of cool things.
His production credits include three number-one hits on the Billboard charts, R&B charts, and he has arranged music and produced songs for Nancy Wilson, Phyllis Hyman, Vanessa Williams, Rachelle Ferrell, Stephanie Mills, Phil Perry, Gladys Knight, Tisha Campbell, Jasmine Guy, Dawnn Lewis, and many others.
Mr. Robinson has secured publishing deals with EMI Music as well as Motown Music, Inc. He is also an active member of BMI and ASCAP and has served on the Philadelphia area’s Grammy board.
I met Donald through a networking deal with a guy named Steve Harrison, who said, “I want you to meet my keyboardist at my church.” I thought, “Okay, well, he’s going to introduce me to this guy who’s [inaudible 00:02:09] a nice keyboardist,” and I’m thinking, “Okay, great.” So, we set up lunch up in Philly at the airport, right? Remember that?
[crosstalk 00:02:18] and we had lunch, and I’m thinking, “Wait a minute. Donald Robinson.” So, I started looking up, and I’m thinking, “This is not some church keyboard player. This guy is the real, legitimate thing who’s paid his dues and has done an incredible lot.” And since that time, we have built a great friendship. He’s helped my daughter with some of the music that she’s doing, besides the fact that he introduced me to Gerald Veasley, which opened up a whole new world of me getting back to playing and getting the network and work with some people, at least play with some people or meet some folks who are only at the top of their game, like Victor Wooten, Marcus Miller, Gerald Veasley, and David Dyson. I am so grateful to Donald, and I’m so honored that he said yes to do this interview with us or conversation with us. And so, Donald, I just want to start with, tell me a little bit more about your story, and how did you get started in the music business, and what’s been the keys to your success?
Wow. Well, first of all, thank you so much for having me. I appreciate being here. And I’ve just got to say; you mentioned earlier the people that I played with. You mentioned Gerald Albright. I have played keyboards beside Gerald Albright, but Gerald Veasley is the guy that actually… Well, you told me all about your book at your Bootcamp. [crosstalk 00:03:35] given his Bootcamp. I’m the one who recommended you to Gerald Veasley. So, Gerald Veasley is… I just wanted to make sure we’d mentioned his name in there. [crosstalk 00:03:43].
Yeah. But, wow. It started, for me, at a very early age. I was about 13 years old. I mean, if you want to go back to the very beginning. I just got that musical bug. I remember years ago, being in the barbershop right down the street from my house, sitting there, and I think it might’ve been the first time that I heard jazz, and it just… I’m waiting to get my hair cut. I’m sitting in the barbershop and just was absorbed by this music. So, I got my eyes closed. It was in the winter. So, they had the radiators. They keep the room warm. Was this little, small barbershop. And I just remember walking in the back and going over to the radiator like it was a piano. Now that I think about it, I guess… It might’ve been the first time I heard Song for My Father, and I just started acting like I was playing the piano.
And I was just in my world, got my eyes closed, and all of a sudden, I hear the guy at the barbershop said, “Play the piano, little boy,” and I just jumped out of it. I’m like, “Oh, what just happened?”
So, I just developed this love for music right away. And jazz was the first genre of music that influenced me. I remember getting out of the barbershop, running to my mom, and said, “Mom, I want you to buy me a piano. I want to learn how to play the piano.” And she was like, “What? Learn how to play the piano? Where’d you get that from?” I said, “I don’t know. I just want to play.”
She bought me my piano. I remember Christmas came, and I had the [Emoni Organ 00:05:17]. It was like the wind-type organ that costs, like, $49. They advertised it on TV. And that was my first organ. It had about 49 keys. It had little buttons that played the chords for you, so I started playing the buttons, and I started developing an ear, and I could play the buttons, and I would figure out the chord, and it just grew from there. I just loved music.
And that’s pretty much how it started for me, just being at that barbershop and hearing jazz. And it just struck me differently. And I just found a love for it. From there, 16 or 17 years old, developed a band, a local neighborhood band. We were playing at little bars and cabarets. And then, from there, I still was loving music. I went to college, a community college, and picked up the flute, also, because I wanted to play the saxophone, but they didn’t have any. So, “I’ll pick up a flute.” It’s kind of like the sax. The fingering is pretty much similar.
So, I started playing the flute, and I ended up loving that. So, I play keyboards and flute. Of course, I got more keyboard gigs than I had a flute, but I went from the community college to the Philadelphia College of Performing Arts. It’s called the University of the Arts, and I was a flute major there, got my degree in performing, and played piano in a jazz band. So, I got the best of both worlds because I was learning all the Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock stuff with the piano and playing it by ear for so many years. But then the fluted side was more on the classical side. So, I was learning how to arrange and play more orchestrational pieces at that time. So, it was good because I would be in one room and hear them talk about, “Oh, jazz musicians. All they do is improvise.” And I would listen to the jazz musicians say, “Oh, the classical musicians, all they do is read music.” So, it was great being on both sides because then I learned how to read and I also learned how to arrange and compose music, too.
That’s excellent. That’s excellent. I didn’t know that about you, with the flute playing.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
[crosstalk 00:07:36] keyboard playing.
[crosstalk 00:07:36] my flute is sitting right over there. Yeah.
That’s awesome. I did notice one time we were working together on something, and I saw the flute there, and I thought, “Ain’t that the flute that Grover gave him.”
Yeah. Speaking of Grover, actually, one day, Grover didn’t know I played the flute, too, and we were at some little pawn shop, and we were on the road. And a guy said, “Oh man, they have a flute. Why don’t you get it?” So, I end up buying a flute, and we were playing Mister Magic, and I’m playing keyboards, and instead of me playing a piano solo, I ended up writing over and playing the flute solo, and Grover looks at it, and it’s like, “Whoa, I don’t know who you played the flute. Now you’re going to be playing flute in the band.” So, he had me playing the flute, also, for some of the songs. Yeah. But-
Yeah. So, I’ve been doing this for a while, and, yeah, like I said, it’s just a bug that I developed that I just love music in every sense. And I think if you… Something that you love, you’re going to find ways to make it work.
Exactly. Exactly. Now, at this point, the world has changed quite a bit on everything, and I know that you’ve been, probably, busier now, seems like, than before. What do you think is going on in the music industry, and how has COVID impacted the music industry from your perspective?
Well, I think for me being a producer, a record producer, and a songwriter and a musician playing on the road, my first love is, then, record producing. And that’s where I feel like I… Once I started playing it live a lot, I got away from it. And actually, COVID has pushed me back into that again. So, there are so many opportunities, remotely, that you can do online.
Yeah, because you did something for Netflix.
Yes, yes, yes. That Netflix thing was a song that when I was playing with a local band back in the day, it was a song that I’d done way back then that they happened to hear and ended up putting it in the movie. The movie just came out, but the song was a song that was done, oh, 15 years ago. So, it just helped me remember the value of songwriting, the value of songs. You just never know when things are going to happen.
It could be relevant.
Yeah. Yeah. So, for me, I’ve been working a lot remotely, between people sending me their mixes or sending me their tracks or through Zoom and different things like we’re doing now. I’ve found ways to make it work, and it’s been working well.
That’s excellent. I think a lot of musicians can learn from that. I think many people are becoming very creative. Still, I believe you are a fantastic example of how to pivot and use your talents and the various talents you have to keep things going for yourself and your family and career. So, kudos to you. So, I know one of the things I wanted to talk to you about with this conversation was just your time with Grover, right? Because I have a book coming out, Workplace Jazz, and you gave me a story that’s a part of the book. And I’ve also heard you do that story separately on YouTube, where you shared it, and you shared some exciting things, but how did you first get connected with Grover? How did you first get hooked up with him? What was going on for you?
Yeah. So, I think it was back in ’85, maybe to ’88, or somewhere around there. I had a publishing deal with Motown at the time, and they knew about my jazz background. So, I was doing R&B and jazz for them, writing songs for them. And they said, “Hey, Grover Washington. That’s right, in Philadelphia. Why don’t you all hook up?” Now, I knew who Grover Washington was, of course, but I learned a lot of his musicians, also, who are mostly from Philadelphia. Pieces of a Dream, they were Grover Washington, and a couple of friends of mine… [Randy Boland 00:12:03] was an excellent guitar player, and [Kurt Dowels 00:00:12:06]. So, I would talk to these guys, we would do studio sessions, and you know, they would, “Yeah, we’re going out on tour with Grover.”
But then, when the publishing company talked to me about, “Hey, you should hook up with Grover,” I thought about songs that I already had. “Wait a minute. I think this would be a great song for Grover.” So, it was a song that I wrote called Nice and Easy, which was the first song that I did for Grover. The record company… I keep saying record company, but the publishing company connected Grover and me, and Grover knew who I was. We hadn’t met, but we knew who each other was, and he said, “Yeah, man, come to the studio. I’d love to hear some of your materials.” I played the song for him. He heard it. He was like, “Wow.” Loved it. Loved it right away. And that was my first, actually, time at work with Grover Washington.
But then after that, we just developed a great relationship. He was such a mentor for me. I mean, not only was his playing at the top but just his integrity and how he treated musicians. And then he offered me to go on the road with them, and I was just blown away about how he treated his musicians because I heard so many stories about how the main guy was staying at a five-star hotel. He’ll have him [inaudible 00:13:26] in this little, crazy motel somewhere. And Grover wasn’t like that at all. He treated us like family. Wherever he went, his band went. We traveled on the bus together; we stayed at the same restaurants. He just treated us like family. He only exceeded my expectations, as far as what I thought it would be like as a jazz musician, traveling on the road with someone like him.
And not only that, just the way that he would give back to the younger musicians. Every time we played, and we would do a soundcheck, I noticed a group of either high school students or college students, or sometimes elementary school students who were there to just… He would have them come and talk to them about music, and he would have some of the young guys come on stage. “Yeah, get your horn. Come on. Play with us,” and have them play on stage with him. And then, that night, when we did the concert, and we would do Mister Magic, he would call some of these young musicians to the gig, and they would come and play with him onstage. So, I was like, “Wow. What an excellent example of giving back.” And-
He did that pretty much in most of the cities that he went into, right?
Yeah. Pretty much everywhere we went, he would have… Or whenever we did that soundcheck, he would have a group of students there where he would do his workshops and educate them on jazz.
Wow. In the book, you gave me a story about a time you guys were on the bus in Aspen. Can you tell us that story? And then, what were some of the things that you learned from Grover as you went through that situation?
Well, that’s another excellent example, because we were in Colorado traveling. It had to be about 5:30 AM, coming down, and it’s one of those tour buses where we have the bunks in it. We’re all sleeping in the bus, and we’re coming down this hill, and as I’m in the bunk, I hear the driver pull over to the side, and I hear the door open, and I hear him running, and he runs back on the bus, and he comes in the back. “Everybody, get off the bus right now! Get off!” Everybody’s walking out of sleep. “What’s going on?” “The wheel’s on fire! The wheel is on fire! Get out! You got to get out!”
So, we are grabbing as much stuff as we can, getting off the bus. Well, there were two buses, so none of the musical equipment was on there. That went with the crew before. So, just the band members and Grover and his wife, we were all on this bus.
And so, we get off the bus, and he’s like, “Stand back! Stand back!” So, we get back, and he runs to grab a fire extinguisher, and he tries to put the tire out, and all of a sudden, the whole tire just goes in flames. And we’re standing on the road looking at this tour bus, a 350,000 tour bus, at least that amount, go up in flame. I mean, and it happened so fast, and we’re calling the fire department. So, we’re in Colorado. I mean, they took, like, a half an hour to get there. By the time they got there, the bus was crisp. We couldn’t believe it. So, we’re just, of course, thankful that we got off the bus and grateful that Everybody got out safely, but it was just amazing.
So, not just that. After that happened, they had some vans come to pick us up, and we were still making this trip. We were going to Aspen, Colorado, which had that big jazz festival there, but we had to wait an hour or two before they could get these vans to come to pick us up. So, they take us to this community center where we’re waiting for the bus. And it’s mostly old folks there. They’re playing bingo and just doing activities—a lot of senior citizens. And Grover just decides to take his horn out, start playing the saxophone, start playing some blues. He does that. All of a sudden, it’s a little upright piano out of tune on the side. I start playing the piano, and you got all of these folks in the community center, just up onto… They were just dancing around to Grover playing, and they’re only in awe. Like, “Wow, Grover Washington is here, and he’s playing the sax.”
And again, it gave me another example of someone who just made a bad situation out of an extraordinary situation because they were just like, “Wow, I can’t believe we’re getting this here.” And so, just looking at, like I said, his character, and that story just gave me so much more of his background, besides him being just an incredible sax player.
Wow. That’s awesome. That’s awesome. And you do share more about it. And so, I think we’re going to close it out here, but you do share several other things in the book about Grover that I appreciate. I didn’t know, and I’ve learned, and I’ve learned, and, as I’ve got a chance to work with you, you exemplify a lot of those characteristics, as well. To do what you’ve done… You’re incredibly humble, and you’re incredibly gracious to the folks you work for and work with. And I just know that they’re bigger and better and greater things out there for you. And I think through this pandemic, you’ve been put into a perfect place to just really share your gift, mentor and coach folks like myself, but also to continually produce music that we’re going to hear on Netflix and that are going to be number-one hits. And I’m just thankful to be a part of the journey with you, and that you’ve allowed me to bring you into my space, as well, and what I’m doing. And I appreciate that, man. I do.
The feeling is mutual, and I’m just so grateful to be a friend of yours, not just from the standpoint of helping you out through the music side, because you are also a bass player. So, get ready. Everybody. It’s ready to come out. Not just the book, but you’ve got to hear the CD that we’re working on, too. It’s going to be incredible. So, I’m looking forward to just doing some great things with you, also. [crosstalk 00:19:51].
I appreciate it, man. I appreciate it. Well, I’ll tell you what, guys. To learn more about Donald, you want to go to sowmusiconline.org. That’s sow, S-O-W, musiconline.org. And if you want to learn more about the book-
[crosstalk 00:20:07] this way… I’m sorry to cut you off, but you can also go to donaldrobinsonstudios.com. That’s with an S, which is probably easier. Donaldrobinsonstudios.com. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
[crosstalk 00:20:16]. Got it. Got it. And then also, with the book, Donald’s just one of the artists that I’ve included in the book. There are several artists that I’ve interviewed, as well as artists that I’ve shared about, from George [inaudible 00:20:31] to [Hans Zimmer 00:00:20:33] to Gerald Veasley and [Donald Demarcus 00:20:35] to Victor Wooten and Anthony Wellington, who I got to meet and know personally up in Philly with Gerald Veasley. And it’s been an amazing ride, so if you want to learn more about the book, go to workplace dash… like a dash… jazz.com, and that site will have everything. It will have podcasts; it’ll have… You can read the first chapter of the book for free. You can check out the endorsements from Brian Tracy, Jim Cathcart, and several others. And again, I’m excited about this opportunity to share what I’m learning and, again, to meet folks like yourself, Donald. So, thanks so much. I appreciate it. You got my heart, man.
[crosstalk 00:21:16] you.
All right. Have a good one.
I’ll be the first one to get the book and make sure you sign it for me.
You know you’re getting an autographed copy.
All right. My pleasure.
All right. Thanks [crosstalk 00:21:28], man.
All right. Bye-bye.
You’ve been listening to Workplace Jazz with me, Gerald J. Leonard. How to Improvise. Thanks for listening.