CLEMMONS — In the early 1950s, some kids found a banged-up bugle in the woods in the Happy Hills neighborhood south of downtown Winston-Salem.
“Ewww. It’s dirty,” some of the boys said. “I’m not putting my mouth on that.”
“I’ll take it,” one boy piped up.
Just 10 years old, he loved to sing and seemed to have a good ear for music, absorbing the Fats Waller melodies that his father played on his piano.
He took the bugle home, cleaned it up and began to make his own music, driving the neighbors — and his mom — nuts with his incessant wailing.
More than 50 years later, Joe Robinson is still blowing his horn, firmly established as one of the finest jazz trumpet players in the region and who counted among his friends the late poet, actress and activist Maya Angelou.
Although Robinson is often referred to as a Winston-Salem musician, he has lived in Clemmons since 1976 with Alfreda, his wife of 51 years.
Clemmons wasn’t exactly a jazz hotbed, but with his fifth child on the way, Robinson needed to find a big house in a quiet neighborhood with good schools.
He found it in Clemmons West.
“I went all over the place — Davie County, north of Winston-Salem. I usually wouldn’t approach a place if it wasn’t integrated,” Robinson recalled. “I drove through Clemmons West and saw this English Tudor-style home next to all these brick homes. It stood out. I love the home and never saw a reason to move out.”
All five of his kids attended West Forsyth High School.
All also play music.
“They had to,” Robinson said. “It seems like everyone who plays in a band or sings in a choir goes on to do other things well. They have great self-awareness. Plus, it’s a lot of fun.”
That was something Robinson discovered early, dating to that bugle that he and some friends found in the woods. After wearing out taps with his bugle, he pined for another horn, a trumpet.
His grandmother finally relented, splurging on one in a pawn shop. Robinson still remembers the price: $69.70.
By that time, Robinson had already developed the lip muscles needed to play the trumpet.
“Once I got a trumpet, my mother’s friend told me to come over to his house because I had to hear something. He put on a Miles Davis record and then a Chet Baker record. Immediately, I knew: ‘This is it.’ It just registered with me,” Robinson said. “I played all the time. I couldn’t stop.”
Robinson became so entranced with trumpets that when the Atkins High School band marched in parades, he would walk alongside the trumpet section, ignoring the rest of the parade.
Harry Wheeler, the band director at Atkins High School — then an all-black high school in Winston-Salem — was a legendary figure in the community, nurturing the musical careers of many young people, including Robinson. He recognized early that Robinson was a serious jazz student.
“I used to cut class just to hang out with him,” Robinson said of Wheeler. “I went to school for the music program.”
After a stint at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, a homesick Robinson returned to Winston-Salem armed with the knowledge that the life of a jazz musician was not all glamorous.
“I thought, ‘I can’t live like this,’” Robinson said after seeing some of the Spartan living conditions of musicians in the northeast. “I had this wonderful girl, and I couldn’t put her through this. Ninety percent of jazz musicians had a rough life if you weren’t going to be someone like Dizzy Gillespie.”
Robinson got a job and started a family with Alfreda while finding gigs with area musicians, including bass player Matt Kendrick.
The two have played music together in various combos for more than 30 years.
“He’s a really creative player,” Kendrick said. “When he’s on, it’s really something else. We’ve made some great music over the years.”
Robinson’s main love is what he calls “straight-ahead” jazz from the bebop school — Davis, Clifford Brown and Gillespie.
With his quartet and as a member of other combos, Robinson has played jazz around the country as well as in a few countries. He has played such events as the John Coltrane International Blues and Jazz Festival in High Point. Robinson has also recorded three albums.
The number of outlets to play jazz in the area has dwindled in the last several years, reducing his work. If he plays locally, it’s more likely to be in Greensboro or High Point or at private parties and homes.
In Clemmons, he has played at Cimarron Steak House on U.S. 158.
One outlet has been at area schools as part of the Carolina Music Ways program, which exposes students to the state’s rich musical heritage. At these school shows, Robinson plays trumpet with a band of musicians that covers several genres, including old-time, bluegrass, gospel, jazz and R&B.
The shows are rollicking, with kids and teachers clapping their hands and singing along. One will be held Feb. 26 at Lewisville Elementary.
Robinson has been with Carolina Music Ways, a nonprofit organization, since the early 2000s and sits on its board.
“When you go to schools and the kids react,” Robinson said, “I know we are getting future musicians.”
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