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Jazz Saxophonist with Refined Tenor StyleCopyright © 2001The Scotsman
Spike Robinson was an excellent American saxophonist who fell in love with London when he was posted there as part of a US Navy band in 1948, and ultimately settled in the city for good in 1989, having been a regular visitor over the years. His love for England extended to an enthusiasm for that most un-American of games, cricket.
Robinson's elegant, light-hued, deftly swinging tenor playing drew on a lineage that ran from Lester Young through Zoot Sims to Stan Getz, although Charlie Parker was a crucial formative influence on his style when he was still a teenager. At that time, Robinson played alto saxophone, but later chose to switch to the bigger horn, possibly realising that emulating Parker on his own horn was, as he acknowledged, an impossibility.
He was born Henry Berthold Robinson, and showed an early interest in music, playing the once fashionable C-melody saxophone in the first instance, then clarinet. His father encouraged his interest, but was a stern taskmaster. Robinson recalled being rapped on the knuckles with a fly-swatter if he played wrong notes in his reading exercises.
He aspired to a classical career as a young teenager, but gradually shifted his focus to jazz, and was playing professionally while still too young to join the union, having lied about his age in order to do so. He claimed to have gone to the lengths of drawing on a fake moustache in order to get into some of the jobs he was hired to play.
He moved to Chicago in 1947, but found opportunities singularly lacking, and joined the Navy. He was posted to London as part of band attached to the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square, and quickly became active in the nascent bebop scene in the city, playing at venues like Club Eleven and the Feldman Club, and working with young musicians like pianist Victor Feldman and drummer Tony Crombie.
He returned to the USA in 1952, and moved with his first wife to Colorado to study engineering. He bought a second-hand Martin tenor saxophone in 1953, which he used as his main instrument until it was stolen from his car in London in 1998. He developed a refined tenor style close to that of Stan Getz, but with a sinewy elegance which was all his own.
He completed a master's degree and worked full-time in engineering until 1964, when he took on the lease of a restaurant, with the intention of playing there. The business failed, however, and he returned to engineering until his retirement in 1985.
He continued to play and perform throughout these years, and stepped up his schedule after moving to London in 1989. During a visit to play in Spain and France, he collapsed with meningitis, which later developed into tuberculosis of the brain. He was hospitalised for a considerable time, and it seemed that his playing career was over.
To general surprise, he recovered sufficiently to resume playing in 1990, only to suffer a fall while on a visit to New York, breaking ribs and damaging his lung. He recovered again, and married his agent, Susan May, who had been instrumental in supporting and encouraging him through these misfortunes, in 1992.
He entered on one of the busiest periods of career, recording regularly and performing at clubs and festivals on both sides of the Atlantic. His recordings featured collaborations with artists like pianists Victor Feldman, Eddie Thompson, Brian Lemon, David Newton and Brian Kellock, guitarists Louis Stewart and Mundell Lowe, and a variety of horn soloists, including trombonist George Masso, trumpeters Harry "Sweets" Edison and Janusz Carmello, and saxophonist Ken Peplowski.