Love of music brings Gym Player to the Ritz

Published 3:29 pm Friday, December 6, 2013

One of Greenville High School’s old Gym Players will make his triumphant return to the stage to bring a little Christmas cheer to the Camellia City as part of the Greenville Area Arts Council’s “Christmas at the Ritz.”

Kenneth Robinson’s love affair with music — and more precisely, the saxophone —began in 1966 at Greenville Elementary School and, later on, grew at Greenville Middle School and Greenville High School under the tutelage of an important mentor.

“Bill Mann, who was the second band director I had, really inspired me from the seventh grade through high school and I have very fond memories of him,” Robinson said.

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“He was a great guy, a great musician and a great teacher.”

After leaving Greenville, Robinson attended Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) for four years where he played in each band the college had to offer, including the marching, concert and jazz band.

Robinson soon migrated north to the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) where he was able to continue pursuing his passion for music by forming a band with a few local musicians.

But even that proved insufficient.

“Being a nurse, I worked the night shift and that kind of destroyed any chances I had of playing with anybody, and I kind of put my horn down,” Robinson said.

“My children learned to play — my son learned to play sax and my daughter learned to play clarinet — but I really got away from playing music during those times for 20-something years, only sporadically picking up the horn.”

It wasn’t until Robinson’s return to Greenville a little more than three years ago that he was afforded the opportunity to play with others again, including performing at various churches around the city and with local acts like the Gospel Harmonaires.

But after reuniting with his old classmate, Nancy Idland, it truly felt like he was home again.

“I talked to Nancy and a few others and told them that I would participate and get involved (with the Christmas program), and it’s like I’m back in high school,” Robinson said.

“I was one of the old Gym Players back in those days, and it’s kind of like being back in that again.  It’s been a lot of fun, and I’m really enjoying it.”

Though Robinson was originally supposed to be one member of an orchestra in “Christmas at the Ritz,” scheduling conflicts mean that he is now the sole live musician in the performance.

But thanks to his horn, which he has named Gertrude, Robinson is never really alone.

“I used to have a lot of problems with stage fright, but it’s like I have a one-to-one relationship with music itself now,” Robinson said.

“I always say that Gertrude leads me.  When it’s sounding good and feeling good, the horn feels like it takes on a life of its own and I don’t guide it, but follow it.”

The curtain will rise on the second annual “Christmas on the Ritz” Saturday night at 7 p.m.