Born in New Rochelle, New York and raised in Stamford, Conn., Ellen Robinson grew up in a sylvan setting and spent much of her adolescence climbing trees and enjoying nature. But after hanging out with a highly musical family that lived nearby she was inspired to explore the piano at home, and learned the basics from her mother. By high school she was playing guitar, writing and performing her own songs whenever she got the chance. Realizing that music was her calling, but with little family support for a career as a performer, she earned a music education degree from Manhattanville College with a major in piano.
“I wanted to be a composer, and my parents said I would never be able to support myself, so I got into music education,” Robinson says. “When I got out of college I taught music to kids and I kept writing my own music, which kept me sane and alive.”
In 1976 Robinson moved to the Bay Area with her partner at the time, and found work teaching music at private schools in the East Bay. Still intent on developing her craft as a singer-songwriter, she had started singing without accompanying herself after a mishap with her guitar. Working various jobs, including floor waxing, to pay the bills, she was given free rein by a client to explore his record collection. “I grabbed an album by Carmen McRae, and it totally amazed me,” she recalls. “I didn’t know people sang like that.”
Bitten by the jazz bug, Robinson undertook years of intensive, self-directed study, buying albums and catching masters like Betty Carter, Etta Jones, and Ella Fitzgerald in concert. She immersed herself in the music of Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Irene Kral, Sheila Jordan, Shirley Horn, Carol Sloane, Dinah Washington, Jo Stafford, and Kay Starr.
“I loved piano too, so that was a major thing, listening to Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Monk, and McCoy Tyner,” Robinson says.
Hanging out at the San Francisco jazz spot Storyville she met bassist Scott Steed, and he offered to play for her students at Oakland’s Beacon Day School. He brought pianist Art Khu and drummer Bud Spangler to the morning presentation, and she ended up sitting in with the trio on “Give Me the Simple Life.” The encounter launched an ongoing creative partnership between Robinson and Spangler, a Grammy Award–nominated producer whose credits include sessions by Cedar Walton, Mark Levine’s Latin Tinge, Taylor Eigsti, Anton Schwartz, Mimi Fox, and vocalists Kitty Margolis, Clairdee, Ed Reed, and Nicolas Bearde.
“Bud said, ‘Hey, you’re good, I can help you with that,’” Robinson says. “We chatted up a storm, and he ended up helping me make a demo tape in 1999 with pianist Paul Nagel and bassist John Shifflett. Bud was the angel in my life. He’s produced all three CDs. He’s been my mentor and a dear friend.”
She continued her education, studying at the Stanford Jazz Workshop and JazzCamp West. By the time she released her debut album, 2001’s On My Way to You, she had emerged as a stand-out on the Bay Area’s burgeoning jazz vocal scene. Featuring pianist Ben Flint, bassist John Shifflett, drummer Andrew Eberhard, and reed expert Harvey Wainapel, the album garnered enthusiastic praise from critics and veteran masters like Carol Sloane, who wrote, “Hers is a white chocolate sound, intense and pure, swinging and bitter-sweet. Keep your ears and eyes open for more Ellen Robinson.”
She followed up with 2006’s Mercy!, an album gleaned from performances in Berkeley and San Francisco between 2001 and 2005. The album documents her with her first band, and with a later incarnation featuring bassist John Wiitala, drummers Jeff Marrs and Jon Arkin, and soul-drenched saxophonist Charles McNeal. The album also received rapturous reviews, like the website AllAboutJazz’s rave, “This singer delivers from the heart. That’s her forte. . . . Robinson interprets lyrics in such a way that we feel them completely.”
A gifted educator who teaches at the Jazzschool in Berkeley and Community Music Center in San Francisco, Robinson directs several vocal programs and ensembles, including a musical theater workshop at Stagebridge, and the Anything Goes Chorus, a community chorus that gives public performances and free concerts at retirement homes, homeless shelters, prisons, and halfway houses since the early 1980s.
Robinson’s tireless efforts as an educator and cultural activist were recognized in 2011 with a prestigious Jefferson Award. She doesn’t see much separation between her work in the classroom or on stage. With Don’t Wait Too Long she offers an object lesson in music’s transformative power, a power that she both embodies and transmits.
“As a teacher I feel like I’m a performer, and as a performer I feel like a teacher,” Robinson says. “I want people to be entertained and I want them to feel different after they've heard my music.”