The Boston area has long been an epicenter of poetry and jazz. And for the past 16 years, these artistic proclivities have been shepherded and supported by musician/playwright Jeff Robinson, creator and host of Lizard Lounge Poetry Jam, which will celebrate its 16th anniversary on Feb. 17 with a show designed to please slam vets and newbies alike.
Set between Harvard Square and Porter Square, this listening room underneath the Cambridge Common restaurant has been a favorite hangout for creative types of all kinds. With Robinson’s help, it has also become a center for lyrical manipulation and musical accompaniment.
Having started on the other side of Harvard at the Middle East, Robinson moved to the Lounge all those years ago and has been a force on the scene ever since. Backed by his talented jazz trio, the St. Louis-born Berklee College alum is also an accomplished composer, actor, director and playwright who leads a reggae band called the Duppy Conquerors.
Robinson insists he is a musician first and foremost.
“I’ve been a musician since I can remember,” he explains, remembering falling asleep with a speaker under his pillow and crediting his siblings with getting him started in song. “My sister was in the choir and she taught me how to read music … My brother had a great record collection and he turned me on to other musicians.”
As his sister sang and his brothers played bass and congas, Robinson had dreams of a family band (a la The Jacksons). Unfortunately, he found himself alone in his dream.
“I though we could be ‘The Robinsons,’” he says, “but I was the only one that really pursued it.”
At the age of 11, Robinson formed his first group — a vocal band that performed the music of Motown and other great R&B hits.
“I’ve been at it ever since,” Robinson says with a smile.
After graduating from Berklee, Robinson began acting and exploring the “verbal” arts.
“I am very shy,” he says, “so I thought some acting courses would help … I got hooked.”
As his music and acting experience developed, Robinson was encouraged to explore poetry as well.
“One of my drama teachers told me that if you want to be a good actor you must also be a poet,” he explains.
So even though he originally thought that taking on a third expressive form would be “just too much on the plate,” once he began to use the rhythms of jazz to share his words, he found that the two went together perfectly.
As the saxophone is so “verbal” and “vocal,” as Robinson puts it, the transition from brass to verse was an easy one.
“They go [together] quite well,” he says, noting how the “poetics” of music have always been evident. “Poetry and song have been married for centuries.”
Robinson helps others discover not only great music but great poets as well. For the 16th anniversary show, 16 musicians and 16 poets will gather at the Lizard for an artistic blowout.
“The anniversary should be wild,” Robinson says. “We’re on a mission from God!”
The Lizard Lounge Poetry Jam takes place on Feb. 17. For more info, visit poetryjam.org.