By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Nov 29, 2013 at 8:59 AM

Miles Davis once compared the jazz violin playing of Milwaukee native Sonya Robinson to the work of Stuff Smith. If you follow jazz, you know what kind of praise that is, especially for a young musician.

At the time Davis offered that praise, Robinson had inked a deal with Columbia Records and had issued her 1987 debut, "Sonya," produced by guitarist Jean-Paul Bourelly.

Milwaukee celebrated the success of this hometown girl, who had graduated from Nicolet High and in 1983 was crowned Miss Black America, but soon the Columbia deal fell apart.

Luckily, Robinson had momentum already and her career continued. These days, she lives in New York City and makes a living making music. She has a new record, "Whistle," that she says is dedicated to her mother, who was a great whistler, Robinson says.

After a recent return home to perform at Blu, atop The Pfister hotel, we took the opportunity to chat with Robinson about her career, about her Milwaukee ties and about her new record.

Enjoy this Milwaukee Talks with Milwaukee jazz violinist Sonya Robinson...

OnMilwaukee.com: You've been gone from Milwaukee for a long time now, do you get back often?

Sonya Robinson: I have been coming back about once a year as of late, usually in the summer to hang out with friends I still have in Milwaukee. My favorite place is the lake and that’s usually where I go and hang out.

OMC: Tell us a bit about growing up here. Where did you live and go to school?

SR: Our first home was on 9th and Concordia. My parents had the corner building on that block. We later moved to Glendale and were one of the first black families in that area. I don’t think much has changed even now. My first school was Good Hope Elementary School, which has since closed. I used to ice skate in the winter in the rink close to the school. It was one of my favorite activities as a child.

OMC: Did you start playing at an early age?

SR: My first instrument was piano at age 7 and I later added the violin. My first teacher was Mrs. Loisee. She was a very patient women who tried to put me on viola, but I wouldn’t let her. I always thought I was a violinist first. Now that has changed a lot. I feel equally at home on viola as well as violin.

OMC: When did you discover jazz?

SR: My father was an avid blues and jazz fan. He always had jazz radio going in the house. Almost 24 hours if he could. So we woke up to the radio in the morning and came home to the radio after school, either in the garage, the basement, wherever and everywhere! He had some classics like "Stardust" ... Duke Ellington, but his favorites were Count Basie and Ray Charles and Dinah Washington. He would tell me that I should play that song – "Stardust" – because it was something that the people connected with. I honestly didn’t see it at the time, or should I say hear it? But I get it now.

OMC: Was there an assumption that playing the violin, you'd focus on classical music?

SR: I know I am lucky because my parents never put me in a box or told me what to do with my career. They wanted me to be happy and find my passion in life. I really only felt the pressure from my brother who thought I could pursue a classical career. Pressure rarely works, so here I am with a career in improvised music.

OMC: Were you able to become part of the jazz scene here?

SR: I used to play a lot of gigs with (organist) Melvin Rhyne and some with (guitarist) Manty Ellis. They were big supporters and mentors who encouraged me to keep playing and gave me lots of ideas of ways to get my career going. I played in a few clubs here but I don’t say I was heavy in hanging out so much. I did like going to the Jazz Gallery when they brought in some of the New York musicians. That was always a fun place to hear the real deal.

OMC: Surely, there have been women instrumentalists in jazz, but sometimes it can seem a bit like a boys' club. Have you ever found you've had to struggle at all for acceptance as a woman in jazz?

SR: I think every woman goes through something from somewhere ... and yes it can be a struggle and competitive. But talking to some guys has made me realize that we all have struggles in this business of making a living from sound.

I think there are real issues of being the only women on the bandstand and then having some men turn it into a competition ... and perhaps that may be why some bandleaders avoid hiring women. I have been hired by plenty of men lately – maybe because I am older now – and the ones that are the most even-handed have provided some of my best experiences, musically.

I think we females bring a lot of balance to the bandstand. Our approaches and our perspectives tend to be a bit different, too. It’s more interesting certainly.

OMC: Before you landed your record deal you were named Miss Black America, right? Did that ever threaten to lead you away from your career in music or did it help?

SR: It actually brought me to the attention of Wynton Marsalis, who I think really respected the fact that I had studied classically and was really getting a foothold in the music. So it has only helped me, at least in the beginning. And when the pageant aired the great pianist McCoy Tyner saw it and encouraged me to keep playing.

OMC: Tell us about how you came to sign with Columbia and make your record with them?

SR: Wynton was responsible for introducing me to George Butler and the rest is history.

OMC: The accolades from Miles Davis must have been a major thing for you. Can you talk a bit about that?

SR: Miles was and is still my favorite musician. I bought "Kind of Blue" and can remember wearing the record out. I adored him and had a chance to meet him because we were both on the same label at the time and one of the musicians that played on my first record was in Miles’ band.

OMC: After the record, you and Columbia parted ways. What happened?

SR: They dropped me and it was a major disappointment for me at the time. I was told by one very prominent person that my career was over. Right after that I made another CD in Japan!

OMC: I remember here that everyone was saying, "Sonya's big in Japan!" Did the Columbia stuff get you down or did you step right into another phase of success?

SR: The Columbia stuff was a bit of a drag. I think my own expectations were more difficult to handle, but I have always been creative and kept playing. Plus, it allowed me to focus on writing and composing.

OMC: I know this is a big question, but fill us in a bit on what you've been doing since.

SR: I have lived in New York for the last 18-some years with a bit of Chicago thrown in there, too. I have met some of the world’s greatest musicians, had some of the best advice and had a lot of folks waiting for me to step up and do my thing!

One of my mentors was Aaron Bell, the bass player with Duke Ellington’s Big Band, who didn’t necessarily tell me to teach but through his words of wisdom and action made it feel like it was oOKk to pursue that as an extension of my musical career.

OMC: And now you have a new record, called "Whistle" ...

SR: "Whistle" is a CD dedicated to my mom, but also my family, too. I started the recording in the summer of 2012 and finished with an additional four songs recorded over this most recent summer. I have fallen in love with the process of writing a song, arranging, finding the right musicians to record it and then finally culminating in a mastered finished product. It’s really labor intensive, time consuming and the rewards are not always so obvious. This is coming from someone who as a child hated to record herself ... the tape does not lie.

I wrote a song called "Mother’s Song" – she had been asking me to write something for her for years. I feel like this is the completion of one of those cycles in your life. "Mother’s Song" is actually performed on viola. It was an instrument that I got my mother to start trying to play. She got a really pretty sound out of the instrument and she was always very musical, at least to me even though neither of my parents played instruments.

I also have another song that reflects my upbringing and my home life in some ways. It’s called "Whistle." It’s actually a Brazilian-type samba with a great drum break. But the thing that is kind of unique about it is me whistling at the beginning of the song. My mother had the sweetest whistle and when she was in a good mood you would hear her whistling around the house, watering the many plants she had in and outside.

I am very proud of this work. There are many styles and it has a world music feel to it while being still rooted in the great tradition of jazz and improvised sound. The musicians are great too; some of NY’s best: John Benitez and Manuel Valera – both Grammy-nominated – Vinny Valentino, Eric Person, Monty Croft, Paul Ramsey, Kahlil Kwame Bell, Jay Rodriguez, Frances Benitez and myself on violin, viola, voice and triangle.

OMC: You were recently in Milwaukee to perform at Blu at The Pfister. Will you be back again soon?

SR: There is talk of me coming back in February. I am looking forward to it. I had a great time revisiting my hometown.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.