updated 9/28/2004 12:19:52 AM ET 2004-09-28T04:19:52

Reginald Robinson first heard ragtime during a school assembly when he was 13. He pestered his mother for a piano, and was soon trying to replicate the sound on a tiny Casio keyboard.

“A lot of people say, ‘You should leave that ragtime alone — go and play some jazz,”’ said Robinson, now a 31-year-old ragtime composer, researcher and performer. “My heart is in ragtime. I love this music. I think it’s forgotten, and it’s really a dying art.”

The self-taught Chicago pianist’s effort to keep the uniquely American music style alive earned him one of this year’s 23 MacArthur Foundation “genius grants,” $500,000 awards that the recipients can use however they wish.

Other grant recipients announced Tuesday by the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation include a high school debate coach, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, and a glass expert involved in the rebuilding of a structure at the World Trade Center site.

From ragtime to riches
For Robinson, the grant will mean less time worrying about how to pay the bills and more time touring.

He plays a variety of music, but the joy comes through when he talks about ragtime — a style of music that was popular in the early 20th century and is distinguished by its heavily syncopated melody.

Once, he drove to Tennessee to study a photo of ragtime legend Scott Joplin because a previously unknown fragment of music Joplin composed was visible on the piano.

“As far as staying with ragtime, a lot of people thought it was just a passing phase — just like certain dolls and toys you played with,” he said. “I remember saying, ‘This is not a passing phase,’ at age 14.”

The joy of my life’
When Rueben Martinez, another MacArthur Foundation recipient, was a child, he lived in a town without a public library and with parents who didn’t read to him.

Still, Martinez’s teachers inspired a love of literature, and when he became a barber in the Los Angeles area, he provided books for customers to read.

Noticing the books he lent out were rarely returned to him, Martinez started selling books in his barber shop. Now, his Santa Ana, Calif., bookstore — called Libreria Martinez Books and Art Gallery — is among the largest commercial sellers of Spanish-language books in the country.

Martinez, 64, regularly tours schools and appears on Spanish-language television, urging parents to read to their children, and his shop serves as a touchstone for community activities promoting literacy.

“I made more money cutting hair than selling books,” said Martinez. “But the joy of my life is what I’m doing now.”

Writers, glass designer
James Carpenter, 55, of New York, was recognized for his work expanding the artistic and technical potential of glass. He helped design a partially transparent exterior for the new Seven World Trade Center, a smaller building that collapsed following the twin towers after Sept. 11.

Chicago writer Aleksandar Hemon, another grant recipient, was in the United States on a student visa when the Bosnian War prevented him from returning home to Sarajevo. While here, he created two acclaimed collections of short stories in English, a language he had hardly written in before 1992.

With the grant, Hemon said, “I can take my time writing a book exactly the way I want to. Shape it to the smallest detail. ... I can organize my life around writing and finishing the book, not about earning a living.”

Other MacArthur fellows include novelist Edward P. Jones, 53, of Arlington, Va., whose book “The Known World” about a black slave owner won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

The stuff of genius: The recipients
The complete list of 23 fellows announced by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation follows:

  1. Angela Belcher, 37, Cambridge, Mass. An associate professor of materials science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Belcher’s research opens new paths for controlling inorganic chemical reactions.
  2. Joseph DeRisi, 35, San Francisco. DeRisi is an associate professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco, who develops new technologies for exploring the pathways regulating gene expression.
  3. John Kamm, 53, San Francisco. The executive director of the Dui Hua Foundation has won the release or improved the conditions for hundreds of political prisoners in China.
  4. Daphne Koller, 36, Stanford, Calif. Koller, an associate professor of computer science at Stanford University, has developed new computational methods for representing reason and knowledge.
  5. Naomi Ehrich Leonard, 40, Princeton, N.J. A professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton University, Leonard has developed autonomous underwater vehicles.
  6. Vamsi Mootha, 33, Boston. Mootha is an assistant professor of systems biology at Harvard Medical School and an assistant professor of medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. He specializes in the subcellular structures responsible for energy metabolism.
  7. Maria Mavroudi, 37, Berkeley, Calif. Mavroudi is an assistant professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies the history of shared knowledge between medieval Byzantium and its neighbors in the Islamic Middle East.
  8. Judy Pfaff, 58, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. Pfaff is an artist who works to make paintings more three-dimensional and sculptures more painterly. She is a professor of art at Bard College.
  9. Aminah Robinson, 64, Columbus, Ohio. Robinson is a folk artist, visual historian and storyteller who focuses on her childhood neighborhood in Columbus.
  10. Amy Smith, 41, Cambridge, Mass. Smith is an inventor and mechanical engineer who specializes in labor-saving technologies and life-improving solutions in developing countries. She teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  11. Julie Theriot, 36, Stanford, Calif. Theriot is an assistant professor of biochemistry and microbiology and immunology at Stanford University. She is working to solve the mysteries of bacterial infection.
  12. C.D. Wright, 55, Providence, R.I. Wright is the author of 10 volumes of poetry, an editor and a professor of English at Brown University.
  13. David Green, 48, Berkeley, Calif. The executive director of Project Impact, Green applies traditional business strategies in developing countries to make health care products available inexpensively.
  14. Reginald R. Robinson, 31, Chicago. Robinson is a pianist and composer who has devoted himself to preserving ragtime music.
  15. Gretchen Berland, 40, New Haven, Conn. An assistant professor of internal medicine at Yale University School of Medicine, Berland has combined her current career as a physician with her past experience making documentaries to compose video projects on health care topics.
  16. Rueben Martinez, 64, Santa Ana, Calif. Martinez works to inspire Spanish-speaking people to value literature and read to their children, and he turned his barber shop into a bookstore that is now one of the largest commercial sellers of Spanish-language books in the country.
  17. Heather Hurst, 29, New Haven, Conn. Hurst is an archaeological illustrator and artist who focuses on the pre-Columbian Americas.
  18. Tommie Lindsey, 53, Union City, Calif. Lindsey is a debate coach at James Logan High School, and his students — many from poor or broken homes — regularly excel at national championships.
  19. Edward P. Jones, 53, Arlington, Va. Jones is a fiction writer whose multi-layered novel about a black slave owner, “The Known World,” won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
  20. Aleksandar Hemon, 40, Chicago. Born in Sarajevo and writing in his adopted language of English, Hemon is a short story writer whose work addresses war, exile and ethnic conflict.
  21. James Carpenter, 55, New York. Carpenter is a glass sculptor, engineer and designer who uses glass as a way to reshape space and light. He has been involved in the rebuilding of a structure at the World Trade Center site.
  22. Cheryl Rogowski, 43, Pine Island, N.Y. Rogowski overhauled her family farm, which specialized in a single crop, to provide a variety of products for regional and specialty markets. She has also mentored immigrant farmers and worked on literacy programs for migrant farm workers.
  23. Katherine Gottlieb, 52, Anchorage, Alaska. Gottlieb, the president and CEO of Southcentral Foundation, has improved health care in her Native Alaskan community by changing the focus to patient-centered health care.

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