CHICAGO — Reginald Robinson first heard ragtime during a school assembly when he was 13. He pestered his mother for a piano, and soon was 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. For Robinson, the grant will mean less time worrying about how to pay the bills and more time touring.
Other grant recipients announced yesterday 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 whose work is featured in Seattle's City Hall.
When Rueben Martinez, another MacArthur Foundation recipient, was a child, he lived in a town without a public library, and his parents didn't read to him.
But his teachers inspired a love of literature, and when Martinez became a barber in the Los Angeles area, he started selling books in his shop. Now, his Santa Ana, Calif., bookstore — Libreria Martinez Books and Art Gallery — is among the largest commercial sellers of Spanish-language books in the country.
"I made more money cutting hair than selling books," said Martinez, 64. "But the joy of my life is what I'm doing now."
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, to replace a smaller building that collapsed after the twin towers.
Carpenter also designed one of the centerpieces of Seattle's City Hall, "Blue Glass Passage." The work, which is crafted out of high-tech laminated blue glass and is meant to evoke images of the sea, is a bridge suspended over the building's lobby.
Angela Belcher , 37, Cambridge, Mass. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor's research opens new paths for controlling inorganic chemical reactions.
Dr. Gretchen Berland, 40, New Haven, Conn. The professor at Yale University School of Medicine draws on her previous career of making documentaries to compose video projects on health-care topics.
Joseph DeRisi, 35, San Francisco. The professor at the University of California, San Francisco, develops new technologies for exploring the pathways regulating gene expression.
Katherine Gottlieb, 52, Anchorage, Alaska. The president of Southcentral Foundation has improved health care in her Native Alaskan community by changing the focus to patient-centered health care.
David Green, 48, Berkeley, Calif. The executive director of Project Impact helps developing countries make health-care products available inexpensively.
Aleksandar Hemon, 40, Chicago. The Sarajevo native's short stories address war, exile and ethnic conflict.
Heather Hurst, 29, New Haven, Conn. The archaeological illustrator and artist focuses on the pre-Columbian Americas.
Edward Jones, 53, Arlington, Va. The writer's novel about a black slave owner, "The Known World," won this year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
John Kamm, 53, San Francisco. The executive director of the Dui Hua Foundation has won the release of or improved conditions for hundreds of political prisoners in China.
Daphne Koller, 36, Stanford, Calif. The Stanford University professor has developed computational methods for representing reason and knowledge.
Naomi Ehrich Leonard, 40, Princeton, N.J. The Princeton University professor has developed autonomous underwater vehicles.
Tommie Lindsey, 53, Union City, Calif. Students of the debate coach at James Logan High School, many from poor or broken homes, regularly excel at national championships.
Maria Mavroudi, 37, Berkeley, Calif. The professor at the University of California, Berkeley, studies the history of shared knowledge between medieval Byzantium and its neighbors in the Islamic Middle East.
Vamsi Mootha, 33, Boston. The professor at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital specializes in the subcellular structures responsible for energy metabolism.
Judy Pfaff, 58, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. The Bard College art professor works to make paintings more three-dimensional and sculptures more painterly.
Aminah Robinson, 64, Columbus, Ohio. The folk artist, visual historian and storyteller focuses on her childhood neighborhood in Columbus.
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.
Amy Smith, 41, Cambridge, Mass. The inventor and mechanical engineer specializes in labor-saving technologies and life-improving solutions in developing countries. She teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Julie Theriot, 36, Stanford, Calif. The Stanford University professor works to solve the mysteries of bacterial infection.
C.D. Wright, 55, Providence, R.I. The Brown University professor has written 10 volumes of poetry.