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by Anne Aufderheide

Mr. Ramsey Lewis calls Chicago home - always has, probably always will. If you spend time with him there, you’ll see how many people nod, smile, greet him, and stop to shake his hand.  There’s reverence in these encounters.  Mr. Lewis is as close as you get to Chicago royalty, an important celebrity in his “Sweet Home Chicago.”  To underscore the city’s respect for the man, in the Spring of 2007, Mr. Lewis received the “Living Landmark” Award, an honor given to “people who have made lasting contributions to the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois.”  The accolades don’t stop there.  Early in 2007, Mr. Lewis was awarded America’s highest honor in jazz, a National Endowment of the Arts “Jazz Master” Fellowship.

Now, here’s a man at the top of his game.  So, how did he get there?

Ramsey Emmanuel Lewis Jr. was born in Chicago May 27, 1935, and grew up in various neighborhoods, including Cabrini Green. His father was Gospel Chorus Director at the Wayman African Methodist Episcopal Church.  His mother, Pauline, and father had chosen young Ramsey’s six-year old sister, Lucille, to receive piano lessons. 

Mr. Lewis recalls, “I was on the floor of living room playing with some toy soldiers. I heard my parents telling my older sister, ‘We’d like you to start taking piano lessons.’  It was as if they were saying, ‘We’re taking you to get ice cream.’  They could have said ‘We want you to take violin lessons.’ Or ‘We want you to take tennis lessons.’ She was going to get to do something and I wanted to get to do it, too. They said, ‘We can only afford for one child.’”

How then did four-year old Ramsey also start piano lessons?  So convincing were his incessant appeals that his family agreed he should have lessons, too.  Lucille recalls both of them being “taken by the hand and led to the home of our church organist, Ernestine Bruce, who was a well-known piano teacher on the near north side of Chicago. One hour of practice at the piano was truly painful for me! Not so for Ramsey. He completed the beginner’s book months before I did. The teacher soon recognized that Ramsey was definitely gifted.”   

Ramsey Lewis certainly had a natural ability. “But then I got bored.  Oh, I liked the piano itself.  I liked to sit at the piano. But I didn’t like to practice every day. Thankfully my parents, especially my dad, made sure that I did practice.”

Lucille remembers, “Because of the Godly insight of his pastor and the God-given wisdom of our parents, Ramsey, at nine years of age, was appointed to play for the Gospel Chorus. He embraced the sounds, rhythms, and melodies of gospel music without resistance. To date, Ramsey has the distinction of being the youngest musician to serve the Gospel Chorus. For seven years, Ramsey played for the Gospel Chorus every Sunday morning. He played for weddings, funerals, church banquets, and teas.”

“It took awhile to get into loving to practice,” Mr. Lewis recalls.  “It was a chore until I was 11 years old.  We changed piano teachers.  Dorothy Mendelssohn, God bless her, showed me how to practice and what to practice.

“There was a certain lesson I learned from Dorothy Mendelsohn about getting into the music, not just getting into a technique.  Playing in the church really taught me by experience what it means to reach out and touch people with music.  I don’t think I could have known that automatically; I learned it more by osmosis. In African American churches, if the music is not moving, the parishioners forget about you.  As I grew and learned, then I began to truly perform. To this day, people come to see my concerts over and over and over again. It must be my ability to connect with them through the music. I give credit to church and Dorothy Mendelsohn.”

In his teen years, while studying with Dorothy Mendelsohn at Chicago Musical College, he decided to become a concert pianist.  He spent hours upon hours of practice time with Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Hayden, Chopin, and other basic piano repertoire.

His dad brought home recordings over the years for the family to listen to, including Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Dorothy Donegan, Count Basie, Meade Lux Lewis, Nat Cole Trio, and Errol Garner.  Mr. Lewis explains, “It was just background music.”

By invitation of a fellow church musician, Mr. Lewis was invited to join a college dance band, The Cleffs. Kirk Stewart, their piano player, was hired by Sarah Vaughan to be her accompanist. “I was 15 when I started playing with the group.  I had to join the union so I told them I was 16,” Mr. Lewis admits. He “had never played one lick of jazz.”  The leader of the band, Wallace Burton, began coaching the young pianist to learn the language of jazz and would write out blues changes and rhythm changes for him. “I knew gospel but I didn’t know any of the jazz songs. Wallace Burton said, ‘You’ve got to learn what jazz music is all about. Go downtown, go into the booth, and listen to these guys.’  He gave me a bunch of artists to listen to, piano players and horn players, and I started doing that and checking with him and one thing led to another. I must have been okay playing with the dance band. It was about seven pieces: three horns, guitar and bass, drums, and piano.”  Some of the first jazz music he listened to in earnest was Earl Garner, George Shearing, and Oscar Peterson.

In 1953, many members of The Cleffs took off for the Korean War. From what was left of The Cleffs’ rhythm section emerged a trio with 18-year old Mr. Lewis on piano, Eldee Young on bass and Redd Holt on drums.  They’d play clubs around Chicago on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights.

“We’re not The Cleffs!” They came to the realization that the trio needed a new band name. Mr. Lewis recalls, “It was Daddy-O Dailey, an important jazz DJ who had been coming to the club on the south side, Lake Meadows Lounge, and heard us play.  He says, ‘You guys are pretty good. You guys should have a record deal.’  Of course we should, but it’s not that easy.  He said, ‘Let me see what I can do’ and took us under his wing. He later got us an audition with Chess Records.  They liked us, signed a deal, and a few months later, recorded us. They asked, ‘So what’s the name of the group?’  We didn’t have one.  Daddy-O said, ‘I want you guys to go home and each one of you write down two or three names and we’ll pick the best.’  We came back with 20 names, The Spiders, The Bugs, and so on.  Daddy-O said, ‘Look, it’s a piano trio. The piano is taking the lead most of the time, so let’s call it The Ramsey Lewis Trio.’  And he said, ‘Now, first time out, first album, you’re going to want to have a hook.  Nobody knows your name anyway because it’s the first album. We need a hook. The way I see it, guys, you’re gentlemen and you play jazz.’”  And that’s how the first albums were named: The Gentlemen of Swing (1956).  The second album followed as The Gentlemen of Jazz (1958).  It took some time for Daddy-O’s influential airplay to get the records and the trio launched. But succeed, he most certainly did.

Studying at Chicago Musical College and later at De Paul University, plus playing gigs on weekends, Mr. Lewis also worked part time managing a Hudson Ross record shop downtown. During his lunch breaks, he could take LPs into the booth and listen.  If there was a pivotal recording that changed his life musically, it was from the Modern Jazz Quartet.  “In those early days, because of my involvement with classical music, the Modern Jazz Quartet really grabbed me because of their classical idiom.  The song I fell in love with was ‘Django.’ I must have played that hundreds of times.  Then I got deeply involved with the horns.  I was fascinated by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.  Dizzy plays so much, I couldn’t really grasp it.  So did Charlie Parker, but the sound of Charlie Parker, oh! And Lester Young! I just fell in love with jazz, period!”

The trio was eventually playing jazz every night all over Chicago - at The Southerland Lounge, The Avenue Lounge, The Blue Note, The Cloister Inn at the Maryland Hotel -- and filling the clubs everywhere they played. Daddy-O’s influence continued when he got them a six-night-a-week gig at the SRO Room on Clark and Goethe.  About a year later, after steadily keeping the SRO job, Daddy-O landed the trio the coveted house band position at the London House. ‘It was the top job in Chicago,” Mr. Lewis reminisces. “All of the big stars would play there and we were the house band. I think they hired us for a long period of time. Well, we opened for so many big names - Earl "Fatha" Hines, Oscar Peterson, George Shearing, Marian McPartland, The Modern Jazz Quartet, Erroll Garner.  Remember, in those days, there were about a hundred jazz clubs on the south side of Chicago. You’d have Cannonball Adderley playing; Charlie Parker was over on 56th.  We were playing downtown; we’d get out early and go listen.  What rubbed off, too, was the individuality.  You didn’t hear the guys playing the same thing.  If you wanted to make it, you’d have to have your own sound.

“What was so wonderful about music back then, people danced to jazz. They danced to Charlie Parker, to George Gershwin, to the blues. When you’d go out on a date, you’d listen to jazz. In those days, the records would only wet the appetite. It was the spontaneity coming off the live band that drew the audiences to the clubs. We were there to entertain.

“We’ve lost that now.  Back then, you’d never hear a band say ‘I don’t want to play your smoky night club.’  People have started saying ‘I don’t want to go to Carnegie Hall.’  As the music evolved, the music got more complex.  Every step of the way, as jazz climbed the ladder of artistic endeavor, it has become more and more an art form and artistic endeavor, we lost some listeners along the way.

“In our early 20s, one of the first lessons we learned when we were coming up was finding our own voice.  When the guys who had ‘made it’ came to check you out, if you sounded like somebody else, they would tell you just that. They’d say, ‘You’ve got chops, you’ve got technique but you’ll need to find your own voice; you will need to find your own identity. You have to decide what you want to sound like, what you want to play.’  They were great, they’d say ‘I hear some Oscar Peterson in you, which is fine to learn but you still have to find yourself.’  You have to find your own voice.  The other thing we found, back in the day, is that records were second on the list of things to accomplish.  The first thing to accomplish was to learn how to play. Find your own voice.  Get out and let people hear you.  After you got out and did that, then somebody would say, “Oh! That’s different.’ ‘Oh! The way you play!’ ‘Oh, you ought to record that.’  The record was still more or less a calling card.  The live performance, entertaining the audience, was the most important thing.  We would go into cities for the first time and maybe not draw a crowd. But the clubs would hear people saying they liked us. If there was positive talk at the club, they’d bring us back. We’d do better the second time, and by the third or fourth time, we’d be filling out the night.  In the old days, hundreds of groups built a following just by people coming out to hear them live, then came the record.  ‘Oh! You’ve got a record coming out?!’  ‘Oh! I want to buy that record.’   For whatever reason, it has gotten reversed.  Now you put the record out first and then you tour behind it.  And so, artists are no longer doing research and striving to find a unique voice.  I’ve never let myself get into that model.  I do more than 50 concerts a year.  If there is a new record, there is.  If not, I still do 50 concerts a year. Too bad that we got away from that.”   

Early in their recording career, the Ramsey Lewis Trio would release two, three sometimes four albums a year. “Back in those days, it was the practice to release frequently.  We’d be playing live, composing and coming up with new material all the time, so we wanted to capture it in recordings.  The rock & roll bands in the ‘60s began to set a precedent for recording an album only once a year and touring behind it,” Mr. Lewis recollects.

America was opening its arms to The Ramsey Lewis Trio when, in 1959, they scored a gig at New York's legendary Birdland!  While playing Chicago’s Cloister Inn, the invitation came and the trio headed back East. The initial booking at Birdland was only for three weeks, yet the exposure led to performances at the Newport Jazz Festival, Randall's Island Jazz Festival, and the Village Vanguard.
In the 1960s, Mr. Lewis and his trio became a household name. One of America’s most successful pianists, his recordings were topping the charts – “The In Crowd,” “Wade In The Water,” and “Hang On Sloopy.”

Towards the end of 1965, he changed up the composition of the trio by recruiting bassist Cleveland Eaton and Chess house drummer Maurice White (who would go on to found legendary R&B group Earth, Wind & Fire.)  In a most creative and fruitful relationship over many years, Mr. White also produced several of Mr. Lewis' later albums. 

“Back in those days, radio, record labels, and bands all worked together.  Now it’s all splintered. You know, I’ve only been with four record labels my whole career - Chess, CBS-Columbia, GRP, and Narada Jazz.” 

When you come to think of it, with over 80 recordings, that’s an amazing feat.

Smooth Jazz fans will probably be most familiar with the GRP recordings, (1992 to 1998), such as Ivory Pyramid, Sky Islands, Between The Keys, Dance Of The Soul, and the first two blockbusters from super group Urban Knights, members of which have included Grover Washington Jr., Earl Klugh, Victor Bailey, and Omar Hakim.  From 1999 to 2005, Narada Jazz was proud to release 11 albums, including Appassionata, Time Flies, two new recordings with Nancy Wilson, six more Urban Knights albums and his first ever gospel recording, With One Voice.

Celebrating the 40th anniversary of his Grammy-award winning album The In Crowd, the jazz piano legend paid homage to gospel, one of his earliest musical influences that has been reflected in much of his 50-year recording career.  On With One Voice, Mr. Lewis performed seven inspirational trio originals and was joined by guests Smokie Norful, Darius Brooks, and Donald Lawrence, with the James Memorial Sanctuary and New Vision Choirs on 5 traditional and original gospel songs. As a matter of interest, his sister, Lucille, is now the Rev. Lucille L. Jackson, Co-Pastor at the James Memorial AME Church in Maywood, Illinois. For her thoughtful essay about her younger brother and this gospel recording, read more.  To top it off, his son, Frayne T. Lewis, produced With One Voice, as well as the Narada Jazz Urban Knights albums.

Mr. Lewis recorded with CBS-Columbia Records from 1972 to 1991, releasing several hit albums, among them Sun Goddess, Tequila Mockingbird, Two Of Us (with Nancy Wilson), and Urban Renewal.  During his tenure there, the key CBS executives were Clive Davis (until 1972) and Bruce Lundvall (1976-1982). When Narada Jazz came under the Blue Note Label Group umbrella in 2006, Mr. Lewis was back together again working with Bruce Lundvall.  “Bruce Lundvall is the type of A&R guy who’d come out to see live shows. Still does. He would let us record our own style. In 2008, we’ll be releasing the music I composed for the Joffrey Ballet To Know Her…”  

Choreographed by Donald Byrd, the ballet debuted on June 22, 2006 at the Ravinia Festival.  Mr. Lewis said it was a refreshing experience. “It was a sold out house. We were the only music performed that night and it was amazing.  The audience really got into it and gave many standing ovations. You know, not once did we play ‘Sun Goddess,’ ‘The In Crowd,’ ‘Wade In The Water,’ or ‘Hang On Sloopy.’”

Mr. Lewis muses, “When composing the ballet, I found the music deep inside me after all these years.  I wondered if we should include some of the popular songs like ‘The In Crowd’ or ‘Hang on Sloopy,’ but we ended up writing original works and we’re so happy with it.  We’ll be touring with the Joffrey Ballet when the album releases and on into 2009.”

In 1993, Mr. Lewis succeeded Gerry Mulligan as Artistic Director of Jazz at the Ravinia Festival, programming the jazz concerts and workshops, and continues in this position today.  He has been instrumental in the development of Ravinia's “Jazz in the Schools Mentor Program.” For his efforts he was recognized in 1995 by ABC's Peter Jennings, who dedicated a "Person of the Week" segment of Wide World Tonight  to Mr. Lewis.

Still touring around the world with over 50 concerts a year, Mr. Lewis has performed countless memorable live performance, playing many of the jazz festivals and summer venues throughout the U.S, Europe, Japan, Mexico, Africa, and the Caribbean.  He has also played with over 25 symphony orchestras in the U.S., the U.K., Europe, and Canada. He currently tours and performs with his own trio, featuring Larry Gray on bass and Leon Joyce on drums.

Among his lifetime achievements are three Grammys, the Recording Academy Governor's Award (2000), five gold records, and three honorary doctorates.  Mr. Lewis performed at the White House State dinner President Bill Clinton held for President Fernando Henrique & Mrs. Cardoso of Brazil in April of 1995. He was awarded the prestigious Lincoln Academy of Illinois “Laureate” Award in Springfield, Illinois in April of 1997, and was one of the Olympic Torch runners who carried the Winter 2002 Olympic Torch during its journey to Salt Lake City in January of 2002.

Twice he has been named personality of the year by R&R for hosting Chicago's week day morning drive time radio show on WNUA FM, “The Ramsey Lewis Morning Show.”  January of 2007 saw “The Ramsey Lewis Morning Show” syndicated nationwide. Listeners have come to know him and his “on air sermons as a spokesman for common sense values and decency.” For more than five years, Ramsey has been bringing the artists who are truly legends of jazz to more than five million music fans each week. He hosts the syndicated “Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis,” a two hour radio program airing in more than 75 cities throughout the US. 

Broadcasting is very familiar to Mr. Lewis, who hosted a weekly cable TV show on the Black Entertainment Network called “Sound & Style,” which was nominated for an ACE award. He recently hosted and co-produced a 13-part TV version of “Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis” on PBS, created in multi-camera HDTV and Dolby Surround 5.1 audio.  It is the first time in 40 years that jazz has been the focus of conversation and live performance on television. Designed to serve as both oral history and pure entertainment, the series offers viewers highly personal anecdotes, remembrances, opinions, thoughts on the most renowned names in jazz, as well as live performances and, the best part, the jam sessions.

There is a young generation that is carrying this music forward and Mr. Lewis is at the forefront of making it happen.  In January of 2007, the Dave Brubeck Institute invited Mr. Lewis to be on the Honorary Board of Friends of the Brubeck Institute at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, CA. He also serves on the Board of Trustees for the Merit School of Music, an inner city music program in Chicago. Mr. Lewis has served as Art Tatum Professor in Jazz Studies at Roosevelt University.

Active in community efforts, especially on behalf of youth, here’s one more example of his efforts to pass the torch to the next jazz generation. Early 2005 saw the formation of the Ramsey Lewis Foundation, offering a hand to youth through music. “It uses the power of music to provide underprivileged youth a means to engage their time, talents, and thoughts, so they may actively participate in developing their skills, achieve musical goals, and take pride in themselves and their communities.”

Mr. Ramsey Lewis isn’t just at the top of his game; he is The Top of THE Game.

“You are as good as you desire to be, but never perfect, though you strive to be. You look for that chord you never find, but in the process you find other chords along the way.  You look for a beautiful melody, and you end up discovering many.  Music keeps me young at heart and helps me sustain that childlike curiosity.  It keeps me in awe of nature and the universe.  The arts, in my case music, are the balance one needs in one’s life to be a full, total human being.”                                                           – Ramsey Lewis

For more on Mr. Lewis, visit these informative sites:





CD Reviews return to home page interviews CD Reviews Concert Reviews Perspectives - SmoothViews State of Mind Retrospectives - A Look Back at a Favorite CD On The Side - The Sidemen of Smooth Jazz On the Lighter Side - A Little Humor News - What's New in Smooth Jazz Links - A Guide to Smooth Jazz on the Web Contact Us About Us Website Design by Visible Image, LLC