Ramsey Lewis is a legendary jazz pianist who has long straddled the boundary between bop-oriented jazz and pop music.
Most of his recordings (particularly by the mid-’60s) were very accessible and attracted a large non-jazz audience. In 1956, he formed a trio with bassist Eldee Young and drummer Red Holt. From the start (1958), their records for Argo/Cadet were popular, although in the early days, they had a strong jazz content.
In 1958, Lewis also recorded with Max Roach and Lem Winchester. On the 1965 albums The In Crowd and Hang On, Ramsey made the pianist into a major attraction and from that point, on his records became much more predictable and pop-oriented.
In 1966, his trio’s personnel changed with bassist Cleveland Eaton and drummer Maurice White (later the founder of Earth, Wind & Fire, which Ramsey helped form) joining Lewis.
In the 1970s, Lewis often played electric piano, although by later in the decade he was sticking to acoustic and hiring an additional keyboardist.
In 2004 he released Time Flies, a look back at some of his most popular songs through new recordings.
Lewis was the first artist to play Anthology and has received five gold records and three Grammy Awards so far in his career.
In 2006, a well-received 13-episode Legends of Jazz television series hosted by Lewis was broadcast on public TV nationwide and featured live performances by a variety of jazz artists including Larry Gray, Lonnie Smith, Joey Defrancesco, Dave Brubeck, Chick Corea, Kurt Elling, Benny Golson, Pat Metheny and Tony Bennett.
Lewis is artistic director of Jazz at Ravinia (an annual feature at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Illinois) and helped organize Ravinia’s Jazz Mentor Program.
Ramsey also serves on the Board of Trustees for the Merit School of Music, a Chicago inner-city music program and The Chicago High School for the Arts, the new public arts high school in Chicago. He is also an esteemed jazz educator.
In January 2007, the Dave Brubeck Institute invited Lewis to join its Honorary Board of Friends at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. Lewis is an Honorary Board member of the Chicago Jazz Orchestra.
In May 2008, Lewis received an honorary doctorate from Loyola University Chicago upon delivering the keynote address at the undergraduate commencement ceremony.
Sound Observations with Ramsey Lewis
By David Moye
Ramsey Lewis’ concerts at Anthology this weekend (April 22 and 23) mark a coming home of sorts for the legendary jazz keyboardist.
No, Lewis isn’t a San Diego native, but he does share the unique distinction of being one of the very firsts artist to ever play Anthology when it opened in June, 2007.
“From the very first time, I was thoroughly impressed with the room,” Lewis said from his home in Chicago. “My hope is that it could be duplicated all over the country.”
According to Anthology co-owner Marsha Berkson, one of her greatest moments in her life was when Lewis came on for his sound check, played a note on the piano and just let it ring out.
“He said, ‘This room is perfect. It doesn’t need mics.’”
Lewis hasn’t changed his mind.
“The acoustics are wonderful,” he said. “It’s so conducive to music. In fact, we wanted to play all night because, even better than the sound, was the audience! They’re really the key to a good show.”
Lewis is excited about his return to Anthology and he’s excited about showing off the newest members of his trio: Bassist Joshua Romos and drummer Charles Heath.
“I don’t know what it is about them, but they came aboard five to six weeks ago and they’ve been the juice I’ve needed,” Lewis said. “I’ve had the most fun playing on stage and in rehearsals that I’ve had in ages.”
Lewis isn’t exaggerating when he says ages.
He’s been playing professionally since 1955 and has been one of those jazz greats lucky enough to cross over into the mainstream at least a couple times: first in the mid-60s when he had pop hits like “The In Crowd,” “Wade In The Water,” and “Hang On Sloopy,” and in the 70s, he struck gold with the funky “Sun Goddess.”
Although Lewis plans to play some new compositions like some songs from a ballet he’s recently written, an adaptation of a new string quartet and a sampling of gospel songs, he promises that he isn’t running from his past.
“I’ve found it’s best to take the path of least resistance,” he laughed. “So, I try to put at least two or three of the hits into the set.”