According to the music scholar you ask, jazz “died” at the end of its 1920s heyday. Others believe jazz music lost its luster when the 1960s – and rock music – came unrolled.
But Ramsey Lewis, an inventive jazz pianist and one of the country’s most respected artists in the genre, continued to find new ways to keep the genre alive and evolving and, most importantly, to develop new generations of musicians. jazz listeners.
Lewis spent nearly 60 years recording and performing original jazz music, striking gold in 1965 with the crossover hit “The ‘In’ Crowd.” He won three Grammysscored seven gold records and in 2007 was named a National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Master, the highest honor given to jazz musicians in the United States.
Lewis died Monday at his home in his native Chicago, his manager Brett Steele confirmed. He was 87 years old.
A lifelong Chicagoan, Lewis grew up in the Cabrini-Green housing project on the city’s Near North Side. Although he played the piano throughout his childhood, his exposure to jazz only came at home, when his father played records by Duke Ellington and Art Tatum (one of Lewis’s favorite artists ). He didn’t attempt to learn to play jazz himself until another musician from his church approached him to start a band when he was 15, according to National Endowment for the Arts biography of Lewis.
After honing his jazz piano skills with that band, the Clefs, he formed the Ramsey Lewis Trio with bassist Eddie Young and Redd Holt on percussion, according to his website. Their debut album was released in 1956, but it wasn’t until almost 10 years later that they became national stars: the trio’s instrumental cover of “The ‘In’ Crowd” became a hit upon its release. in 1965 and earned Lewis his first of three Grammys.
The mid-1960s also saw the release of crossover hits like “Hang on Sloopy” and “Wade in the Water”, two songs that appealed to listeners from all walks of life, not just jazz aficionados.
The trio’s line-up was revamped over the years – other members included Maurice White on drums (he eventually left the trio to create Earth, Wind & Fire but returned to produce the album “Sun Goddess” of Lewis in 1974). Lewis also collaborated with other artists in her genre, including the late jazz singer Nancy Wilson on several albums, including 1984’s “The Two of Us”.
Lewis fused the gospel and blues music he grew up with with the jazz his father loved and the popular sounds of the day to create what has become contemporary jazz music. His jazz compositions had funk and soul (a style he perfected on “Sun Goddess” and present on programs like “Soul Train”), although he can also play classical compositions with ease and panache (he once counted Bach as one of his favorite sources of “brain food”).
Lewis had a prolific output, releasing two to three albums a year for several years following the success of “The ‘In’ Crowd”. In all, he has recorded more than 80 albums, including “Maha de Carnaval” last year.
He retired in spurts. In 2018, he tells Chicago WGN Station that he was absent for several days in a row from performing and practicing the piano and was quickly bored. In 2019, he opened the Chicago-based Ravinia festival and told the Chicago Grandstand that year he was “90% retired”—he would still perform locally, but he was completely retired from touring across the United States.
When he wasn’t performing, Lewis was still introducing listeners to new artists and replaying old favorites: he hosted several jazz programs on public radio and television stations in Chicago throughout his life.
He was also a great proponent of arts education and the edification of musically gifted young people. He founded the Ramsey Lewis Foundation in 2005, which provided music programs for at-risk youth. He recalled his own fundamental arts education at his Chicago public school, which he said offered various bands and music lessons to choose from. He deplored the defunding of arts classes in public schools.
“When they eliminated that from the public school system, we lost a lot of kids who probably could have contributed to the scene as we know it,” he told WGN.
Music was oxygen for Lewis; he couldn’t stop composing original songs even after “retiring”. In the 2018 interview with WGN, he shared that he was still tinkering with a song he started writing 15 years earlier. He spent much of his time at home at his beloved Steinway piano, which he said he bought in 1962. An eternal student eager to hone his skills, he listened to anything, in any genre, that could fit on his iPod.
When asked in 2009 what he considered to be the greatest album of all time, he replied“There is no such animal.”
“What satisfies me today might not be tomorrow or next week,” he told Pop Matters in 2009. “The best album I’ve ever heard is the one I just listened to, unless I spend time researching other cultures or listening to new music./artists. So…you never know!
Lewis was remembered by friends and admirers for his innovative style and inquisitive mind. Reverend Jesse Jackson reminded living near Lewis for over 40 years, watching their children grow up together.
“Ramsey had exquisite taste and was formally trained and disciplined,” Jackson tweeted. “I will miss him as a friend and neighbor.”
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the city of Chicago was grateful to have Lewis as a “son of the country”. Based on his life spent playing in his beloved Chicago, he felt the same pride in representing his city. As he put it succinctly in a 2011 interview: “Chicago is home.”
Lewis is survived by his wife and five of his children.