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In 1974, when jazz-rock fusion was peaking, Lewis cut the jazz-funk classic Sun Goddess. The album, filled with a heavy dose of synthesizers and with Earth, Wind and Fire members providing backup, went gold, and Lewis's audience demanded he go electric in concert. He focused more on synthesizers, and that shift eventually hurt his playing.
"By the late '70s I found that I was spending more time keeping up with the latest edition of a certain synthesizer," he says. "As soon as you get that one, there's another brand name that comes out that does more. The bells and whistles are coming at you every eight or nine months. You have to buy that one, you've got to read this manual, and the Steinway wasn't getting practiced. And finally I said, 'Wow, where are my chops going?' "
Like many other jazz musicians in the late '70s and early '80s, Lewis returned to acoustic piano, but he didn't shy away from using electronic keyboards on his subsequent albums and in concert. He usually has a synth atop his grand piano, but the acoustic piano is his artistic center. Over the past two decades Lewis has kept his musical palette diverse, whether it's performing as a guest soloist for symphony orchestras, playing duets with Dr. Billy Taylor, working with Nancy Wilson or slamming some funk with Urban Nights.
Today his career has in a way come full circle: He recently formed a new trio with Larry Gray on acoustic bass and Ernie Adams on drums. That new Ramsey Lewis Trio has completed an album of mostly jazz interpretations of classical compositions.
When Lewis isn't recording or touring, he's one of jazz's highest-profile ambassadors. He hosts the syndicated radio program Legends of Jazz, which is carried in more than 60 markets, and The Ramsey Lewis Morning Show on WNUA-FM in Chicago. He also hosts Jazz Central on Black Entertainment Television and works on a few of the network's other programs. He also lectures at several universities and will serve an artistic professorship at Roosevelt University this fall. If that's not enough, Lewis is the artistic director of Chicago's Jazz at the Ravina Festival.
"I really see jazz as America's major contribution to world culture," he says. "It's important to promote that idea."
That's an idea Lewis promotes every time he walks onto the bandstand and graces the keys with his fingers. Jazz couldn't ask for a better ambassador.
Ramsey Lewis performs at the Houston International Jazz Festival on Saturday, August 7. Call 1(800)4-HOUSTON.
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