Gentleman of Jazz
Long before 1968, when Billboard Magazine coined the term "jazz-fusion," Ramsey Lewis was playing the stuff. Since his debut, 1956's Gentlemen of Swing, Lewis has been mixing gospel, jazz, R&B, pop and even classical music in an artistic and commercially viable fashion. No, he never approached the high volume and rock intensity of the Mahavishnu Orchestra or Return to Forever, and he never went as far out into the psychedelic realm as Miles Davis. But Lewis has been fusing different musical styles for more than 40 years. And along the way, he has scored seven gold records and three Grammys. Of his 60-plus albums, 30 have made the Billboard pop chart, and he has had a dozen hit singles. By jazz standards, those figures make him something of a phenom.
"Jazz has always been fusion," Lewis says. "Jazz always picked up some elements from the '20s, the '30s, the '40s, the '50s. As it moves through, it's sort of like a sponge. I think Madison Avenue needed a handle to put on that period of music they were promoting [the jazz/rock of the '70s] and said, 'Let's call it fusion.' "
Lewis's love affair with music began more than 50 years ago. The 64-year-old pianist started studying classical music when he was four. Five years later he was playing gospel music in his church. "You want trial by fire, you play for a gospel choir in a church at nine years old," Lewis says. "They want the truth, brother. Don't get up there fumbling around."
When he was 11, he received a record from his father by legendary pianist Art Tatum. "I tried to forget him," Lewis says. "He gave me nightmares. I didn't know what he was doing. He scared me. I said, 'Is that one piano player or two?' I had to tell him, 'Dad, this is a bit much for me, whatever he's doing.' But Art Tatum has stayed with me. No one living, including myself far be it myself can come close to what he's done."
A few years later, at the ripe old age of 15, Lewis got to try his hand at jazz piano when Wallace Burton asked him to join the Cleffs. When Lewis (and his parents) accepted, he was told to show up at the next gig, sans rehearsal. "We took the bandstand around 8 p.m.," Lewis recalls. "Wallace said, 'Let's start out with something easy. Let's take a little blues in B-flat. Ramsey, you start.' I knew nothing about blues in B-flat. I'd been studying European classical music. I'd heard what I thought might have been blues in Art Tatum, Dorothy Donegan and such, but I didn't know. So I struck out in a mean boogie-woogie, and that stopped the show, of course, because he had something in mind along the lines of Charlie Parker-type blues."
Burton was patient with Lewis and taught him about jazz, an experience Lewis found liberating. "It became intriguing immediately because the interpretation is your own interpretation of what you know and what you hear," he says. "That is what, to this day, keeps me interested and keeps me inspired."
The Cleffs disbanded in the mid-'50s when four of the group's seven members were drafted. Lewis and the two remaining members, bassist Eldee Young and drummer Isaac "Red" Holt, started playing around Chicago and eventually called their trio the Gentlemen of Swing. In 1956 the band cut its first record, under the name the Ramsey Lewis Trio. Over the next ten years, the group became one of the tightest and most popular trios on the jazz circuit. Its live sets included a solid mixture of ballads and blues, gospel and bebop, classical and pop. The band's albums reflected that mix, and each outsold the previous one.
Then in 1965 the trio cut its 17th album, The "In" Crowd. Instantly each player's life was transformed. The title track shot up to No. 2, went gold and earned the trio a Grammy. The album stayed on the charts for 47 weeks and also went gold. (There were no platinum records at the time.) The band's next album, Hang on Ramsey, reached No. 11 and spawned two Top 30 hits. Nothing, it seemed, could stop this jazz hit machine except itself. In 1966 the trio disbanded.
"We couldn't handle success," Lewis says. "It's that simple. One of the reasons we maintained out there on the road and developing our trio was because we saw each other as brothers. If one guy had a buck, we all had a buck. If one guy had a tube of toothpaste, we all had a tube of toothpaste. It was really great. And all of the sudden it's, 'Hey, guys, there's enough money for us to buy our own toothpaste. There's enough money for us to stay in our own rooms. We don't have to share anymore.' With all the hoopla, and the name in bright lights and whose deodorant smells better, it just got to be petty little things."
Young and Holt went on to form Young/ Holt Unlimited and had a Top 10 hit with "Soulful Strut" (though the British magazine Mojo claims Young and Holt didn't play on that cut). Lewis formed another trio, this time with bassist Cleveland Eaton and drummer and future Earth, Wind and Fire founder Maurice White. After a few years Eaton and White left, and Lewis became a solo headline act with supporting musicians. By this point he was making records with strings and brass to augment his sound, and in 1968 he started adding synthesizers. Though he usually stuck to the Steinway Concert Grand in concert, he continued to experiment with synthesizers and electric pianos in the early '70s.
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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