In Memoriam: Ramsey Lewis (1935-2022)
Unlike some people in their 60s, jazz pianist and composer Ramsey Lewis shows few signs of slowing down. He no longer takes month-long tours, but this largely reflects commitments to his recording studio, Ivory Pyramid Productions. Lewis, currently the artistic director for the Ravinia Jazz Festival, likes to practice four or five hours daily and makes regular radio and television appearances.
A native of Chicago, Lewis studied classical piano and thrived on gospel music. In 1956, he formed a piano trio with bassist Eldee Young and drummer Redd Holt that played at Chicago night spots for 10 years. During this period, Lewis also recorded with such artists as Clark Terry and Max Roach.
By the mid-1960s, Lewis’ recording of The In Crowd became a hit, and he soon became a household name. Other releases followed, and from among the 63 albums Lewis recorded through a lifetime career, The In Crowd, Hold It Right There, Wade in the Water, Hang On Sloopy, The Sound of Christmas, and Sun Goddess received Grammy and Gold Record Awards. In later years Lewis continued to perform with various trios that reflected his trademark funky style, and he also played in six-piece groups with flute, clarinet, guitar, and vocalist.
Lewis believes that his father, a church choir director, influenced his choice to study music. At age four Lewis threw a fit upon learning that only his older sister, Lucille, would take piano lessons. His father could afford lessons for only one child, but after Ramsey kicked the wall and fell on the floor crying, the elder Lewis relented and allowed his son to study piano as well. “I started taking lessons with church pianist and organist, Ernestine Bruce. If I played a wrong note or didn’t use the correct fingering, she would hit me right across the knuckles with a ruler. After two lessons I hated it, not only because of the knuckle pops but because I had to practice. My dad insisted and said, ‘You wanted to play the piano, and you’re going to do it. You’re going to practice,’ and practice I did. When I started I practiced 15 minutes, then 20, then half an hour, and then 45 minutes, My mom, dad, or sister would ask, ‘Sonny, how much did you practice today?’ If it wasn’t enough, they sent me back to the piano. In fact, Dad would often track me down at the playground and hustle me right back home and straight to the piano.”
By age 11, Lewis’ abilities had grown to the point that Ernestine Bruce suggested he study with Dorothy Mendelssohn at the Chicago Musical College, and that’s when everything changed. He began practicing two to five hours a day, playing his usual repertoire of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and his favorites, Brahms and Rachmaninoff. Mendelssohn was adamant about the use of scales and arpeggios to develop technique because she believed it freed the performer from the thinking about the notes so he could concentrate on the music.
Lewis remembers that during his early teen years in the 1960s, he saw Wynton Kelly, a piano player with the Miles Davis group. “When Wynton came out on stage, sat at the piano, and started playing, my mouth opened wide. He was swinging. Then he asked me to play something and later commented, ‘Boy, I wish I had technique.’ This just blew me away; I finally realized what Dorothy Mendelssohn meant. With technique a pianist can forget about the notes and get into the music.
“Another thing Dorothy told me was, ‘Listen from within because you should feel the music. Make the tones sing.’ It was amazing to think I could make the piano sing; I was hooked. By the time I was 13 years old, I wanted to tour around the world, playing in all the great concert halls as a classical concert pianist.”
Dorothy Mendelssohn knew all too well the difficulties of making a living in classical music. At age 15, Lewis was offered the chance to play with a weekend jazz band and earn money. His parents worried that joining the band would affect his classical playing, but Lewis already played gospel music at church, which was not far removed from jazz. Mendelssohn advised him to take advantage of every opportunity, and once his parents consented, the young artist’s career took off. Although the full band later broke up, the trio that remained continued to play and received a record deal.
“I probably would have stayed with classical music if I thought there was any chance of a career,” says Lewis. “Sometimes being the first to do something helps a career, but sometimes it doesn’t. Today there still aren’t that many minorities in the field of European classical music around the world, and only a handful can make a living. It’s difficult even for non-minorities. It’s not unlike the Michael Jacksons and Frank Sinatras in pop music – there’s a handful of those who make money, but they may be one percent of the the industry. Luckily, our group was successful.
“I was 13 when my father brought home recordings of Teddy Wilson, Dorothy Donegan, and Art Tatum, who baffled me by sounding like he had six hands and 40 fingers. In fact, one of the records that Dad brought home was of Hazel Scott or Dorothy Donegan playing boogie-woogie. I joined a band at age 15 and knew nothing about jazz improvisation.
“At my first job, Wallace Burton, the band leader, announced that we would play the blues in Bb, and at that time I thought blues and boogie-woogie were the same thing. ‘Ramsey,’ he said, ‘you start,’ so I struck out in the meanest boogie-woogie I could do. He wanted to lead into a Charlie Parker song, but it didn’t quite work. Burton asked, ‘Who are some of your favorite jazz piano players?’ By then Dad had also brought recordings of Erroll Garner and Oscar Peterson. ‘Go home,’ he said, ‘and listen to what they do when playing the blues. First, imitate them to find out what they’re doing and then see what you can do.’
“For the next ten years, I was influenced by Oscar Peterson, Charlie Parker, George Shearing, and Bud Powell, jazz musicians that I couldn’t wait to hear on every new record. I used to stand outside waiting for the record shop to open, checking to see if any new recordings were available.”
In high school Lewis played on weekends and then started recording. “Our big break was In Crowd, a song on our 17th album. In those days, we cut an album every six months. In Crowd was just meant as a fun piece to listen to, but it got so much airtime on every radio station I was labeled the funky piano player, and people began to expect that’s all I did.”
Ramsey Lewis’ trademark funky style developed from his years of classical and gospel music training. “Maurice White, a producer who worked with me, once remarked that his goal was ‘to bring out what you’re all about.’ When I asked him what he meant exactly, he responded, ‘The music that you studied during the most impressionable years, in your youth.’ Then it became clear to me that gospel, European classical, and jazz had homogenized to become my style, the way I interpret music.
“There no doubt that gospel music influenced my first hit record, In Crowd. At the time, everyone called me a funky piano player, but they were really hearing the gospel influence: the simple melodic, emotional, repetitive beat with a simple, singable melody. The In Crowd was labeled funky, and I never outgrew that label. To this day some fans say they like me because my music is funky, but if they listen to my recordings or hear me in person, one way or another they’ll realize that I studied classical music and played in church.”
The dynamics and tonal coloring in Lewis’ music also stem from his classical training. As his interest in jazz developed, he found he could write songs or do solos because of the classical foundation he had received in his early ears. Lewis says that when it comes to tempo, he usually doesn’t take a lot of liberties when playing with his group. “Somebody once said, ‘It doesn’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.’ That’s important but not always true. I take all kinds of liberties when playing solo because I’m free. Solo piano playing allows me to change the key, tempo, style, concept, or song whenever I want to. I love that freedom.
“Both classical and jazz music are difficult in their own respect, and so I can’t say one is not better than the other. I think that one of the characteristics that is attractive to me in jazz is the freedom of expression. If I feel a certain way on any given day, I don’t have to recall a piece by Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, or Mozart to express that feeling. I just sit down at the piano and play the notes to me to express how I’m feeling.
“There is interpretation in classical music, but it’s narrow, and there’s a certain style and concept that should be followed in pieces by Mozart and Bach. The challenge is to bring your own personality to the music but stay within the concept that the comoser intended. Classical artists are a little careful because they don’t want critics to say, ‘That’s not what the composer intended.’
“Horowitz and a handful of others got to the point where their image and persona were so powerful that the critics backed down. I think artists should be more adventurous in the interpretation of certain classics so that, for instance, Chopin doesn’t sound the same played by every student, like a regurgitation of the music. It is terrible when imitation becomes the goal and not what a performer brings to the music.”
In jazz performance, Lewis’ trio knows how to respond to a sudden idea because there is a harmonic set-up to follow. Basic chords occur every measure, and he improvises on top of them. Sometimes he may alter a chord or do something different from the last performance, but the solo on top of the chord is what impresses most people. The bass player follows the chords and trusts that everyone will follow the same chords no matter what liberties they take with the solos.
“My band plays cadenzas at the end of a piece when the chords are over,” Lewis explains. “I challenge the players to use their ears and hear where I go harmonically. This works successfully, especially with Henry Johnson, the guitar player, who has such big ears. Harmonically, he can follow me wherever I go and add something that makes the piece even more interesting. It’s follow the leader; he doesn’t know where I’m going so it becomes a new story each time.
“Every time I play at a concert it turns out different from what I had expected. Before every concert I write a list of songs to play, and 99% of the time we start with the first song. After that the show may vary, and I may call another song. The chords and harmonies depend on the night, the song, and how I feel. Sometimes, the chord can’t be spelled out. Sometimes it’s just a sound that I’m looking for at that moment. During a solo, I go for the sound, without thinking in terms of a particular chord progression.
“There’s a saying in jazz that there are no wrong notes. Some people feel that way, some don’t. A jazz artist can make an idea out of anything, so the audience doesn’t know what he really intends, although the continuity of a melodic line can be broken to the point where it’s obvious if an idea has strayed. The true essence of jazz is that the music happens at the spur of the moment. If I accidentally play an E instead of an Eb, I’ll make an idea out of it.”
Lewis doesn’t get nervous before a performance, but says that a certain excitement takes over. As it gets close to concert time, he just wants to play. “I hate sitting around a dressing room for an 8:00 concert when at 7:30 the ushers say, ‘Half hour, Mr. Lewis’ and at 7:45, ‘Fifteen minutes, Mr. Lewis.’ Then five minutes before showtime they say, ‘We want to hold the house 20 minutes because people are slow coming in.’ It makes no difference whether I play in big halls or small clubs if the sound and lighting are good, and it’s comfortable. Once we start playing there could be 2 people, 200 people, 2,000 people, or 20,000 people. It doesn’t matter.”
He points out that in jazz today, some younger musicians, such as Wynton Marsalis, are revisiting the music of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, especially the music of Duke Ellington and others. “This influence is obvious in their arranging and performances. Certain people feel that these younger groups have made that their goal, which reminds me somewhat of classical musicians whose goal is to learn a Chopin interpretation rather than to realize their own style. The goal should not be to sound exactly like these musicians, but to play the music in the right style. It may sound wonderful, but then the question is whether they can create something now without reflecting the music of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.”
Lewis believes the role of music in America has diminshed in that there were more places to play and hear jazz in the 1940s and 50s. “The state of jazz today is no different than the state of music and culture in general in this country: it is at the bottom of the list. It’s not thought of as being important, and it doesn’t get much attention from the government radio stations, or television station owners where the bottom line is saving money. Many cultural institutions are run entirely by lawyers and accountants instead of including creative people. It used to be that way – record companies were once run by people who loved the music. Now there are advertisers, lawyers, and accountants who worry only about costs. The same thing is happening with education. Business leaders are telling the educators what to do.
“The Europeans and Japanese have an allegiance to the arts at the elementary, high school, and college levels. People believe it is the obligation of the the government to make music available to average citizens for little or nothing. The government, however, is only a reflection of the people. If people remain passive, then music and the arts will remain at the bottom of the list in the U.S. The American people should take a hard look at the subjects that students study in school and insist on some kind of arts curriculum beginning at the elementary level.”
There is no such thing as a typical day in the life of Ramsey Lewis. On tour, he arrives at a city, jumps off the plane and goes straight to a rehearsal and sound check. After giving interviews before a performance, he takes time to relax. The following day the cycle begins again. When not on the road, Lewis stays busy with recording, producing, and television commitments, and the band continues to rehearse, practice, and write music. Lewis regrets that he doesn’t have enough practice time. He likes to practice four or five hous a day but says that he is lucky to get in five, six, or eight hours a week. Morning is Lewis’ time for practice. He rises at 6 and is at the piano by 8:30 or 9:00.
Lewis keeps a full schedule outside of music as well. He says, “I belong to a health club and would love to go three times a week. I love to read, especially books on philosophy, sociology, and astronomy. I have friends in every walk of life, so when we meet for dinner, the conversation always is interesting. My wife and I like going to the movies. There’s just not enough time for me to do everything that I’d like.