Ramsey Lewis, jazz master, composer, also put tunes on Top 40 radio
The success spawned other pop hits and introduced Lewis to a large national audience. His talent for moving the crowd during this live recording also betrayed a natural ability to reach the listener.
“Ramsey was a great artist,” said Gary Motley, jazz pianist and director of jazz studies at Emory University. “He knew how to work a piece. He would connect with people and really play with his audience.
Lewis, 87, died Monday, Sept. 12 at his home in Chicago.
He grew up in Chicago’s infamous Cabrini-Green housing projects. Trained as a classical pianist, he also played in church from childhood. Both sources emerged in his music, which shared the same gospel-inspired hard bop championed by Horace Silver and Bobby Timmons.
A performance by Ramsey Lewis offered romantic ballads and standards, but as the evening wore on he had the audience on their feet. “Slowly but surely by the time we get to the middle of the show, I’m starting to move into songs that are a little more shaken up if you will,” he told NPR.
Atlanta jazz trumpeter and big band leader Joe Gransden grouped Lewis with artists such as Lee Morgan and Herbie Hancock, whose tracks “Sidewinder” and “Watermelon Man” (respectively) also enjoyed chart success and brought soulful swing jazz to a much wider audience.
“They were able to have a creative improvisation to a more danceable groove that was more palatable to millions of people,” Gransden said. “The result not only helped their careers, but helped jazz music reach a wider audience.”
Lewis repeated the pop-jazz combination a few times, with a cover of “Hang on Sloopy”, “Summer Breeze” (from Seals and Crofts), “Dancing in the Street” and several Beatles tracks, including “And I Love Her” and “A Hard Day’s Night”.
“Some jazz players who were more purists might have ridiculed him a bit,” said Geoffrey Haydon, professor and piano coordinator at Georgia State University. “On the other hand, this guy was bringing music to people who otherwise might not know it. He’s not Art Tatum, he’s not Oscar Peterson. He was a dirt player. down to earth that most of the audience could immediately identify with.
Motley, who worked with Lewis bassist Cleveland Eaton, said a Lewis performance was smartly constructed. The pianist knew how to “read the piece, construct a solo. How do you build it to a peak, how do you get people in? Ramsey was the master of this.
In the 1970s, Lewis leaned into R&B. His former drummer, Maurice White, had then founded Earth, Wind & Fire, and co-wrote and produced the album “Sun Goddess” by Ramsey Lewis. This album, with its electric keyboards, put Lewis back on the pop charts.
But Lewis never left jazz behind, said Alterman, who opened for Lewis several times at New York’s Blue Note, and has stayed in touch over the years. “People lock him into this soul-funk stuff,” Alterman said, “but people don’t know what a great pianist he was.”
Lewis’ success with “The ‘In’ Crowd” seemed to happen by accident. His trio was recording a live album at the Bohemian Caverns in Washington, D.C., in 1965, and, sitting in a nearby cafe, they discussed finding one more track to end the evening. A waitress at the store suggested the then-popular Dobie Gray tune and blasted a quarter of it into a jukebox to demonstrate.
The trio worked out a quick “head” arrangement and played it as a set-ender. The live recording picks up the joyful shouts and cheers of the crowd, giving the hit single the loose, buzzy feel of a party that has just taken off.
The tune peaked at number five on the singles chart, placing the Ramsey Lewis Trio in territory that jazz musicians rarely visit. Fans kept asking for it throughout his career.
In 2016, Lewis told NPR “I’ve got people coming backstage, and some of them say, ‘my parents had that record,’ and some of them say, ‘my grandparents had that record. “. It looks like it has stood the test of time.
Lewis worked as an educator to bring attention to jazz traditions. He hosted a weekly radio show and then a public television series, both titled “Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis”, featuring live performances by Dave Brubeck, Tony Bennett, Chick Corea, David Sanborn, Clark Terry, Benny Golson, Eddie Palmieri, Pat Metheny, Phil Woods and many more.
He also began composing for orchestra later in life, and in his 80s performed his own piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
The National Endowment for the Arts proclaimed him “Master of Jazz” in 2007, the highest honor given to jazz musicians by the NEA.