10/31/11 By Ed Hamilton
Ramsey Lewis: Chicago’s Urban Knight
An interview by Ed Hamilton with the renowned pianist and composer
Chicago’s favorite son, Ramsey Lewis, a pianist, composer, radio personality, was the first to transcend his piano prowess into the atmosphere of contemporary pop jazz with compositions “Wade in the Water,” “In Crowd,” and winning three Grammys with “Sun Goddess.”
He learned piano at 4 years old and later a graduate of DePaul University with a degree in Music. “My early inspirations were composers Thomas A. Dorsey and Charles Stepney. And piano influences were Wallace Burton, Oscar Peterson, George Shearing, Bud Powell and because of my concert training, MJQ’s John Lewis was really an influence. As my jazz interest spread, there was Wynton Kelly, Horace Silver and the great players--- Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Stitt, Miles and Bird.”
At 15 Ramsey joined his first jazz group ‘The Cleffs’ with drummer Eldee Young and bassist Redd Holt. They later formed their own group ‘The Ramsey Lewis Trio’ and recorded their first album, Ramsey Lewis and the Gentlemen of Swing. .In the late ‘50’s and ‘60’s the Ramsey Lewis Trio was the most popular group traveling around the U.S. primarily in the East, Midwest, and West: In N.Y., Chicago and Los Angeles performing at the Lighthouse, Bohemian Caverns, Mr. Kelly’s, and Basin Street East. The trio recorded albums for Chess Records: Bach to the Blues, Barefoot Sunday Blues, Live at the Bohemian Caverns, Hang On Sloopy, LeFleur, and the two most memorable---The In Crowd and the holiday perennial---The Sounds of Christmas.
Later after breaking up the trio, he started a new group with bassist Cleveland Eaton and Chess house session drummer Maurice White who had played with Muddy Waters, Etta James, Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Walter. He also wrote another Grammy winner for Ramsey, “Sun Goddess.”
Ramsey reiterated how one compositional arrangement changed his outlook on life. “Wade In the Water” was the transition song that lead to ‘The In Crowd’. “‘The In Crowd’ changed my life; I know longer had to look at the prices on the menu first, and I could now pay my taxes on time.”
He acknowledged his liking for ‘The Stylistics’ and compositions of Thom Bell and Linda Creed. “I liked Thom Bell and Linda Creed tunes like ‘Betcha By Golly Wow’, that I later recorded. I met Stevie Wonder in the 60’s down in New Orleans performing on the same show. Backstage, he brought some chords for me to listen to---they were ‘Livin' For the City’- (before he wrote it)--he said, ‘I’m going to write a song’with this’. I later recorded ‘Livin' For the City’ myself.”
Setting the pace as a morning disc-jockey and national syndicated host and number one in Chicago Radio morning drive, he presented Contemporary, the new Jazz title, or as it is now called ----Smooth Jazz, defined as the jazz of the millennium for those who in the past couldn't get into traditional jazz, bop or swing. Ramsey ventured into this smooth vein of music.
In 2006, Legends of Jazz, a nationally syndicated radio program, went on TV with live performances that showcased Joey DeFrancesco, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Benny Golson, Pat Metheny and Tony Bennett.
The 80’s saw Ramsey teamed up with the smooth sax sound of Grover Washington, Jr. and together they formed “”The Urban Knights” and recorded “Live At the Regal Theater.” It took off and further extended his contemporary sound.
People have asked why he’s remained in Chicago and not moved to N.Y. or L.A..
Ramsey explained how Chicago impacted his music: “I was fortunate enough to fall out of love with New York. I didn’t move there, but there was a moment in time when all musicians were diggin’ it---that was the place to be and I could never stay in N.Y. more than 8 or 9 days. After that, man, it was a bit much; so much to do…so many people. So then people started going to L.A. and that didn’t work out. I didn’t move there. It didn’t feel like a big city to me. L.A. is a big city horizontally---if you know what I mean---kinda spread out. Then I looked around Chicago and said 'I’m crazy.’ All authentic representation of all music is right here: Lyric Opera, Jazz, Gospel, Blues, Rock&Roll, R&B, Punk Rock, Pop---all those genres. It’s all right here in Chicago---all authentic; plus I got 7 kids and 14 grands here. Why should I look for somewhere else to go?”
On the young piano set, he said, “There are a lot of young new cats I like, but there are so many, I just can’t mention just one or two.”
As for his civic contributions to his city love Chicago, he created and is Director of the Ravinia Festival; incorporated music programs into the Chicago School System---The Chicago High School for the Arts; Ramsey Lewis Foundation for At Risk children; member of the Dave Brubeck Institute at the University of the Pacific (Brubeck’s alma mater); was given an Honorary Doctorate from Loyola University Chicago, acknowledging his music and selfless community efforts.
Truly a visionary in all neighborhoods of music, Ramsey Lewis took a “Soulful Strut”, ventured into and created contemporary pianistic sounds--- leading not following. And why should he leave his “Sweet Home Chicago” when he’s got family and his whole world there---his music.