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Ramsey Lewis’ Proclamation of Hope Honors Lincoln’s Legacy

Ramsey Lewis performing Proclamation of Hope in 2009
Ramsey Lewis performing Proclamation of Hope in 2009

On Sunday, November 14, 2010, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts will present the East Coast premiere of Ramsey Lewis’ Proclamation of Hope: A Symphonic Poem. The work was written in commemoration of Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday, and reflects upon the life and legacy of the 16th president. Conducted by Scott Hall, Proclamation of Hope will be performed by 23 musicians, including Lewis, bassist Josh Ramos, drummer Leon Joyce and vocalist Dee Alexander. In addition, the performance will be taped by WTTW for future national broadcast on PBS stations. The symphonic piece originally debuted at Chicago’s Ravinia Festival in 2009. Chicago Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich called the piece “stirring… some of the most eloquent music of Lewis’ career.”

Lewis spoke by phone from his home about the piece and about this change in direction for himself as a pianist and composer. Interestingly, Lewis had no special affinity for Lincoln before working on this piece. “No more so than any other American,” he explains. “The fact that he spent much of his life in the state of Illinois and we live in Illinois, our schools presented the subject more than anywhere else. The celebration of the 200th anniversary of his birth was last year. Ravinia decided that the Chicago Symphony and the jazz program that I oversee should have events honoring the celebration. They asked me to write a work about his life in any way that I saw fit. I accepted the commission. I set about doing it.”

Lewis admits that coming into the commission to write this piece, his knowledge of Lincoln was largely limited to what he had learned in high school many years ago. However, he quickly went to school about the iconic president, going first to Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln was born. “My wife and I went down there and spent a day,” Lewis says. “There are probably thousands of books on Lincoln and it would take a lifetime to study him thoroughly, but I spent as much time as I could to get a feeling of not only what he contributed to our country but a feeling of the man himself.”

Lewis learned that Lincoln was both of his time and beyond his time, at least as far as the issue of slavery was concerned. “What I found in studying Abraham Lincoln is that when we were in high school, we just thought he freed the slaves and that’s it. But I found out that he had no thoughts in his mind about integrating slaves or ex-slaves into society. He just thought that it was inhumane for one human being to enslave another human being and as Americans we shouldn’t be doing this. After that, he was for them going back to Africa or whatever. That was a surprise to me.”

Regardless, he feels that there are many lessons to be learned from Lincoln’s life. “I think that every American at some time or other should study the life of Abraham Lincoln to not only what he was all about and how he changed and how he handled himself and how evolution seems to bring about the right person at the right time to move us forward, but also to understand what the South was really about. It was slavery, but to the South it was an economic issue that moved them to rebel. It was taking away the free labor.”

Once Lewis felt comfortable with his knowledge of the man, intellectually and emotionally, he set out to write the music. “Once I began writing, I wrote from two perspectives – one was from what I thought he must have felt as he did and said certain things, many of them very profound. The other perspective was how I felt, don’t forget that we’re talking about slavery and some of my not too distant ancestors were slaves, so it evoked certain emotions in me. There was this palette of feelings-those that I supposed Abraham Lincoln felt and my own that were there in my mind. There were times also it was almost as if I was writing for a film because his life and those things I remembered about his life would stream through my mind as I was writing.”

Ramsey explains that the symphonic poem is divided into eight different sections and each section has to do with an important incident in Lincoln’s life. “For example, there’s one movement called ‘The Horrid Picture: A Peculiar Institution.’ That’s the first time Abraham Lincoln actually experienced an incident of slavery. He was on a boat going down the Mississippi and it pulled over to one side. And there was a slave auction and he witnessed a family of four, mother, father, son and daughter being auctioned off in four different directions. They were not treated as human beings. The feeling that he had and the feeling that it conjured up in me imagining some of my ancestors being involved in such an incident.”

Naturally, the process evoked a range of emotions in the 75-year-old pianist. “It was an emotional ride for me. But as a musician we know that we can’t let our emotions entirely take over or things will go awry or astray. I had to keep an eye on what my job was and that was to come up with a musical expression of Abraham’s life, keeping in mind my personal view of his involvement.”

Lewis was pleasantly surprised by the response to the performance at Ravinia and the subsequent call to restage it in Washington, DC. “At the end of the day, I think I was fairly successful. It was very well received here in Chicago, which was very pleasing to me. So to get a call a few months later from the Kennedy Center to say we know about what you did and we’d like you to bring it to the Kennedy Center was definitely like icing on the cake. First of all, who wouldn’t want to like to be invited to play the Kennedy Center? Second, for it to be a specific thing that I composed to present was just outstanding.”

Lewis explains that the presentation uses a multimedia approach that starts with the music, but doesn’t end there. “We have 23 musicians, including Dee Alexander doing obligatto vocal parts, something I borrowed from the great Duke Ellington. She never sings a lyric, but throughout at various times, her voice does some major things, that add seasoning and spice to the arrangements. Not only is the music presented on stage, but in the program there are notes, talking about the life of Abraham Lincoln and talking about my connection to him, but more importantly having a paragraph at least to support each movement. So there was a printed page in your lap, there was music coming from on stage, and there are visuals from screens on stage.”

Those visuals consist of designer Michael Coakes’ mixed-media tableau of historic images and photos. And University of Pennsylvania music professor Guthrie P. Ramsey, author of Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip-Hop, worked with Lewis to provide the accompanying written notes for the program. “While neither the printed material nor the visuals competed with the music,” says Lewis, “they enhanced the experience. I think this had to do with the success of the presentation.”

Lewis says he had no problem transposing this 19th century figure into 21st Century music. “The common denominator we shared was the African-American experience through music. Jazz is born out of the blues and the blues is born out of the slave hollers and the spirituals and the music of that time. Jazz to this day is not worth its salt unless it somehow suggests the connection. I played not just in classical music but also played the piano in my church through my teens. And then I started to play jazz in my middle teens. So the blues, gospel and spiritual music and many of the hymns referred to those days-for instance, ‘Wade in the Water’ and other songs that had a double meaning-was probably the common denominator here. The music that was being sung by the slaves in those days permeated the times of Abraham Lincoln, but the music that came out of the music permeates all jazz musicians to this day.”

Lewis didn’t change very much after the piece premiered at Ravinia. “I thought I might cut off a minute or two here or there,” he explains. “It came in a little longer than I expected, but in terms of changing any of the notes, there was nothing changed. Sometimes you go back to the drawing board, but there was no need.”

The process of going from pianist to composer didn’t happen overnight and it didn’t start with this Proclamation of Hope project. Lewis has been the artistic director for Jazz at Ravinia for 15 years and although he had always admired the major works of the orchestras performing there, it took a seemingly offhand suggestion by his “boss” there to get into this game. “About five years ago, Welz Kauffman, who is the president and CEO of Ravinia, asked me to think about doing something with the Joffrey Ballet troupe. It was at lunch and there were ten other people at the table. It was that type of situation where somebody says, ‘Hey you should do this.’ And everybody goes ‘Yeah,’ and then you never hear about it again. That sort of happened. But a month later there was another gathering, and it came up again, ‘How is it coming?’ Welz asked. We looked at each other and said ‘Ah, well…’ We decided that we better have a serious talk.”

Talking is one thing, writing is quite another. Particularly for a jazz pianist challenged to write a major work for a dance company. “I was elated to work with the Joffrey Ballet, of course, but as I started writing about two or three weeks after that, all I could hear was the ballet music of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky. I would write something and my wife Jan would hear me play and she didn’t comment. And when Jan doesn’t comment, that’s a signal in itself. I’d rather her say that ‘That could be a little faster’ or whatever, than no comment at all. This went on for two or three weeks, until finally she said, ‘I feel your pain.’ I said, ‘I just can’t get started. I can’t my find my thing.’ She said, “I’ve seen you a million times sit down at the piano and start playing for no special reason and some pretty good stuff comes out of it.’ I said, ‘Yea, but…’ and she said, ‘Well, why don’t you turn on a tape recorder and sit down and start playing and forget about ballets and see if you can get your creative juices flowing.’ Well, I did that and after a few hours, I listened back and there was a melody there that I thought deserved some attention and I developed it into a song. And she came in from shopping and I was playing this song and she said, ‘Oh, that’s nice, what’s that?’ Not having thought about it, I looked at her and said, ‘To Know Her Is To Love Her.’ That became the name of the ballet: ‘To Know Her.’ Fortunately after working with the tape recorder I must have hit a chord in myself and I didn’t need it any more. Things started coming, I found a direction, I found melodies, I found chords, and I wrote the suite.”

That suite was performed with Joffrey at Ravinia in 2007 and the response was very positive, both from the audience and critics. And Lewis realized that there were other possibilities for him as a composer and musician. “I think what really made a light come on was not only my wife Jan showing me a direction how to find myself in terms of a composer, but also my son Frayne came back stage and he said, ‘Dad, this is the first concert I’ve heard you perform where you didn’t do “In Crowd” or any of your hit records and you still got a standing ovation.’ Well, the Joffrey Ballet was on stage, so I can’t take full credit but it was meaningful for him to say that because since the In Crowd days, I’ve had to play that song every concert, because people would scream, ‘Play the In Crowd.’ Nobody screamed, ‘Play the In Crowd’ there [at Ravinia].”

Lewis took a great deal away from that initial experience of writing a piece for the Joffrey. “The good part is the challenge. You rise to it and you find this part of yourself that you’ve sort of taken for granted and you don’t give it the respect you should.” Nonetheless, it took yet another nudge from Ravinia’s CEO for Lewis to follow up with another compositional work, based in jazz, but going beyond the head and solos format of the genre. Lewis explains: “The following year, Welz said, ‘Well, what are you going to do next?’ I said, ‘I’m going to write a piece for performance with a jazz trio and string quartet.’ So we invited the Turtle Island Quartet. That was an hour’s worth of music. And after that Welz said, ‘You’re on this composer’s kick, do Proclamation of Hope!'”

Lewis then proceeded to compose the work that was premiered at Ravinia and that is coming to the Kennedy Center on November 14. Lewis says the process of writing these large-scale works has informed other aspects of his music. “I’ve found this part of me that I didn’t know was there. [Now] when I am practicing or performing or taking a solo, I look at and hear a little deeper into the harmonies and farther along in the melodies. Because in composition, much of it is like you’re soloing, except I’m not playing it, I’m writing it down and thinking of these notes, but you’re doing it in slow motion. Not only are you doing it in slow-motion, but you get to go back and reconsider. You look a little harder at a chord. Why did I put that note there? I think I’ll take that note out of the chord and put this note in. So it’s made me look a little closer at my harmonic sense. It made me look at little deeper at my melodic lines. My inner being is suggesting to me that I dig a little deeper. And it’s much more fun performing.”

After going through this experience of writing and staging major works for large ensembles, Lewis has come away with even more respect for the work of Duke Ellington as well as the great classical composers. “One can only be amazed at what Ellington did with voicings,” says Lewis. “It makes me appreciate the great composers and how they arrived at their works.” Although Lewis would not rank himself in that pantheon of great composers, he does feel he’s strengthened his own identity. “I feel very comfortable now. I would not allow anybody before with describing me as Ramsey Lewis, pianist/composer. But now I feel comfortable with that hat, sitting right next to the hat that says: Ramsey Lewis, pianist.”

Recently at The Blue Note in Japan, Lewis debuted Colors: The Ecology of Oneness, a special work featuring his trio, but flexing his now considerable compositional muscles. “I wanted to write something as large in scope and concept and presentation, but for the trio,” explains Lewis. “In so doing, taking a page out of Ellington book, I used the instruments to the fullest extent. Whatever the upright bass can do, I asked it to do that, such as playing arco [using the bow]. You don’t often hear a jazz player play long lines with a bow. I asked the same thing of my trap set drummer to be a percussionist. And I challenged myself to play the 88s in their entirety. Utilizing what each instrument is capable of doing, which is not always found in jazz, I found that I’ve come up with various colors that are pleasing to me.”

Tickets for Proclamation of Hope are $20-$65 and can be purchased by visiting or calling the Box Office at (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324, or the Kennedy Center website.

Originally Published