I’ll never forget the first time I began to get a feeling for the gentleman behind Ramsey’s iconic piano playing. It was at the 2010 NEA Jazz Masters 2Awards, where I was working as a student volunteer. I was tasked with greeting the Jazz masters as they arrived for brunch. While everyone was kind and gracious, no one, except for one person, introduced themselves back to me after I introduced myself. He approached me with a big smile on his face, his hand out to shake mine, and in his slow, cool-tempered voice said, “Nice to meet you Joe. I’m Ramsey Lewis.”
Just like everyone being honored that day, he must’ve known that all of us student volunteers knew who he was, but he went that extra mile.
Three years later, I first opened for him at New York’s Blue Note. At the end of my set, Ramsey complimented my playing and gave me his email address. That was the start of a beautiful friendship.
I opened for him a few more times over the next three years. One night, he enthusiastically met with my whole family, praising me to my parents, which meant a lot. I found it amazing that my Dad had introduced me to Ramsey’s music, yet here I was years later introducing my Dad to Ramsey. Ramsey told me he had had a similar experience with his father and Count Basie.
I’d often sit with him in his dressing room during his set breaks, where he’d tell me stories about Oscar Peterson, Count Basie, Buddy Rich, Billy Taylor and more. He was an open book, always ready to talk about whatever was on my mind. While I learned something from nearly everything he shared with me, I never once felt like he was talking down to me. He made me feel very comfortable talking to him, almost like it was just two Oscar Peterson fans on the phone together.
Once I called and asked his advice about talking to the audience on the microphone. At the time, I felt very uncomfortable on the mic. His response: “If you were faking it you’d have something to worry about. But you’re not faking it. You play the f*** out of the piano. So, when you pick up the mic you need to say to yourself, ‘I’m Joe Alterman and I play the f*** out of the piano, motherf*****.’ ”
As our relationship developed and our conversations deepened, I began to see Ramsey not only as a music mentor, but as a life one, too.
I began thinking about moving home to Atlanta in early 2016 but was nervous about leaving New York. While many people told me it would be devastating for my career, Ramsey’s advice brought me home, literally. “It sounds to me that what you’re saying is that you have a lot of people down in Atlanta who make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Some people spend their whole lives looking for that, and never find it. And some people don’t find it until they’re 50. You’re lucky to have found it at 27. We only go though this one time. Life’s too short. My advice to you: Get on that plane tonight! And don’t worry about not being in New York. You play your ass off—the word will get out. I hope next time we talk you say ‘I’m moving’.”
A few days after that Paul McCartney showed up at one of my gigs, which I took as a sign that I shouldn’t move home. I shared that feeling with Ramsey, who put things in perspective for me. “Imagine that Paul McCartney comes to every one of your gigs,” he told me. “It wouldn’t be so exciting after a while.” I moved home two months later.
I once asked him if he ever got nervous before a concert. “It’s not nerves,” he corrected me. “It’s professional anticipation.” I loved that.
One of the most profound things he ever told me was an off-the-cuff comment: “Music is man’s contribution to nature. Like nature contributes to flowers to help the landscape, man contributes music to help our daily life.”
Ramsey always answered the phone with the same greeting: “Joe Alterman! The people’s choice!” Our conversations always ended with me feeling better than when we began. I’ll miss those.