Ramsey Lewis, jazz pianist who revitalized style, dies at 87


Relying on which music pundit you ask, jazz “died” when its Twenties heyday ended. Others imagine jazz music misplaced its luster when the Sixties – and rock music – rolled round.

However Ramsey Lewis, an ingenious jazz pianist and one of many nation’s most revered artists within the style, continued to seek out novel methods to maintain the style alive and evolving and, crucially, develop new generations of jazz listeners.

Lewis spent almost 60 years recording and performing authentic jazz music, putting gold in 1965 with the crossover hit “The ‘In’ Crowd.” He received three Grammys, scored seven gold information and in 2007 was named a Nationwide Endowment of the Arts Jazz Grasp, the best honor bestowed upon jazz musicians within the US.

Lewis died Monday at his residence in his native Chicago, his supervisor Brett Steele confirmed. He was 87.

A lifelong Chicagoan, Lewis grew up within the Cabrini-Inexperienced housing challenge within the metropolis’s Close to North Facet. Although he performed piano all through his childhood, his publicity to jazz got here solely at residence, when his father would play information from Duke Ellington and Artwork Tatum (certainly one of Lewis’ all-time favourite artists). He didn’t try to be taught to play jazz himself till one other musician at his church approached him to begin a band when he was 15, in line with the Nationwide Endowment for the Arts’ biography of Lewis.

After honing his jazz piano expertise with that band, the Clefs, he shaped the Ramsey Lewis Trio with bassist Eddie Younger and Redd Holt on percussion, per his web site. Their debut album was launched in 1956, but it surely wasn’t till nearly 10 years later that they turned nationwide stars: The trio’s instrumental cowl of “The ‘In’ Crowd” turned a success upon its 1965 launch and received Lewis his first of three Grammys.

The mid-Sixties additionally noticed the discharge of crossover hits like “Hang on Sloopy” and “Wade in the Water,” two songs that resonated with listeners from all backgrounds, not simply jazz aficionados.

The trio’s line-up shuffled through the years – different members included Maurice White on drums (he finally departed the trio to begin Earth, Wind & Hearth however returned to supply Lewis’ 1974 album “Sun Goddess”). Lewis collaborated with different artists in his style, too, together with the late jazz vocalist Nancy Wilson on a number of albums, together with 1984’s “The Two of Us.”

Lewis melded the gospel music and blues he’d grown up taking part in with the jazz his father beloved and the favored sounds of the time to create what turned up to date jazz music. His jazz compositions had funk and soul (a method he perfected on “Sun Goddess” and showcased on packages like “Soul Train”), although he may play classical compositions with ease and panache, too (he as soon as counted Bach as certainly one of his favourite sources of “brain food”).

Lewis had a prolific output, releasing two to a few albums a 12 months for a number of years after the success of “The ‘In’ Crowd.” In all, he recorded greater than 80 albums, together with final 12 months’s “Maha de Carnaval.”

He retired in suits and begins. In 2018, he advised Chicago station WGN that he took off a number of days in a row from performing and training piano and rapidly turned bored. In 2019, he opened the Chicago-based Ravinia Pageant and advised the Chicago Tribune that 12 months that he was “90-some percent retired” – he’d nonetheless carry out domestically, however he was totally retired from touring throughout the US.

When he wasn’t performing, Lewis was nonetheless introducing listeners to new artists and replaying previous favorites: He hosted a number of jazz packages on public radio and TV stations in Chicago all through his life.

He was additionally a terrific proponent of arts schooling and uplifting musically gifted younger individuals. He based the Ramsey Lewis Basis in 2005, which introduced music packages to at-risk youth. He recalled his personal foundational arts schooling at his Chicago public faculty, which he stated provided varied bands and musical electives. He lamented the defunding of public faculty arts lessons.

“When they knocked that out of the public school system, we lost a lot of kids who could probably have contributed to the scene as we know it,” he advised WGN.

Music was oxygen to Lewis; he couldn’t give up composing authentic songs even after he “retired.” Within the 2018 interview with WGN, he shared that he was nonetheless tinkering with a music he began writing 15 years earlier. He spent a lot of his time at residence at his beloved Steinway piano, which he stated he purchased in 1962. An everlasting scholar desirous to sharpen his expertise, he listened to all the pieces, throughout genres, that may match on his iPod.

When requested in 2009 what he thought-about the best album ever, he replied, “There is no such animal.”

“What feels satisfying to me today might not tomorrow or next week,” he advised Pop Issues in 2009. “The best album I ever heard was the one I just listened to, unless I’m spending time researching other cultures or auditioning new music/artists. So then … you never know!”

Lewis was remembered by his pals and admirers for his revolutionary type and inquisitive spirit. The Rev. Jesse Jackson recalled residing close to Lewis for greater than 40 years, watching their kids develop up collectively.

“Ramsey had exquisite taste and was formally trained and disciplined,” Jackson tweeted. “I will miss him as a friend and a neighbor.”

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said town of Chicago was grateful to have Lewis as a “native son.” Based mostly on his lifetime of taking part in in his beloved Chicago, he felt the identical pleasure representing his metropolis. As he put it succinctly in a 2011 interview: “Chicago is home.”

Lewis is survived by his spouse and 5 of his kids.