Few Musicians Have Won a Wider Audience for Jazz

CHICAGO — For more than half a century in the much-buffeted business of jazz, Ramsey Lewis has become known, like “Sloopy” in one of his hit recordings, for hanging on. “My son Frayne (a bassist and record producer) says I’m in my third coming,” he notes. “What’s strange is that, to this day, I’ve never planned a future. It just seems that things or people have come along and opportunities have opened for me. I saw that Oprah said she prays for favorable circumstances but not for specifics, because the Lord might have something even better in mind for you than you had for yourself. I believe that.”

The living room of Ramsey Lewis’ apartment is divided into two seating areas with a sort of pivot point in the middle. In one area, a world map hangs over a sofa, testimony to his and his wife, Jan’s, love of travel. In the other, a cabinet dominates, with, on one recent afternoon, the music of film composer Lalo Schifrin (“Bullitt,” “Mission Impossible”) flowing from the audio equipment inside. On the top shelf, each lit by its own separate mini-spotlight, are three Grammys awarded the jazz pianist, composer, radio and TV host: one from 1965 for “The In Crowd,” one from 1967 for “Hold It Right There” and one from 1973 for “Hang On Sloopy.” Those three cuts are but a fraction of the tunes on the staggering 80 albums Lewis has produced, seven of which have gone gold.

Between the two areas is a space occupied by an impeccably polished Steinway grand piano. “It’s a model that’s not made anymore,” he says. “I bought it in 1962 or `63 and had it totally redone a few years ago so it feels again like it felt when I loved it.”

On this particular afternoon, Lewis sits at the piano having his picture taken. He wasn’t facing the keyboard, but the fingers of one hand — long, tapered fingers like black candles — absently traced out notes, vague wisps of “My One and Only Love” and “If I Only Had a Brain.”

Casually dressed in black save for a pair of silver slippers, Lewis, at 71, has retained his slim profile and the mannerliness of another era.

On March 3, the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois will designate him an Illinois “Legendary Landmark.” Last month in New York, he was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, the nation’s highest jazz award. Accompanied by a cash prize of $25,000, the honor caps a long career at times acclaimed by critics and, at other times, marked by their scorn even as album sales soared.

The long road to the Steinway and all it stands for began on Evans Avenue on Chicago’s South Side and later tracked north to the Cabrini housing project, the low-rise predecessor to Cabrini-Green. Though certainly not people of means, his parents, Ramsey E. Lewis Sr., a church musician who had moved here from Georgia, and Pauline Richards Lewis, believed in a rounded education for their three children. They planned to have Ramsey’s older sister, Lucille, take classical piano lessons.

But Ramsey threw a first-class, 4-year-old’s fit, rolling on the floor, kicking the wall. Although he now says he wasn’t clear as to what his sister would be getting — just that she was getting something he wasn’t — the only lessons the family could afford then became his.

“Then I found out I was expected to practice,” he says. “It became a chore. I didn’t love it.” But his parents said something along the lines of, “You made that bed, lie in it,” so little Ramsey gritted his teeth and kept his fingers to the keyboard.

Then Dorothy Mendelsohn came into his life. Lewis was 11, and his neighborhood teacher felt she had taken him as far as she could and recommended the Chicago Musical College. His parents randomly picked a member of the faculty, Mendelsohn, and that chance act made all the difference.

“She struck something in me that made playing come alive,” Lewis says. “`You have natural technique,’ she told me, and I felt pretty good about that. `But,’ she said, `that’s just the beginning. Now you’ve got to make music.’ Well, I thought I was doing that, but she said, `No, you’ve just been acquiring the tools to make music. It’s time to make the piano sing.’

“That set some kind of fire in me, and I began to practice three, four, five hours each day, lost in the music. My parents would have to remind me to go to bed.”

Chopin and Mozart flowed through his fingers; then, later, the sound of gospel joined the flow when Ramsey Sr. asked him to play at Sunday service and accompany the gospel choir.

Blues then entered the scene. It came in the person of another church musician, Wallace Burton. Outside his duties with the church’s choir, Burton had a jazz septet, the Clefs, made up of college students. Even though Lewis was a mere freshman at Wells High School on Ashland Avenue, Burton asked him to fill a vacancy they had for a piano player.

Portrait of jazz legend Ramsey Lewis, taken in Chicago,
Illinois, Thursday, January 4, 2007.
(Alex Garcia/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

“He asked if I knew any Charlie Parker stuff. No. He asked if I knew standards like `Out of Nowhere’ or `Exactly Like You.’ No. He said that it would be OK; we’d play blues in B-flat. I remembered a record my father had of Meade “Lux” Lewis’ `Boogie and Blues.’ I thought, `I can do that.'”

And, after a somewhat rocky start, he did, adroitly swinging at the piano and, between sets, doing his homework.

Other people appeared with opportunities. Famed Chicago disc jockey Daddy-O Daylie introduced him to the Chess brothers, Leonard and Phil, Polish immigrants and owners of Chess Records on South Michigan Avenue. That’s where, in 1956, the Clefs, now down a trio consisting of Lewis, drummer Red Holt and bassist Eldee Young, thanks to the Korean War, made their first album, “The Gentlemen of Swing.”

When people would say, “I know that was you on piano” in one or another recording, Lewis would wonder how they could tell. Legendary bop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie explained it at a jazz fest in Hawaii. In debating with other musicians backstage about fusion music and the labeling of jazz, Gillespie said, “Take Ramsey there, he’s got gospel and classical and jazz all mixed up together.”

“I realized then,” Lewis says, “that that’s what made my sound distinctive.”

Later still, another course-changing person, African-American broadcast pioneer Yvonne Daniels, brought him into radio; and, until her death in 1991, co-hosted a show with him called “Jazz, Ramsey, and Yvonne.”

Since then his media presence has expanded greatly. On Sundays on WNUA-FM, there’s his “Legends of Jazz” radio show (7 to 9 a.m. and repeated from 10 to 12 at night). That’s where he plays the giants, performers who need go only by “Duke” or “Count” or “Bird” or “Ella.” That show is syndicated nationally (and to London) and reaches 5 million listeners, according to Lewis, though he’s heard estimates of up to 8 million.

On his “Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis” television show on PBS, performers appear in twos and threes. One show, for instance, teamed the understated elegance of veteran guitarist Jim Hall with guitarist Pat Metheny, who combines jazz, rock, folk and electronic sounds. The show is renewed for 2007 and will go from a half-hour to an hour format.

“With such interesting people coming on, it seemed natural to give them more time to play and talk,” he says. “Imagine if there had been such a show when the founders of jazz had been around. To record that would have been such a treasure.”

Each weekday morning, Clear Channel — owner of WNUA — sends a car to drive him a handful of blocks to do his 5 to 9 a.m. smooth-jazz broadcast, “The Ramsey Lewis Show,” co-hosted since 1997 by radio personality Karen Williams. The show is syndicated nationally to about 25 stations at the moment, with 100 as the goal for the year and 200 for 2008. Lewis recently signed a five-year extension of his contract as host.

Another chance meeting was with Janet Tamillow, now Jan Lewis, whom he met when on tour in Denver.

“I was a college student days and a cocktail waitress at night in the lounge of a hotel he was staying in,” she says. “It was fate that we met. I never worked day shifts but was filling in for another waitress who was on vacation. This was the `70s, and I was wearing a sort of bunny costume with fishnet stockings and a feather in my hair. It was 11 in the morning, and I felt ridiculous.

“He was waiting for a cab and saw me when I went to get the bartender some coffee. He came in and sat at the far end of the bar. The place was empty. I said, `Would you like a drink?’ and he said, `No.’ He got up and said, `Maybe I’ll come back later.’ I remember thinking, `I hope you do.’ He had such a strong presence about him.

“He did come back and invited me to his show that night. I didn’t really know anything about him, but the bartender told me to ask him to play “Hang On Sloopy.” She asked. He assumed she was a fan. They kept in touch, and, in 1990, after she moved to Chicago and he was divorced, they married.

“I think that staying in Chicago rather than going to New York or Los Angeles has allowed him to keep his unique sound,” she says.

Jan handles his financial life. “I was good at budgets and things like that,” she says, “and Ramsey’s strength isn’t there.”

If the popular view of a jazz musician is late nights in smoky dives, Lewis is a totally other breed of cat.

He’s a family guy, with seven children, 13 grandchildren and a great-grandchild tracing back to a previous marriage. At Christmas, most of his family gathered at the home of his younger sister, Gloria Johnson, music minister of the James Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church, where his older sister, Lucille Jackson (who lost out on the piano lessons), is co-pastor. They sang carols — with Lewis at the piano — and those who couldn’t be there joined in on the phone.

Although he’s been playing for more than 65 years, Lewis took a series of lessons from Eloise Niwa of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra just a few years ago. He continues to use her exercises to touch up nuances of his technique, and he practices as much as his busy schedule will allow. Depending on what the day holds, it could be as little as a half-hour or as much as six.

“When he practices,” Jan says, “he’s just in heaven. It’s a joy to listen to, even if it’s just scales.”

Ramsey Lewis tapes his morning radio program, The Legends
of Jazz, a nationally syndicated radio show in which Ramsey
is the host at the WNUA Studio in Chicago, Illinois, Tuesday,
January 2, 2007. (Heather Stone/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

Lewis performs well beyond the piano. He lends time to many cultural and educational institutions and serves as artistic director of the Jazz in June series at the Ravinia festival. This June, the Joffrey Ballet company will premiere a dance suite choreographed by Tony-nominated Donald Byrd and set to music that Lewis is writing.

He also works with the Merit Music Program, which provides free music lessons to youth; Cycle, an inner-city self-help high school program; and the Ravinia Mentor Program. His Ramsey Lewis Foundation teaches the basics of music to at-risk youngsters. In 2002, he carried the Olympic torch on its route through Chicago. He has played at a fundraiser for then-State Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and at a state dinner for the president of Brazil at the White House.

Despite his accomplishments and awards, some jazz purists see his career, both in performance and in his morning show, as tainted by wading in the tepid waters of commercial, smooth, easy-listening music.

Chicago Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich (see his accompanying appraisal of Lewis’ career) evaluated the 1975 gold record, “Sun Goddess,” as “perilously close to the sound, texture and intellectual weight of Muzak.”

In 1999, however, Reich, at a jazz festival in Havana, noted: “Listeners accustomed to hearing Lewis playing in an electric quintet or in uncounted trio reunion dates would have been pleasantly surprised by the man’s digital virtuosity and lyric eloquence on acoustic piano.”

Lewis himself seems unconcerned about reconciling his “commercial” and “artistic” sides. He never has put much stock in labels — “It’s all about the music, stupid,” he says without a trace of either defensiveness or anger.

About the closest he has come to any admission of a lapse was in a Tribune profile a decade ago. “It’s just unfortunate,” he said then. “I got kind of shoved over on that (light) side. And I allowed it.”

These days, Lewis talks about the smooth jazz he plays on radio as possibly a stepping stone for listeners to move to other, more challenging forms of jazz. Years ago, he tried to inject more substantial performers into the show but was thwarted by station management. That changed last year when a Clear Channel regional vice president assumed oversight of programming. “Thank God,” Lewis says, “for Darren Davis.”

Now, with management approval, he’s mixing the smooth performers with tracks from more traditional artists, such as pianists Bud Powell and Oscar Peterson and vocalist Nancy Wilson. “They aren’t smooth jazz,” he says, but they may give smooth-jazz fans a chance to appreciate the players who laid down the tradition.

“The marketplace system in the U.S. is the best in the world. It’s supported by advertising and advertisers want quick success — how much can you sell how fast. They want to cater to a youth market. There does seem to be a lot of dessert in this country, a lot of ear candy. Sometimes the mind needs some meat and potatoes.”

At this stage in his life, he seems to be stretching out — and back — to realize that “third coming” his son talked about. He did a gospel album (“With One Voice”) in 2005, another in 1999 (“Appassionata”) with some classical pieces, and a solo piano CD, his first, will come out in late spring.

As he sees it, it’s not so much the marketplace that’s to blame for the decline in jazz programming, both on the air and in person, as it is society and jazz musicians themselves.

“When music was taken out of the public schools, that was a big downfall. Not that everyone is going to be an Ellington or a Gershwin, but you want educated consumers. There are courses in jazz at colleges, thousands of musicians coming out, but nowhere to fine-tune their art. You have to play before audiences to learn how to relate, how to find your voice. We had neighborhood bars in which to craft our skills. I called Starbucks to suggest they put live jazz in their shops. They said they’d think about it.

“Musicians need to take some blame, too, for failing to relate to their audiences. I remember Dizz (Gillespie) saying to me, `Seems people aren’t dancing as much as they used to.’ That’s part of the problem.

“Used to be a date would be dinner and dancing to some jazz band. Maybe the guy would go for the music and she’d be there for the dancing, but then she’d get into the music as well. As time went on, the musicians didn’t want to play the dance halls anymore. They wanted to play Carnegie Hall. Can’t blame them, really, but you can’t dance at Carnegie Hall.”

He stops to laugh at himself. “You can’t rant against evolution,” he says, “but, way back when, Mercer Ellington wrote a tune called `Things Ain’t the Way They Used to Be.’ Right on!”

Has he ever considered any career other than music?

“Well, I’d watch Michael Jordan play and I’d think, ‘I’ll do that in the next life.’ But for now, just put me at a piano and I’m happy.”