Some jazz aficionados might characterize pianist Ramsey Lewis' music as a gateway into more serious jazz, as if popular Lewis albums like The In Crowd (Verve, 1965) were meant to lead novice listeners to saxophonist Ornette Coleman
's The Shape of Jazz to Come(Atlantic, 1959). But Lewis' commercial successes should not be viewed as a liability to his legacy in jazz history. Just as Coleman did, Lewis has done what only a few great musicians of his generation have done: he's carved out his own singular voice, innovating and adapting that voice over time, and has done so consistently for over half a century.
Lewis had major crossover hits with his exuberant interpretations of 1960s popular music like "Wade in the Water," "The 'In' Crowd," and "Hang On Sloopy," and, with the 1974 Earth, Wind & Fire
collaboration, Sun Goddess (Columbia), topped three charts simultaneously (no. 1 R&B, no. 1 jazz, and no. 12 pop). In the meantime, he has released over seventy albums (seventeen of which preceded his first hit single), always keeping his elegant and thoughtful acoustic piano at the heart of his music. He is currently touring with a quintet to support his album Ramsey: Taking Another Look (Hidden Beach, 2011), which explores both his acoustic and electric approaches to making music.
Lewis' music is a destination in itself. His music offers the opportunity to connect with something universal, joyful and profoundly human. If the smile that he flashed repeatedly during his performance at the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts on October 20, 2012 is any indication, Ramsey Lewis has never had difficulty with that.
All About Jazz: How are you?
Ramsey Lewis: Life is good.
AAJ: Most people know you best for The In Crowd and "Wade in the Water," but I didn't realize that you had been recording for almost 10 years before that.
RL: I started recording in the middle '50s. Back in those days it was customary to do two albums a year, and when they put out a Best of and a couple of compilations, by the time I had done The In Crowd, that was my 16th or 17th album.
AAJ: You were popular before that, but The In Crowd was your first gold record and really brought in a wider audience for you...
and I were fairly happy and comfortable with the way we were progressing. Because each year we sold a few more records and each year we drew a few more people. And we thought, "Ah, we got something pretty good going here." And it was time to do another record and we put a song on there called "The 'In' Crowd," and here we are.
AAJ: You guys go even further back to high school; you were in a band in high school called the Cleffs, correct?
RL: Yeah, well, we were in different high schools. Eldee and Red were in a high school called Crane High School, I went to Wells High School. They're both on the West Side of Chicago. [Pianist] Wallace Burton, the leader, he was in college. Half the group was in high school and half of them were in college. And we played mostly weekends on Friday nights, Saturday nights for dances and whatever. I guess you'd call it a jobbing band.
AAJ: Is that when you began an orientation towards popular music, because you had to connect with people in a social environment?
RL: Well, Wallace Burton liked all kinds of music, not unlike me, and he was four years older than I am. He liked gospel, R&B, jazz; if it was good music he liked it. Consequently, in the dance band we played all kinds of music. But, being a jobbing band, we not only played for dances, we played at nightclubs, bars, social functions, what have you.
AAJ: What strikes me about your music over the long term is that you've had great rhythmic support with Red Holt and Eldee Young, and bassist Cleveland ("Cleve") Eaton
, Wallace Burton called me, I was chosen by them. And so I got spoiled playing with a great rhythm section. When it came time for the Cleffs to break up-the Korean War broke the Cleffs up, and later after that, Red, he was drafted-it became time for me to put together a trio.
I had heard Cleveland Eaton play bass and I knew he was dynamite, and I had heard Maurice White playing drums at our...not my recording studio...but the Chess Family owned a company called Chess Producing, and they had a house band, a production band, and Maurice White was in that band. I heard him play with jazz artists; he played with [saxophonists] Sonny Stitt
, and I just liked the fact that he was just so all over the place, but great. He could really play all those genres differently and very, very well. When it came time that I needed a drummer, I asked him if he could come and he said he would, so I ended up with a wonderful trio. And you're right, I've been so fortunate in having really great rhythm sections. And that makes it easier for me.