CHICAGO (CBS) –Jazz was in Ramsey Lewis’ DNA – he played it, composed it, taught it – and for more than six decades, he shared his love affair with jazz with his hometown Chicago and with the world.
Lewis passed away peacefully in his sleep on Monday at the age of 87, his manager said. As CBS 2’s Steven Graves reported, Lewis worked right up until his death.
Lewis was a three-time Grammy winner, and NEA Jazz Master. His 1965 hit “The In Crowd” was an international pop crossover hit.
His manager added that Lewis became very reflective over the past few days on his life well-lived.
Lewis was born in Chicago on May 27, 1935 and grew up in the Cabrini Green housing project. He started taking piano lessons at a young age and played at church, where his father was choir director. His father, Lewis Sr., was a big jazz fan, always playing Duke Ellington and Art Tatum at home and took Ramsey to jazz shows.
The name Ramsey Lewis brings nothing but joy to Alvin Carter-Bey. He considered the music legend a big brother.
“A real, real great guy – a real honestly good guy,” said Carter-Bey.
Carter-Bey, a Chicago disc jockey at WDCB 90.9 FM, remembers growing up with Lewis in Cabrini-Green. The earliest memories date back to church, where Lewis played piano.
“And we just thought he was just phenomenal,” said Carter-Bey. “He was just an amazing piano player.”
Lewis started playing at 4 years old.
“Never to think that he would be such as he is, or he was, now,” Carter-Bey said.
With more than 80 albums recorded – and performances with other music legends like Aretha Franklin, Tony Bennett, and Al Jarreau, Lewis worked hard.
Lewis went to Wells High School and it’s where saxophonist Wallace Burton asked him to join his band, the Clefs, a band that performed jazz and R&B. The draft for the Korean War claimed several band members, but three who didn’t get drafted: Lewis, bassist Eldee Young, and drummer Redd Holt, formed the Ramsey Lewis Trio in 1953.
In 1956, their first album, “Ramsey Lewis and His Gentlemen of Jazz” was released on the Chess label and shortly afterwards, Lewis performed with his trio at Birdland in New York. That three-week stint led to performances at the Newport Jazz Festival and the Village Vanguard.
The trio also recorded with jazz icons Max Roach, Clark Terry and Sonny Stitt.
Lewis broke through in 1965 with the crossover hit, “The In Crowd.” The Grammy-winning song (performed originally as a vocal number by Dobie Gray) was followed by “Hang on Sloopy” and “Wade in the Water.”
The original Ramsey Lewis Trio broke up in 1966, but reunited in 1982 for a series of concerts at the old George’s Supper Club in River North — resulting in the live album “Reunion” the following year.
The pianist’s 1974 album “Sun Goddess” and title track were produced by Earth, Wind and Fire’s Maurice White and featured members of EWF featuring members of Earth, Wind & Fire. It illustrated Lewis’ appeal into fusion and R&B.
According to Lewis’ family, his many honors included five honorary doctorate degrees and an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Jazz Artist. The single “The In Crowd” single was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and personal artifacts are at the Smithsonian Institution. Lewis received a 2007 National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Jazz Master Award, placing him in the company of piano legends including Ahmad Jamal, Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, Dr. Billy Taylor and Cecil Taylor.
Lewis’ name has remained relevant all along, with past performances at venues such as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Lewis also served for 25 years as artistic director of jazz at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park. In June, Ravinia hosted “Legends of Jazz: Honoring Ramsey Lewis” with a number of jazz notables including Kurt Elling, Marquis Hill and Lizz Wright.
The jazz composer also hosted the weekly “Legends of Jazz” program on WDCB, heard Sunday afternoons. Lewis spent the last year working on his memoir “Gentleman of Jazz” with co-writer Aaron Cohen. The book is set to be released in 2023.
Lewis also hosted “The Ramsey Lewis Morning Show” on the old smooth jazz station WNUA-FM 95.5.
Rick O’Dell said he had the pleasure of working on radio shows with Lewis at WNUA.
“He stripped classical and jazz of its pretense, and he made it simple for us to sit back, listen to it – as he played both jazz and classical,” O’Dell said.
Lewis’ vast musical knowledge was shared up until his late years. He live-streamed Facebook sessions called “Between the Keys” – his latest one in January.
Carter-Bey still plays his favorite instrumental by the music legend – called “Slipping Into Darkness” – around his home.
“He just put a lot of mind into it, you know, just kept you just moving,” Carter-Bey said, “patting your feet, slapping your thighs – something real nice – popping your fingers, and shaking your head.”
And Lewis’ legacy on this earth lives on.
Lewis is survived by his wife Janet Lewis; daughters Denise Jeffries and Dawn Allain (Michael); sons Kendall Kelly Lewis, Frayne Lewis (Julletta), and Bobby Lewis (Crystal); grandchildren Apryl Daniels (Dennis), Regan Lewis, Kris Jeffries (Nailah), Joshua Allain, Junell Lewis, Malachi Lewis, Aja Alain, Jordan Lewis, Ramsey Lewis IV, Dorien Olson-Lewis, Miyoshie Lewis, Meshach Lewis, Taylor Lewis, Kevai Lewis, Frayne Lewis Jr., Niya Lewis, and Asia Lewis; great-grandchildren Jalen Simmons, Dennis Daniels III, Omari Jackson; nieces Paula Jackson and Kimberly Johnson; and nephew James Johnson. He was predeceased by his sons Ramsey Lewis III and Kevyn Lewis.
On Lewis’ Facebook page, his wife posted this quote:
“Ramsey’s passion for music was truly fueled by the love and dedication of his fans across the globe. He loved touring and meeting music lovers from so many cultures and walks of life. It was our family’s great pleasure to share Ramsey in this special way with all those who admired his God-given talents. We are forever grateful for your support.”
Ravinia released this statement:
“Ravinia Festival mourns the tremendous loss of jazz legend Ramsey Lewis, who served as Artistic Director of Jazz at Ravinia for 25 years. He championed music education by founding both the Ravinia Jazz Mentors & Scholars and Ravinia Steans Music Institute jazz residency, served as Trustee from 2003 until 2011 when he was named a Life Trustee. His prolific career in jazz culminated with writing and performing his Concerto for Jazz Trio with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for his 80th birthday. This loss will be deeply felt by everyone he worked with.”
In lieu of flowers, please make donations to The Jazz Foundation of America at www.jazzfoundation.org