Ramsey Lewis made popular music. In jazz, that was a problem. — Andscape

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Earlier this week, I received a question from one of my editors asking if I wanted to write about Ramsey Lewis, the popular jazz pianist who died Monday at age 87. The note, coupled with Lewis’s death, sparked a multitude of thoughts and emotions. on life and legacy. Truth be told, I’m not sure I ever really enjoyed Lewis and was probably guilty of unfairly dismissing him as a “commercial” jazz artist.

The bigger truth is that Lewis was a giant in his own right, in and out of “The Music.” He was committed to pursuing a wider audience, and over a career that spanned six decades, Lewis chose to stay in the slick jazz, soul and funk jazz route. On the surface, it belonged to a genre of jazz that a friend of mine derisively called “lounge music”.

But he was much more than that. What I hadn’t always appreciated was how Lewis, a fellow Chicagoan, touched so many lives, launched so many careers, and mentored so many people in his lifetime.

In an email message earlier this week, Steve Wilson, the great alto saxophonist and composer, said of Lewis: “Ramsey was a great pianist and he knew the line of masters.

“He was one of the pioneers of what is called soul-jazz. He represented the Chicago aesthetic, which encompasses all subgenres of black music as a whole; less elitist than the NY aesthetic. Nothing but respect and a major contributor to black music.

I was introduced to Lewis’s music in 1965 during my sophomore year at Harlan High School in Chicago. That year he released his live recording of a hip-swing instrumental version of Dobie Gray’s R&B hit. Ramsey’s “‘In’ Crowd” won him a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, the first of three Grammys he has won. He would have two more hit singles – “Wade In The Water” and “Sun Goddess”.

“The ‘In’ Crowd”, for many of my peers at the time, was jazz. We were oblivious to a larger world of improvisation. The song illustrated the chasm between critical and popular acceptance in jazz. For many so-called jazz purists — and I confess to being one of them — commercial success means selling yourself. It’s the question how-can-you-sing-the-blues-in-an-air-conditioned-room.

Debates over commercialism have been central to jazz’s existence for decades. Can art and commercial success coexist? In 1950, the year I was born, legendary alto saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker released two albums titled Charlie Parker with ropes. Bird sought out the proverbial Wider Audience and these albums became his two most commercially successful albums during his lifetime. Nevertheless, it was criticized for selling out.

Four years before Lewis recorded “‘In’ Crowd”, the great John Coltrane recorded an album titled my favorite thingswhich included the Rodgers and Hammerstein song from The sound of music. ‘Trane’s version of “My Favorite Things” became a hit single. But this time, as CO Simpkins writes in Coltrane, a biographyit was Coltrane, not the critics, who feared that commercial success would compel him to make follow-up efforts: “Our Favorite Things”, “Your Favorite Things”, “Son of My Favorite Things”, “My Favorite Things Parts II”. and III.

Left to right: Ramsey Lewis with his sons Bobby and Frayne in their Chicago home in 1974.

Muhammad Ozier

Coltrane also achieved commercial success in 1963 with his album, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. The album was elected to the Grammy Hall of Fame. But despite these commercial successes, ‘Trane continued to explore and push the boundaries. Lewis, on the other hand, more or less chose to stay put.

Yet popularity does not necessarily equate to receiving credit, in Lewis’s case, for being a terrific pianist. In the perverted world of jazz, where struggle and untimely death are worshiped, often the greater the popularity, the less the credit.

By the time I left for college in 1968, I had — in my mind — passed Ramsey Lewis. My older sister, whose boyfriend was an aspiring jazz musician and classmate of saxophonist Chico Freeman at Northwestern University, led me to more keyboard artists. I could name a dozen pianists who I found more compelling than Lewis, including Cecil Taylor, Ahmad Jamal, Hank Jones, Muhal Richard Abrams, Andrew Hill, and possibly Geri Allen and Amina Claudine Myers.

What I didn’t really appreciate at the time was that Lewis had deep roots in music and he could play with any of them. He could play indoors, he could play outdoors, he could play with a symphony orchestra. He simply chose not to. Soul jazz was his path and he chose to stay there.

Lewis made his first album in 1956.The “in” crowd was his 17e album,” said Mark Ruffin, a veteran producer and program director at Sirius XM Real Jazz. “If you listen to the albums before that, you hear him play bop, you hear him play swing. You hear the influence of Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson. Ramsey tried his best and became the best pianist possible. And you can’t deny his style. If you listen to those 17 albums before he got a hit, I think you might appreciate him a little more.

Ruffin, 65, is a fellow Chicagoan and had known Lewis for more than 40 years. Ruffin got emotional discussing Lewis. It wasn’t about the music or the commercialism, it was about the man. Ruffin’s father died when Ruffin was 24. Lewis became like a second father and helped change the trajectory of Ruffin’s life.

He met Lewis on a plane in 1980, while producing a jazz show at the College of DuPage in suburban Chicago. Ruffin introduced himself and gave Lewis his card. Lewis called him a month later. “Years later he said to me, ‘You follow every lead. Someone calls you, you answer. said Ruffin. They reconnected years later when Ruffin produced a weekly jazz show with broadcaster Yvonne Daniels called Jazz, Ramsey and Yvonne. “That’s when I really met him,” Ruffin said. “After Daniels died, the show became the Ramsey Lewis Show and it lasted eight years.

For Ruffin, the life and legacy of Ramsey Lewis was about more than music, more than hits. “He gave opportunities to musicians all the time,” Ruffin said. “If you look at the list of musicians from Chicago who played with him, it was amazing. And the same with me and other people. He was always free and open. And if you had the goods, he tried to get you to help.

Whatever the critics felt, the other musicians respected Lewis. This became clear to Ruffin as they worked on the radio show together. “When I started producing his show and we started having Max [Roach] come in and Eddie Harris and Freddie Hubbard,” Ruffin recalled. “He got so much respect from them. Again, the purists and all that – it got to him. Now, I think he might have felt different if Max hadn’t liked him, if Eddie Harris hadn’t liked him, but they loved him, man, and I saw it first hand. These kind of people validated it long ago before the purists.

Lewis taught Ruffin a lesson about being true to yourself and ignoring criticism. “It’s something he taught me: ‘Don’t worry about what people think. Do you. Do your best and keep the quality high and let those other things overwhelm you. I think he was keen on featuring high quality music all the time in his presentation. He cared about entertaining a crowd. Ram didn’t hesitate to play “The ‘In’ Crowd” every night. He tried to find the limited harmonic qualities and he tried to change them, but he didn’t mind. He liked to play. »

Before ending our conversation, I asked Ruffin about Lewis’s legacy. How did he think his mentor would be remembered?

“As far as the purists on this side of the world go, I don’t know what his legacy will be,” he said. “For someone who isn’t keen, he was just a sellout. And so it could be part of his legacy. But if these people dig, they will find a very good pianist who only wanted to improve on the piano.

He added that a lesson from Lewis that resonates is “It’s all about being the best person you can be, being generous and getting better at what you do.”

To me, that’s more than an appreciation of Ramsey Lewis. This is a long overdue recognition.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning New York Times sports columnist and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer for Andscape.

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