Ramsey Lewis made popular music. In jazz, that was a problem.
Despite the critics, he was a great musician and a great man
Earlier this week I received a query 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’ death, dredged up a multitude of thoughts and emotions about life and legacy. Truth be told, I’m not sure I ever truly appreciated Lewis and was probably guilty of unfairly dismissing him as a “commercial” jazz artist.
The larger truth is that Lewis was a giant in his own right, in and out of “The Music.” He made a commitment to pursue a wider audience and, during a career that spanned six decades, Lewis elected to stay in the lane of smooth jazz, soul and funk jazz. On the surface, he 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 during his life.
In an email message earlier this week, Steve Wilson, the great alto saxophonist and composer, said of Lewis: “Ramsey was a great piano player and he was versed in the lineage of the masters.
“He was one of the pioneers of what we call soul-jazz. He represented the Chicago aesthetic, which embraces all subgenres of black music as a whole; less elitist than the NY aesthetic. Nothing but respect and an important contributor to black music.”
I was introduced to Lewis’ music in 1965 during my sophomore year at Harlan High School in Chicago. That year, he released his live recording of a hip, swinging instrumental version of Dobie Gray’s R&B hit. Ramsey’s “ ‘In’ Crowd” earned him a Grammy award for best instrumental jazz performance, the first of three Grammys he won. He would have two other other 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 purists in jazz — and I admit to being one of them — commercial success equals selling out. It’s the how-can-you-sing-blues-in-an-air-conditioned-room question.
Debates about commercialism have been at the center of jazz’s existence for decades. Can artistry and commercial success coexist? In 1950, the year I was born, legendary alto saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker released two albums titled Charlie Parker with Strings. Bird was looking for the proverbial Wider Audience and those albums became his two most commercially successful albums during his lifetime. Nevertheless, he was criticized for selling out.
Four years before Lewis recorded “ ‘In’ Crowd,” the great John Coltrane recorded an album called My Favorite Things, which 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 C.O. Simpkins writes in Coltrane, a Biography, it was Coltrane, not critics, who was concerned that commercial success would oblige him to make follow-up efforts: “Our Favorite Things,” “Your Favorite Things,” “Son of My Favorite Things,” “My Favorite Things Parts II and III.”
Coltrane also enjoyed commercial success in 1963 with his album, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. The album was elected to the Grammy Hall of Fame. But despite those commercial successes, ’Trane continued to explore and push limits. Lewis, on the other hand, more or less chose to stay put.
Yet popularity does not necessarily equate to receiving credit, in Lewis’ case, for being a tremendous pianist. In the perverse world of jazz, where struggle and early death are lionized, oftentimes the more popularity, the less credit.
By the the time I left for college in 1968, I had — in my mind — outgrown Ramsey Lewis. My older sister, whose boyfriend was an aspiring jazz musician and a classmate of saxophonist Chico Freeman’s at Northwestern University, led me to a larger pool of keyboard artists. I could name a dozen pianists I found more compelling than Lewis, including Cecil Taylor, Ahmad Jamal, Hank Jones, Muhal Richard Abrams, Andrew Hill and eventually Geri Allen and Amina Claudine Myers.
What I didn’t fully appreciate then was that Lewis had deep roots in the music and could play with any of them. He could play inside, he could play outside, he could play with a symphony orchestra. He simply chose not to. Soul jazz was his lane and he chose to remain there.
Lewis made his first album in 1956. “The ‘In’ Crowd was his 17th 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 Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson influence. Ramsey did the best and became the best piano player he could. And you can’t deny his style. If you listen to those 17 albums before he had a hit, I think you might appreciate him a little more.”
Ruffin, 65, is a fellow Chicagoan and knew Lewis for more than 40 years. Ruffin became emotional as he discussed Lewis. This was not about music or commercialism, but about the man. Ruffin’s father died when Ruffin was 24. Lewis became like a second dad and helped change the trajectory of Ruffin’s life.
He met Lewis on a plane in 1980, while he was producing a jazz show at the College of DuPage in the Chicago suburbs. Ruffin introduced himself and gave Lewis his card. Lewis called him a month later. “Years later, he told me, ‘You follow up every lead. Somebody calls you, you return it.’ ” Ruffin said. They reconnected years later when Ruffin was producing 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 for eight years.”
For Ruffin, the life and legacy of Ramsey Lewis were about more than music, more than the hits. “He gave musicians opportunities all the time,” Ruffin said. “If you look at the list of Chicago musicians who played with him, it was amazing. And same thing with me and other folks. He was always free and open. And if you had the goods, he was trying to help you.”
Whatever the critics felt, fellow musicians respected Lewis. That became clear to Ruffin as they worked together on the radio show. “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 fell off of him. Now I think he might have felt different had Max not loved him, had Eddie Harris not loved him, but they loved him, man, and I saw that firsthand. Those kind of people validated him a long time ago before purists did.”
Lewis taught Ruffin a lesson about being true to yourself and ignoring criticism. “That’s something he taught me: ‘Don’t care about what people think. Do you. Do the best you can and keep the quality high and let that other stuff just wash over you.’ I think he cared about presenting a high quality of music all the time in his presentation. He cared about entertaining a crowd. Ram did not mind playing ‘The ‘In’ Crowd’ every night. He tried to find the limited harmonic qualities and he tried to change it up, but he didn’t mind. He enjoyed playing.”
Before we ended our conversation, I asked Ruffin about Lewis’ legacy. How did he think his mentor would be remembered?
“As far as the purists in this side of the world, I don’t know what his legacy’s going to be,” he said. “For someone who’s not sharp, he was just a sellout. And so that might be part of his legacy. But if those folks dig, they will find a very fine piano player who only wanted to get better at playing the piano.”
He added that one lesson from Lewis that resonates is “What matters is being the best person you can be, being generous, and getting better at what you do.”
For me, this is more than an appreciation of Ramsey Lewis. It’s a long overdue acknowledgement.