Ramsey Lewis, the jazz pianist who revived the genre, has died at the age of 87


Depending on the music expert you ask, jazz “died” when its heyday in the 1920s ended. According to others, jazz music lost its luster in the 1960s when – and rock music – returned.

But Ramsey Lewis, an inventive jazz pianist and one of the nation’s most respected artists, continued to find new ways to keep the genre alive and evolving and, most importantly, to nurture new generations of jazz listeners.

Lewis spent nearly 60 years recording and performing original jazz music, going gold in 1965 with the crossover hit “The ‘In’ Crowd.” He won three Grammys, earned seven gold records and was named a National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Master in 2007, the highest honor given to jazz musicians in the United States.

Lewis died Monday at his home in his hometown of Chicago, manager Brett Steele confirmed. He was 87 years old.

A lifelong Chicagoan, Lewis grew up in the Cabrini-Green housing project on the city’s Near North Side. Although he played the piano as a child, his connection to jazz only came at home, when his father played records by Duke Ellington and Art Tatum (one of Lewis’ all-time favorite artists). He didn’t try to learn to play jazz himself until another musician at his church approached him about starting a band when he was 15, according to a National Endowment for the Arts biography of Lewis.

After honing his jazz piano skills with that Clefs group, he formed the Ramsey Lewis Trio with bassist Eddie Young and percussionist Redd Holt, according to his website. Their first album was released in 1956, but they didn’t become national stars until nearly 10 years later: the trio’s instrumental cover of “The ‘In’ Crowd” was a hit in 1965, earning Lewis his first triple top. The Grammys

In the mid-1960s they also released crossover hits like “Hang on Sloopy” and “Wade in the Water,” two songs that resonated with listeners of all backgrounds, not just jazz fans.

The trio’s line-up shuffled over the years: other members included Maurice White on drums (he eventually left the trio to form Earth, Wind & Fire, but returned to produce Lewis’ 1974 album “Sun Goddess”). Lewis also collaborated with other artists of her genre, including the late jazz singer Nancy Wilson, on several albums, including 1984’s “The Two of Us.”

Lewis combined the gospel music and blues he grew up with with the jazz his father loved and the popular sounds of the time to create what became contemporary jazz music. His jazz compositions included funk and soul (the style he honed in “Sun Goddess” and shown on programs like “Soul Train”), although he could play classical compositions with ease and skill (he once cited Bach as one of his favorite sources of “brain food”).

Lewis had a prolific output, releasing two or three albums a year for several years after the success of “The ‘In’ Crowd”. In total, he recorded more than 80 albums, including last year’s “Maha de Carnaval”.

He retired in the meantime. In 2018, he told Chicago station WGN that he stopped playing and practicing the piano for several days in a row and quickly became bored. In 2019, he opened Chicago’s Ravinia Festival and told the Chicago Tribune that year he was “90 percent retired”; he would still perform locally, but was completely retired from touring the US.

When he wasn’t performing, Lewis was still introducing new artists and repeating old favorites: he hosted several jazz programs on Chicago public radio and television throughout his life.

He was also a great promoter of art education and musically gifted youth. In 2005, he founded the Ramsey Lewis Foundation, bringing music programs to at-risk youth. He recalled his elementary arts education in a Chicago public school, which he said offered several bands and music electives. He lamented the defunding of public school art classes.

“When they took that out of the public school system, we lost a lot of kids who could have contributed to the scene as we know it,” he told WGN.

Music was oxygen for Lewis; he could not stop composing original songs even after his “retirement”. In a 2018 interview with WGN, he shared that he was still working on a song he started writing 15 years earlier. He said he bought it in 1962 and spent much of his time at home on his beloved Steinway piano. An eternal student eager to sharpen his skills, he listened to whatever would fit on his iPod, across genres.

When asked in 2009 what he considered the best album of all time, he replied: “There’s no such thing as an animal.”

“What I find exciting today may not tomorrow or next week,” he told Pop Matters in 2009. “The best album I’ve ever heard was the one I just heard, if I’m not spending time researching other cultures or listening to new music. /artists. So you never know!”

Lewis was remembered by his friends and admirers for his innovative style and scholarly spirit. Rev. Jesse Jackson he remembered They have lived next door to Lewis for over 40 years, watching their children grow up together.

“Ramsey had excellent taste and was formally trained and disciplined,” Jackson he tweeted. “I will miss him as a friend and neighbor.”

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot he said The city of Chicago was grateful to have Lewis as its “native son.” Based on the life he played in his beloved Chicago, he felt the same pride in representing his city. As he succinctly said in a 2011 interview, “Chicago is home.”

Lewis is survived by his wife and his five children.