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Ramsey Lewis headed to Chicago Jazz Festival, contemplating retirement

Ramsey Lewis, 83, plays on his Steinway & Sons piano at his residence in Chicago on August 28, 2018. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

Legendary jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis is photographed in his Chicago home on August 28, 2018. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

Last can be such a relative term.

For Ramsey Lewis, what’s being billed as his last Chicago gig ever — his upcoming performance Saturday night at the Chicago Jazz Festival — may, in fact, not be his last in his hometown. Or for that matter, anywhere else.

“I may play Ravinia,” Ramsey says during a recent chat. “They’ve been very, very good to me. But I’m definitely cutting way back. It’s difficult to play both Ravinia and Chicago. I haven’t played Chicago in so many years. I play Ravinia almost every year.”

The biggest reason Ramsey, now 83, cites for cutting back is the grueling toll of life on the road. “Instead of doing 30 or 40 or 50 concerts a year, I will probably do 10 to 20, or maybe none at all, because traveling is not what it used to be. Now you have to get to the airport an hour and a half before a flight, then the plane is late. You get to the hotel and the rooms are not ready.”

Ramsey Lewis, 83, plays on his Steinway & Sons grand piano at his residence in Chicago on August 28, 2018. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

Ramsey Lewis, 83, plays on his Steinway & Sons grand piano at his residence in Chicago on Aug. 28, 2018. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

The Jazz Festival is ready for Lewis. It’s the 40th incarnation of the annual festival and this year it has expanded to 10 days (starting Aug. 24), featuring a world-class lineup of artists at Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion, the Chicago Cultural Center and at venues across the city. The milestone was a key reason Lewis decided to return.

CHICAGO JAZZ FESTIVAL
When: Aug 24-Sept. 2
Where: Millennium Park and various venues
Tickets: Free
Info: chicagojazzfestival.us

“I haven’t played the festival in so long [he last played the music fest in 2010],” Lewis says, chuckling. “But when they called and said it was the 40th anniversary of jazz in the park, I was like, sure, why not?”

Indeed.

Born and raised in Chicago, Ramsey attended Chicago Music College Preparatory School and graduated from Wells High School. Music has been part of his life for as long as he can remember; piano lessons began when he was 4 years old. “I started studying classical music so young,” he says. “I loved and still love Chopin and Beethoven. And gospel music. I lucked out because both my parents [Ramsey E. Lewis Sr. and Pauline Lewis] loved classical and gospel music. My dad loved jazz as well. So I was hearing this music around the house since I was born.”

Ramsey Lewis, 83, plays on his Steinway & Sons piano at his residence in Chicago on August 28, 2018. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

The hands of Ramsey Lewis have tickled the ivories for nearly 80 years. The Grammy winner headlines the Chicago Jazz Festival on Saturday night. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

But classical music would not be his calling. Not initially by choice, anyhow. The times were not kind to musicians of color when it came to the grand halls of classical music. The teenaged Lewis happily turned to jazz, taking his cue from the genre’s greats he had heard on records. Lewis by the mid-1950s had already formed a jazz/classical trio that featured Isaac “Redd” Holt on drums and Eldee Young on upright bass. They released “Ramsey Lewis and His Gentlemen of Swing” in 1956, a sensational debut album; they never looked back.

By the 1940s and ’50s, Chicago’s jazz scene was hotter than hot, and musicians, combos, ensembles could ply a living here, honing their skills — hoping for their big break. The nightclub landscape along State Street, Wabash, Rush Street, Bronzeville, Maxwell Street and beyond were a feast for music lovers and artists who would hold court ’til the wee hours of the morning.

“Way before we had [gigs at] Orchestra Hall and the Chicago Theatre, there were bars and taverns and lounges on almost every corner and in ever part of the city,” Lewis recalls. “It was great because it gave musicians coming up [in the ranks] the chance to get their act together, get their performance chops. It gave them the chance to try this musical style, that musical style. You were not yet ready for Orchestra Hall, but there’s a bar on the corner that will pay you a couple of bucks, give you some Coca-Cola and you can bring in your group and play what you want to.

“There were almost no weekends that you could not find some place to perform,” he continues. “And it was wonderful.”

Lewis and company developed a unique style of jazz, combining it with classical influences garnered from his training as a classical pianist from an early age. Critics, Lewis says, were not always receptive. “Many critics were [confounded] by what we were playing. ‘We don’t know what kind of music this is,’ they would write. So we didn’t always get great [reviews] for the music we played. But we enjoyed it, so we stuck with it. And we were developing a following [who liked it a lot]. All’s well.”

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The welcomes at local clubs were for the most part warm, but it was not always the case.

“Slammed doors? Sure,” Ramsey said. “At that time we didn’t have a big name yet. So when you first start out people more or less came to that particular club because they liked the club. You got to play there for a couple of weekends and they just happened to hear you there. What I do remember is that you had better have your act together. If you did, the audience would quiet down and give you a nice round of applause. If you didn’t have your act together, meaning you hadn’t rehearsed and didn’t have any [clear] ideas of what you wanted to do, all of a sudden you’d hear a buzz in the room. Then from a buzz it goes to talking. Then from talking it goes to laughing and then it’s like, ‘Oh boy, nobody’s paying attention to the guys up there.’

We knew how to perform,” Lewis continues. “We got people’s attention and standing ovations. There was this great experience of learning how to perform in front of people. So many years later when you have hit records and you do get to Carnegie Hall and Orchestra Hall you know how to present your music. …  And you cannot fake it. When you’re playing, it [has to be honest]. You have to grab the audience in the first two songs of your set.  If you can’t do that, [you’re lost]. Many musicians learned the hard way that you can’t fool an audience.  Get ’em with those first two songs and the rest of the show is a piece of cake.”

The three-time Grammy Award winner recalls the turning point in his career, the release of “The In Crowd,” recorded in Washington, D.C. at the Bohemian Caverns. The song catapulted the group to the top of the charts (it would go on to become one of the artist’s gold records, which also included “Hang On Sloopy” and “Wade in the Water”). “We weren’t looking for a hit record, but because we had so much serious stuff already on the LP — and we had gotten in the habit of putting ‘fun songs’ on our previous two or three albums — we put ‘The In Crowd’ on the record because we needed a fun song. … It was uptempo and happy and there was something about that song that people took a liking to.”

Lewis has called Chicago home his entire life. He has found happiness here, professionally and personally. He’s been married to Jan Lewis since 1990 and enjoys his 14 grandchildren. For years he hosted the successful radio program “Ramsey Lewis and Legends of Jazz” (begun in 1997 on WNUA-FM,  it now airs in rebroadcasts Sundays on WDCB-FM 90.9). In 2009, he debuted the mixed-media “Proclamation of Hope,” his first orchestral work, at Ravinia in honor of the Abraham Lincoln bicentennial. In 2015, the world premiere of his “Concerto for Jazz Trio and Orchestra” with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra bowed at Ravinia as well.

He’s had opportunities to move to New York or Los Angeles, he says, but happily chose not to. “They’re great places to visit. I love New York — for a few weeks. Catch some shows, shop. Same with L.A. But I could not live there. Chicago is my home.”

When it comes to his musical influences, Lewis pauses for a few moments, quietly giving the question sincere thought.

“That’s a hard one,” he says finally. “I don’t know if there’s any one musician who I can say influenced me. I was impressed by the music of [jazz piano great] Art Tatum, but I cannot play like Art Tatum. Not many musicians can. I was impressed with the piano playing of Oscar Peterson, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Erroll Garner. … Did Vladimir Horowitz impress me? Yes. Rudolf Serkin? Yes. Any more than Art or Oscar? I don’t know.”

Lewis pauses for a moment or two, and then adds with that familiar chuckle:

“Maybe people are now saying Ramsey Lewis impressed them.”