Jazz legend Ramsey Lewis celebrates his career and personal milestones in 2005:
- 50 Years in the Entertainment Industry
- 71st Recording Album
- First-Ever Gospel Album, With One Voice
- 70th Birthday
"This was not Ramsey’s first time performing religious music publicly. His unique style and versatility exemplify a fresh awakening in the sound of gospel music. The excitement generated by Ramsey is stimulating to observe and it is awesome to see his spirit-filled musicianship along with such skillful, discreet showmanship."
Rev. Lucille L. Jackson, Co-Pastor
James Memorial AME Church
I had the pleasure, and it is indeed a pleasure, to see Mr. Lewis perform at the Clearwater Jazz holiday and to interview this great legend known for his technical virtuosity and sumptuous styling.
JazzReview: Your schedule is extremely busy. You have been quoted as being the hardest workingman in jazz. How do you do it all?
Ramsey Lewis: I don’t think about it. I just do it. When I start to think about all the things I’m doing, sometimes I just have to thank the Man upstairs--because I’m doing the morning show here in Chicago 5 days a week, and I have the syndicated radio show that’s been going on now for several years. In addition, we are in the midst of taping 13 episodes of a television show, The Legends of Jazz: The Masters of Jazz, on PBS-TV.
When I list the things I'm doing, I ask myself the same question as you ask. "How do I do this?" (laughter) It works because not only am I busy in terms of my career, but there’s still time to go out with my wife. We have a good time. We go out two or three times a week, we have friends, and we’ve promised ourselves we’re going to take three vacations next year. Yes, so I guess I’m busy, but there’s still time for me to smell the roses.
JazzReview: Tell us about the new series, Legends of Jazz: The Masters of Jazz, on PBS-TV for a January debut.
Ramsey Lewis: First of all, it’s been pushed back until April. We still have to finish two or three episodes. It will be a weekly show and on the show not only will it be a legend (sometimes two legends), but also we always try to include young people who are up and coming, or younger people who are making a name for themselves and are carrying on the traditions the masters have begun.
It’s very exciting because we’re taping 13 episodes and have about eight or nine done already. It’s bringing entertainers together that don’t ordinarily play or sing together. It’s very exciting and stimulating.
JazzReview: I do understand that you are going to do some straight ahead jazz, which is my favorite form of jazz. Sometimes when I am speaking to young music lovers and they tell me they like jazz, I ask, "What form of jazz?" The answer sometimes is smooth jazz.
Ramsey Lewis: They don’t know, they haven’t been educated yet to jazz. When they were coming up, that’s all they heard. It’s the majority of radio played across the country. They’re many more smooth jazz stations than straight ahead jazz. So that’s what they hear. That’s why here in Chicago, we have several programs--one I’m involved in called the Ravinia Mentor's Program. We go to high schools and support the band director or music teacher in a particular high school, bringing the history of jazz, the theory of jazz and the vision of jazz to them. And we teach the kids how to play jazz.
The program has been going on for twelve years now and they are so into the music. It’s like showing them something they think is new and fresh. Well it’s fresh, but not new. They really latch onto it. We’re so proud of that. That’s the key, and it’s education.
In our country, the problem we have in our public school system across the country is that music and arts are on the bottom of the pole, if it’s there at all. So the kids aren’t exposed to music. I must speak to the music they hear at home, too. Until the 60's or early 70's, parents, although they played the music of the day, they also had in their collection the legends, e.g., Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Oscar Peterson, Art Blakely. Kids growing up would hear that in their homes. But after the 60's and 70's, the parents themselves became homogenized into the current pop music of the day. They ceased to play the music. Another thing was the Cultural Revolution, the youth’s cult revolution, and the Viet Nam war.
In the 1960's, a lot of young people detached themselves from what they call "their mother and father’s way." They wanted to establish what they call "their own music." So they said, "If mom and dad listen to these artist, I’m not going to listen to their music. I’m going to make up my own music." Therein lies some of the problem today. So it goes back to they have to be educated. It’s an education!
The show will be conversations with Clark Terry or a conversation with Roy Haynes. And during the conversation, I will ask them to play. Then they will play together. It’s like we met in your living room, chatting, and someone looks at their watch and says, "Why don’t you play something?" It’s very casual and hopefully, people will get information that will wet their appetite that leads them to carry on. . .go to the store and buy the record, get back, involve and support straight ahead jazz.
JazzReview: I know this isn’t the first time you’ve performed gospel publicly, but this is your first-ever gospel album, With One Voice. It’s exciting and stimulating. What inspired you to record this album, opening with the classic, "Oh, Happy Day?"
Ramsey Lewis: When Oh Happy Day came out in the 60's, it became one of my favorite songs. It stayed with me. Gospel music has been in my soul forever. I started playing when I was nine and from nine to fifteen, or sixteen-years old, three times a week I was at the church playing music. When you’re that young and playing such powerful music that many times a week, it’s a blessing. Dad was the choir director at our church and he would have me playing certain songs he was going to rehearse, saying, "Come on, I want to learn this tune. Play this for me." So even at home, I was playing, so it never left me.
Even before I decided to do a gospel album, which really was ten years ago, I just got around to it. In my shows at the end of my concerts, I play a gospel medley.
JazzReview: Is there any one song on the CD that inspired you the most?
Ramsey Lewis: When I finally decided that now is the best time to do the album, I think "Oh Happy Day" and "Oh, Pass Me Not My Gentle Savior" were two of the first songs that I put on my list. The others just came out of resourcefulness and looking around and listening. There were also three accomplished gospel performers: Darius Brooks, Donald Lawrence, and Smokie Norful.
JazzReview: Smokie Norful is a powerful singer.
Ramsey Lewis: Yes, he is. So it just sort of came together. I didn’t have to do a lot of planning or a lot of getting on the telephone seeing who could do what. Once the word got out and once I decided that yes, I’m going to do a gospel album, everything just fell in place.
JazzReview: The title from jazz to gospel With One Voice, does it have a particular meaning?
Ramsey Lewis: Everything comes from one thing--everything comes from the Spirit. Jazz would not exist had it not been for gospel music. The blues would not exist had it not been for spiritual blues, which goes back to slave songs our fore fathers were singing while they were out in the field. So it’s all one continuous growth from one group of people. Of course, jazz now is played by various cultures and colors around the world. But the stimulus is One Voice.
Also, the night we recorded the album at our church, I looked around and there were 55 people in the choir with eight or nine musicians in front of them, and guest soloist. Then we had people in the pews, which became a big part of the evening. To me, it was all One Voice. The Spirit was in the room.
JazzReview: One of the hardest things for any jazz musician is finding their own style and an individual approach to the music. Has this been difficult for you?
Ramsey Lewis: My style didn’t evolve, it just happened. I never set out to say I have to find a style of my own. I remember when I was eleven, although I was four when I first started studying, I just fell in love in general with music--the piano in particular. My goal was to learn to play the piano as good as I could ever play. It was not to get a record deal or to see my name in lights.
I didn’t think about those things. All I thought about was playing the piano and being as good as I could be. Things started to unfold and later on we got a record deal, a record contract. We recorded our first album. I would never forget the first time someone said, "I heard your new record and I knew that was you right off." It kind of intrigued me because I thought of all the piano players out there, how did the person know it was me?
It was the first time I knew I had developed a style. If you’re true to yourself and honest with yourself, having a style in whatever you do is almost like having a fingerprint. The key is being honest and true with yourself--to let the real you come out.
JazzReview: I’m intrigued by your earlier experiences. Can you touch on some of them?
Ramsey Lewis: The music I was involved in early on was classical music and that continues even to this day. I dearly love classical music. When I was nine, I got involved in gospel music and I dearly love gospel music. Jazz was the final piece to complete the puzzle and everything happened quite by chance. There was no big plan to get into jazz. It was after church one Sunday when one of the other church musicians told me they had a band they played with on the weekends and asked would I like to play with the band. He had to teach me what that was all about.
My Dad had brought home Duke Ellington, Nat "King" Cole playing the piano and Art Tatum. The music was just there in the house for me to hear, but I wasn’t involved in it. Once he started teaching me what it was all about, I loved it and it became a part of me, as was classical and gospel music. If it’s good, I like it.
JazzReview: You have been awarded with 5 Gold records, 3 Grammy awards and several other awards. How do you feel about all the accolades and recognition?
Ramsey Lewis: It’s been rewarding. I have the awards and have the physical things that come from certain successes, but I’m still impressed more with music. When someone hands me an award, I’m appreciative. I show much gratitude and I am impressed, but I bring it home, put it on the shelf and I go back to the piano.
I know that life is not about awards. Life is about growth, evolution and getting to know yourself as honestly as possible--getting to understand what God means and what the Universe means, as well as your responsibility to your fellow man. These are the things that are more important to me.
I'm not belittling awards. Don’t get me wrong. They are like sign posts along the way. And you pass the post and you sit them down and you say, "That was in 1965, 1971 and 1980," but you just keep on keeping on.
JazzReview: Is that a message you would give a young music artist trying to enter the music industry? What advice would you give them?
Ramsey Lewis: Stay in school to get your degree, and honestly practice and study. I would tell them not to close their options from other things, to learn in life because everything is not about music. When you get out in this world, there’s history and other cultures. You can travel and read books about other cultures around the world, but the main thing is to stay in school and get your degree.
It’s all the music. Don’t become infatuated. Young people become in a hurry in getting a record deal. A record deal will come when you have something original and fresh to play. The only way to get that is by staying in school, practicing and learning to perform in front of people--no matter what it is, if it’s a fashion show or at church. The more you can perform to fine tune what you’re about, the better you’ll be in the long run.
JazzReview: Excellent advice. What other projects can we expect from you? I was looking at your schedule. I don’t know how you do it.
Ramsey Lewis: (laughter) Well, besides the PBS-TV show airing next year, a tour in the summer of 06', I’m working on two or three different albums. I don’t know which one will be first. I’m about the music. There may be a solo project. It might be another gospel album; it might be another kind of album. I don’t know. It's where the music takes me.