This week the world of jazz lost one of its last great proselytizers. Ramsey Lewis’ death at 87 doesn’t just mark an end for a man but in many ways also marks the end of an era for music and for his hometown of Chicago.
For more than sixty years Lewis dazzled jazz fans with his innovative piano style and ability to fuse jazz with Soul, Funk and R&B. He was able to do what other, some would argue greater, jazz artists could not do. Ramsey Lewis sold records. When jazz was in retreat in the 1960’s, Lewis did what seems perfectly reasonable now and had been before, he looked to the rock and soul hits of the day to mine for jazz. Of course, jazz purists were appalled. And of course music fans were thrilled.
In 1965, after years of playing Lewis released “The In Crowd”, an album and single recorded at Bohemian Caverns that became his signature. What makes the song a hit is less Lewis’ deft playing and the tightness of the band, and more the energy of the room. When Ramsey Lewis got into a groove, so did the audience. It was the audience’s hand clapping and church-like call and response that led the song and album to the top of the Billboard R&B charts. The Ramsey Lewis Trio’s follow-ups to that hit up were “Hang on Sloopy” and “Wade in the Water” (my favorite and unofficial theme song).
Like greats like Miles Davis or Oscar Peterson, Lewis surrounded himself with genius musicians. In his trio, Lewis was flanked by Eldee Young on bass and Redd Holt on drums. Those two would later form Young Holt Unlimited, another trio with chart topping aspirations. When Young and Holt left, Lewis replaced Cleveland Easton on bass — and this always blows my mind Maurice White on drums. White would go on to be the co-leader of Earth Wind and Fire. That made Ramsey Lewis something like the fulcrum of Chicago music in the 60s and 70s.
If anything, it’s that role as a sort of Godfather of Chicago music. You see Ramsey Lewis was more than a world class musician who innovated a genre. He was more than a deejay who helped invent the Smooth Jazz radio format. Ramsey Lewis was a Chicago guy. He told Jazz Monthly: “Well I’m all about optimism, I’m all about keeping the faith, I’m all about making a joyful noise and if that reaches people, then I’ve done my job.” Few people kept the faith and the story of Black Chicago better than Ramsey or Mr. Lewis as he was affectionately called in his neighborhood of South Shore.
You could see that commitment in how he existed in the world. According to his Chicago Sun-Times obituary Lewis was born and raised in Chicago. He started taking music lessons at 4 year at Chicago Music College Preparatory School. He later graduated from Wells High School. (There must have been something in the water at Wells, because Lewis would be followed by Jerry “The Iceman” Butler and Curtis Mayfield at the High on Chicago’s near West side.) Many musicians of his caliber left Chicago for good. But over the years, I saw Lewis all over the city and beyond.
Lewis was a staple of the famed London House club in downtown Chicago. Years ago, I interviewed another Chicago legend Tom Burrell for NPR’s Planet Money. Burrell, one of the first Black advertising executives in the 1960s, recalled how London House was the apotheosis of downtown Chicago nightlife in the 60’s and Ramsey Lewis led the band. As Gene Seymour writes for NPR, Lewis “made a bold investment bold an investment in the future of jazz as any (so-called) avant-gardist or neo-classicist.” Whether it was Jazz Fest in Grant park, playing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, defining smooth jazz on records and the radio or the 25 sublime years he spent leading Jazz at Ravinia, Lewis proved night after night that he was a Chicago guy. It wasn’t simply that he chose not to leave Chicago, it’s that he invested so much in the life of the city.
According to the Sun-Times, Lewis returned to his grade school regularly to perform. In addition to Maurice White, and Verdine White (both of Earth Wind and Fire), Lewis encouraged a city full of musicians. You can’t throw a drumstick in Chicago without it hitting a musician who was taught by, played with or inspired by Lewis. His grade school, Jenner elementary, was in the shadow of the infamous Cabrini Green housing project. Cabrini Green is gone. Since 1980, nearly a third of the Black population of Chicago has left (myself included), according to the University of Illinois Chicago. He represents that optimistic high achieving hustle that was Black Chicago at its height.
I feel the same about Ramsey Lewis’ death as when Ebony and Jet closed, when the Gardners sold Soft Sheen or when the Johnsons sold Afro-Sheen. The world has lost a musician. Chicago lost a Chicago guy. Not just someone who knows where to get a pork chop at 2 am or how not to get lost in the pedway.
A Chicago guy uses his art, anger, power and love to improve the life of the city. From Highland Park to the Petrillo Band Shell to Jackson Highlands to 87th Stony Island and beyond, Ramsey Lewis represented esprit de Chicago. If his sole contribution were his music, he’d be a legend, but so much of his career and life was spent trying to make the life of the city better. Musicians get mourned by their fans. Ramsey Lewis name will be listed with names like Thelonius Monk, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson. In Chicago Lewis’ name will join names of great Chicagoans like Dusable, DePriest, and Daley. He’s obviously a great musician but a hometown boy, a true Chicago guy.