Composer, pianist and jazz legend Ramsey Lewis has been referred to as “the great performer,” a title reflecting his performance style and musical selections which display his early gospel playing and classical training along with his love of jazz and other musical forms. A native Chicagoan (born May 27, 1935), Mr. Lewis represents the great diversity of music for which Chicago is noted.
Ramsey Lewis first captivated fans with his first album Ramsey Lewis and The Gentlemen of Swing by the Ramsey Lewis Trio in 1956. By 1965, he was one of the nation’s most successful jazz pianists, topping the charts with “The In Crowd”, “Hang on Sloopy” and “Wade in The Water”. He has three Grammy Awards and seven gold records to his credit. Often called legendary, Mr. Lewis concedes “It’s a high honor when someone says so, but I don’t see myself that way. What keeps me enthusiastic and energizes me, is the realization that the more I learn, the more I find there is to know.” His most recent award was the 2006 Stellar Award for Best Gospel Instrumental Album, With One Voice presented in January 2007.
Mr. Lewis began taking piano lessons at the age of four, studying the basics and fundamentals. But, “It wasn’t until I started studying with the late Dorothy Mendelsohn that I responded to some of the startling things she was teaching me, such as ‘Listen with your inner ear,’ and ‘Make the piano sing.’ These concepts were revelations!” Soon after, he began learning Bach, Beethoven, Hadyn, Brahms and Chopin, and other basic piano repertoire for the concert pianist.
Except for records his father played around the house, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, Mead Lux Lewis and others, Mr. Lewis had no experience playing jazz. He was fifteen when a fellow church musician, Wallace Burton, asked him to join his jazz band and took the time to coach and help the young musician learn the language of jazz. It was a brand new experience for him. The seven piece group called themselves The Cleffs and provided Mr. Lewis’ first real involvement with the great music of jazz. The emerging Ramsey Lewis Trio had its roots there as the rhythm section, comprised of Mr. Lewis on piano, Eldee Young on bass and Redd Holt on drums, remained after the other members of the Cleffs went off to the Korean war. “Jazz soon became a major force in my musical life, but European classical and gospel music were of almost equal importance,” he recalls.
In addition to recording albums and performing live, Mr. Lewis hosts WNUA-FM Chicago’s weekday morning drive-time radio show, “The Ramsey Lewis Morning Show,” for which he has been awarded R&R’s (Radio&Records) 1999 and 2000 Personality of the Year Award. January of 2007 saw “The Ramsey Lewis Morning Show” syndicated nationwide. He also hosts the syndicated “Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis,” a two-hour radio program which airs in over 75 cities throughout the U.S.
Active in community efforts, especially on behalf of youth, he helped organize the Ravinia Festival’s Jazz Mentor Program and also serves as the Artistic Director for that festival’s jazz series. In January of 2007, the Dave Brubeck Institute invited Mr. Lewis to be on the Honorary Board of Friends of the Brubeck Institute at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. He also serves on the Board of Trustees for the Merit School of Music, an inner city music program in Chicago. In January 2007 he received the National Endowment for the Arts “Jazz Master” Award, and in March of 2007 received the “Living Landmark” Award, an honor given to “people who have made lasting contributions to the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois.”
In 2003, Mr. Lewis along with Larry Rosen (founder and former president of GRP Records) and Lee Rosenberg formed LRSmedia, an independent music entertainment company that creates and produces branded entertainment properties for distribution across broadcast, live and recorded media. LRSmedia has co-produced, along with PBS television station WTTW-Chicago beginning April 2006, a series of thirteen one-half hour television programs called “Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis” making it the first time in forty years that jazz has enjoyed television coverage. The program not only features the legends of this great music, but also the young and upcoming stars as well. Mr. Lewis, along with Mr. Rosen and Mr. Rosenberg are co-executive producers of the series.
Early 2005 saw the formation of the Ramsey Lewis Foundation that will help provide youth with the opportunity to play musical instruments and develop those and other skills to enhance self-confidence and a sense of personal accomplishment. Mr. Lewis currently performs in the U.S. and abroad with his trio composed of Larry Gray on bass and Leon Joyce on drums. His most current album release Songs from the Heart: Ramsey Plays Ramsey was released in 2009.