Ramsey Lewis, renowned jazz musician who became a pop star, dies
Renowned jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis, whose music entertained fans over a more than 60-year career that began with the Ramsey Lewis Trio and made him one of the country’s most successful jazz musicians, has died. He was 87.
Lewis is revered in jazz circles for 1960s hits like “The ‘In’ Crowd,” “Hang on Sloopy” and “Wade in the Water.” He earned three Grammy awards and seven gold records. The trio’s first record in 1956 was “Ramsey Lewis and the Gentlemen of Swing.”
Lewis died Monday in his sleep at his Chicago home, according to his son, Bobby Lewis.
“He was just at peace,” Bobby Lewis told the Associated Press. “Most people say when they met Dad that he was a class act. He was that way even through his last breath.”
Ramsey Lewis described his approach to composing and performing in a 2011 interview with the AP.
“Life is a solo, and it continues,” Lewis said, sitting at the dining room table in his downtown Chicago home. “I just know that when I put my hands on the piano it’s going to flow.”
Lewis first took piano lessons at age 4. He spent his early days in Chicago using his gospel and classical roots to create his own jazz style in the many neighborhood venues that hired young jazz musicians.
“It gave us a lot of opportunity to try our ideas and learn what it means to perform in front of an audience,” Lewis said as he was named National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2007. He accepted the award from his mentor and fellow Jazz Master, pianist Billy Taylor.
During his career, Lewis performed with musical stars such as Aretha Franklin, Tony Bennett, Al Jarreau and Pat Metheney. Lewis had more than 80 albums to his credit — three dozen of them with Chicago-based Chess Records. He toured around the world and performed at the 1995 state dinner that then-President Clinton hosted for President Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil.
“I believe that my father — his love for the piano and his passion for the piano and how he coveted this love and how he protected it — that gave him longevity,” Bobby Lewis said. “He recognized the gift God had given him.”
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The Chicago native began composing large-scale musical works later in his career. His first was an eight-movement piece for Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet. He also completed a tribute to President Lincoln — “Proclamation of Hope: A Symphonic Poem by Ramsey Lewis.”
Lewis also hosted radio shows in the 1990s and 2000, including “The Ramsey Lewis Morning Show,” on WNUA-FM and the syndicated “Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis.” In 2007, he hosted the TV program “Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis,” a weekly show that aired on public television stations nationwide.
The show’s creators said it was the first time jazz was featured on a weekly basis on network television in 40 years. It featured jazz greats and up-and-comers.
Lewis also spent time working on behalf of charities that brought music to young people.
“Ramsey’s passion for music was truly fueled by the love and dedication of his fans across the globe,” his wife, Janet Lewis, said in a Facebook post. “He loved touring and meeting music lovers from so many cultures and walks of life. It was our family’s great pleasure to share Ramsey in this special way with all those who admired his God-given talents.”
Brett Steele, whose Tampa, Fla.-based Steele Management represented Lewis since 2011, said Lewis spent the last year of his life working on his memoirs which are completed and scheduled to be published next year.
In addition to his wife and son, Lewis also is survived by daughters Denise Jeffries and Dawn Allain; two other sons, Kendall Kelly Lewis and Frayne Lewis; and a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
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