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interview

Ramsey Lewis :: The Legend of Jazz...
by Beatrice Samantha Richardson

The Jazz legend Ramsey Lewis celebrates Career and personal milestones in 2005
50 years in the Entertainment Industry,
71st Recording Album,
First -Ever Gospel Album, With One Voice,
70th Birthday

ďThis was not Ramseyís 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.Ē 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.

Jazz Quad: Your schedule is extremely busy, You have been quoted as the hardest working man in Jazz. How do you do it all?

Ramsey Lewis: I donít think about it. I just do it. When I start to think about all the things, Iím doing sometimes I just have to thank the man upstairs. Because Iím doing the morning show here in Chicago 5 days a week, and I have the syndicated radio show thatís 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, Iím 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 thereís 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 weíve promised ourselves weíre going to take three vacations next year. Yes, so I guess Iím busy but thereís still time for me to smell the roses.

Jazz Quad: I understand you will be hosting a new series, Legends of jazz: The Masters of Jazz, on PBS-TV for a January debut

Ramsey Lewis: First of all youíre right but itís but itís 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 we always try to include young people who are coming up or younger people who are making a name for themselves and are carrying on the traditions the masters have begun.

Itís very exciting because weíre taping 13 episodes and have about eight or nine done already. Itís bringing entertainers together that donít ordinary play or sing together. Itís very exciting and stimulating.

Jazz Quad: 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 some 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 donít know, they havenít been educated yet to jazz. When they were coming up thatís all they heard. Itís the majority of radio played across the country. Theyíre many more smooth jazz stations than straight ahead jazz. So thatís what they hear. Thatís why here in Chicago we have several programs, one Iím involved in called the Ravinia mentors program. We go to high schools and support the band director or music teacher in that school bringing the history of Jazz, the theory of jazz and the vision of jazz. 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. Itís like showing them something they think is new and fresh. Well itís fresh but not new. They really latch onto it. Weíre so proud of that. Thatís the key, and itís 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 itís there at all. So the kids arenít exposed to music. I must speak to the music they hear at home too. Until the 60ís or early 70ís 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 60ís and 70ís 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 youthís cult revolution, the Viet Nam war.

The 1960ís a lot of young people detached themselves from what they call their motherís and fatherís ways and wanted to establish what they call their own music.

So they said, If mom and dad listen to these artist Iím not going to listen to their music. Iím going to make up my own music. Therein, lies some of the problem today...So it goes back to they have to be educated. Itís 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. Itís like we met in your living room chatting and someone looks at their watch and says why donít you play something.

Itís very casual and hopefully out of the show we hope people will get information that will wet their appetite that leads them to carry on and go to the store and buy the record and get back involved and support straight ahead jazz.

Jazz Quad: I know this isnít the first time youíve performed gospel publicly-but this is your first-ever gospel album ďWith One VoiceĒ- Itís exciting and stimulating. What inspired you to record this album opening with Oh, happy Days? A classic

Ramsey Lewis: When Oh ! Happy Days came out in the 60ís 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 youíre that young and playing such powerful music that many times a week itís a blessing. Dad was the choir director at our church and he would have me playing certain songs he was going to rehearse, sayingĒ come on I want to learn this tuneĒ, ďplay this for meĒ.

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.

Jazz Quad: 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 Days and Oh pass me not my gentle saviour were two of the first songs that I put on my list and the others just came out of resourcefulness and looking around and listening. I like Donald Lawrence he lives here in Chicago, he use to live in North Carolina but moved to Chicago and Smokie Norful Iíve known him since he was a teenager.

Jazz Quad: Smokie Norful is a powerful singer!

Ramsey Lewis: Yes, he is, so it just sort of came together. I didnít 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, Iím going to do a gospel album everything just fell in place.

Jazz Quad: 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 itís 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 it was 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.

Jazz Quad: One of the hardest things for any jazz musician is finding their own style and a individual approach to the music. Has this been difficult for you?

Ramsey Lewis: My style didnít 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 nor to see my name in lights.

I didnít think about those things all I thought about was playing the piano and being as good as I could be. When 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, ď I heard your new record and I knew that was you right offĒ. It kinda 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 youíre 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.

Jazz Quad: Iím 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 continued 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 but the music was just there in the house for me to hear but I wasnít 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 itís good I like it.

Jazz Quad: 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: Itís been rewarding and I have the awards and have the physical things that come from certain successes but Iím still impressed more with music. When someone hands me an award, Iím appreciated and I show much gratitude and am impressed. But I bring it home I put it on the shelf and I go back to the piano. Because I know that life is not about awards. Life is about growth, evolution and getting to know yourself as honestly as possible and 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. Iím not belittling

awards donít 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.

Jazz Quad: 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 thereís 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. Itís all the music, donít 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, learning to perform in front of people. No Matter what it is, if itís a fashion show or at church. The more you can perform to fine tune what youíre about, the better youíll be in the long run.

Jazz Quad: Excellent advice. What other projects can we expect from you? I was looking at your schedule. I donít know how you did it

Ramsey Lewis: (laughter) Well, besides the PBS-Tv show airing next year, a tour in the summer of 06í, Iím working on two or three different albums. I donít know which one will be first. Iím about the music. There may be a solo project, it might be another gospel album, it might be another kind of album. I donít know its where the music takes me.

published 16.11.2005© 2005 jazz news :: home page

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