Ramsey Lewis (1935–2022)

Sep 13, 2022 | R.I.P.

By Emmanuel Camarillo and Miriam Di Nunzio | Chicago Sun*Times

Chicago native Ramsey Lewis, the iconic jazz pianist and composer who scored on the pop charts with the 1965 hit “The In Crowd,” died Monday at 87.

A statement on his Facebook page listed no cause of death but said Mr. Lewis “died peacefully at his home in Chicago” Monday morning.

“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 statement. “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. We are forever grateful for your support.”

Mr. Lewis was born and raised in Chicago, where his family lived and worked in the shadow of Cabrini-Green. His music studies ran the gamut, from playing the organ on Sundays at his local church to piano lessons at the age of 4 to the Chicago Music College Preparatory School. He attended Jenner Elementary School and was a graduate of Wells High School.

At the Chicago Music College Preparatory School, he began studying with Dorothy Mendelsohn, and he credited her with teaching him “how to listen with his inner ear” and introducing him to Bach, Beethoven and Chopin. She also entered him in competitions and recitals.

“I started studying classical music so young,” Mr. Lewis told the Sun-Times in a 2018 interview. “I loved, and still love, Chopin and Beethoven. And gospel music. I lucked out because both my parents [Ramsey E. Lewis Sr. and Pauline Lewis] loved classical and gospel music. My dad loved jazz as well. So I was hearing this music around the house since I was born.”

His six-decade music career would take him to the height of the jazz world, across the globe to music festivals and honors that included three Grammy Awards and a 2007 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Award. He recorded 80 albums, five of which attained gold status. For years he hosted the popular radio program “Ramsey Lewis and Legends of Jazz,” begun in 1997, on WNUA-FM.

In 2002, Mr. Lewis was part of the official Olympic Torch Relay Team, carrying the torch onto the stage of the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park as part of the flame’s official Chicago area stop ahead of the Winter Games in Utah.

His first band, the Clefs, evolved from a group he joined as a freshman at Wells High School. Three of the Clefs — Mr. Lewis, bassist Eldee Young and drummer Redd Holt — later became what would become known as the classic Ramsey Lewis Trio.

Their instrumental cover of “The In Crowd,” written by Dobie Gray, charted in 1965 and was followed by two more hits, “Hang on Sloopy” and “Wade in the Water.”

“Way before we had [gigs at] Orchestra Hall and the Chicago Theatre, there were bars and taverns and lounges on almost every corner and in every part of the city,” Mr. Lewis told the Sun-Times in that same 2018 interview.

“It was great because it gave musicians coming up [in the ranks] the chance to get their act together, get their performance chops. It gave them the chance to try this musical style, that musical style. You were not yet ready for Orchestra Hall, but there’s a bar on the corner that will pay you a couple of bucks, give you some Coca-Cola, and you can bring in your group and play what you want to. There were almost no weekends that you could not find some place to perform. And it was wonderful.”

The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. called Mr. Lewis “one of the greatest musicians of all time” in a statement on Twitter. “For more than 40 years, we were neighbors. Our children grew up together. He had a kinship with musicians. Ramsey had exquisite taste and was formally trained and disciplined. I will miss him as a friend and a neighbor. He joined the ranks of great musicians. He was a radio personality, international pianist and composer. Rest In Peace, my brother beloved.”

Mr. Lewis was beloved by jazz aficionados across the Chicago area, performing at the Chicago Jazz Festival, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for which he composed “Concerto for Jazz Trio and Orchestra” in 2015, with Lyric Opera stars, and at Ravinia, where he made his debut in 1966. He also was a staple at Chicago’s iconic (and long-ago shuttered) London House jazz club. (Lewis would play the club’s final show in 1975.)

“Ramsey Lewis was Ravinia’s guiding light of jazz for decades as a brilliant performer, as an educator, as Ravinia’s encourager-in-chief of young jazz artists, and as a composer,” said former Ravinia CEO and president Welz Kauffman.

It was for Ravinia that Mr. Lewis composed two commissioned works, the multimedia “Proclamation of Hope,” written for the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, and “To Know Her,” a full score for the Joffrey Ballet. He founded the Ravinia Jazz Mentors & Scholars program at the venue, and its Steans Music Institute jazz residency. For 25 years, he served as Artistic Director of Jazz at Ravinia.

“Ramsey Lewis was a first-class representative of Chicago to his fans around the world, and we’re grateful that he was a native son of our fine city,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said on Twitter. “Fans here loved experiencing his creative genius at our many concert venues, and he was equally as energized by the local crowds.”

He also filled Symphony Center’s Orchestra Hall with his music, performing several times over the years in concert, most recently in 2017 as part of a concert for the “Symphony Center Presents Jazz” series.

When asked about his musical influences in that 2018 interview, Mr. Lewis offered this insight:

“That’s a hard one. I don’t know if there’s any one musician who I can say influenced me. I was impressed by the music of [jazz piano great] Art Tatum, but I cannot play like Art Tatum. Not many musicians can. I was impressed with the piano playing of Oscar Peterson, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Erroll Garner. … Did Vladimir Horowitz impress me? Yes. Rudolf Serkin? Yes. Any more than Art or Oscar? I don’t know.”

Mr. Lewis chuckled, adding: “Maybe people are now saying Ramsey Lewis impressed them.”

He is survived by his wife; five children; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

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