Last week, the music world mourned the news that jazz pianist, three-time Grammy winner and NEA jazz master Ramsey Lewis passed away peacefully at his Chicago home on the morning of September 12. He was 87 years old.
His family announced the news on their Facebook page. Read the rest of the family’s obituary below:
Ramsey E. Lewis, Jr. was born in Chicago on May 27, 1935. Growing up in the Cabrini Green housing project, he began taking piano lessons at age four and played piano at the church, where his father was a choir director. A jazz fan who played a lot of Duke Ellington and Art Tatum at home and took his son to jazz concerts, Ramsey Lewis Sr. encouraged Ramsey to adopt this music.
When Ramsey was a freshman at Wells High School, saxophonist and pianist Wallace Burton, another church musician whose jazz adventures had attracted Ramsey, asked him to join his band, the Clefs, a middle school septet which mixed jazz and R&B.
Lewis needed to familiarize himself with bebop and other styles of jazz, but learned on the job. After the outbreak of the Korean War, the Military Draft claimed several Keys members, including Burton. The three members who were not drafted – Lewis, bassist Eldee Young and drummer Redd Holt – formed what would become the classic Ramsey Lewis Trio.
In 1956, they released their first album, “Ramsey Lewis and His Gentlemen of Jazz”, on the Chess label. Three years later, Lewis was invited to perform with the trio at Birdland in New York. Their three-week gig led to performances at the Newport Jazz Festival and the Village Vanguard, and recordings with Max Roach, Clark Terry and Sonny Stitt.
Lewis had a major breakthrough in 1965 with the first crossover hit, “The In Crowd”. The stylishly funky, Grammy-winning song (written by Dobie Gray) was followed by two more chart-topping hits, “Hang on Sloopy” and “Wade in the Water.”
After Young and Holt left to form their own band, Lewis continued in the trio format with bassist Cleveland Eaton and future eminence Earth, Wind & Fire Maurice White on drums. He then experimented with electronic keyboards in larger contexts.
A highlight was his 1974 album “Sun Goddess”, produced by White and featuring members of Earth, Wind & Fire (which he would tour with falsetto specialist Philip Bailey years later). The recording established Lewis as a fusion music icon with wide appeal.
Over the years Lewis has performed and recorded in a remarkable variety of musical contexts. Throughout the 70s he embraced R&B and Latin music without abandoning traditional jazz. In 1983, on the album Réunion, he recreated his most famous trio.
In 1995, he featured crossover supergroup Urban Knights, featuring Grover Washington Jr., Earl Klugh and Dave Koz. Urban Knights I was the first of the band’s eight albums. In 2005, returning to his gospel roots, Lewis recorded With One Voice, which earned him the Stellar Gospel Music Award for Best Gospel Instrumental Album.
Among his many accolades were five honorary doctorates and an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Jazz Artist. The single “The In Crowd” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and his personal memorabilia resides at the Smithsonian Institution.
Lewis received a 2007 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Award, which placed him in the sacred company of piano legends such as Ahmad Jamal, Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, Dr. Billy Taylor and Cecil Taylor.
In the late 80s, Lewis was still in contact with the younger generations. His monthly livestream series Saturday Salon, produced during the pandemic by his wife Jan, has won critical acclaim. His upcoming album, “The Beatles Songbook: The Saturday Salon Series, Volume One,” which will be released Nov. 11 through Steele Records, was taken from the live performances.
Ramsey also spent the last year of his life working on his memoir “Gentleman of Jazz” with co-writer Aaron Cohen. The book will be released via Blackstone Publishing in 2023.
Ramsey Lewis is survived by his beloved wife Janet Lewis; daughters Denise Jeffries and Dawn Allain (Michael); sons Kendall Kelly Lewis, Frayne Lewis (Juletta) and Bobby Lewis (Crystal); grandchildren Apryl Daniels (Dennis), Regan Lewis, Kris Jeffries (Nailah), Joshua Allain, Junell Lewis, Malachi Lewis, Aja Alain, Jordan Lewis, Ramsey Lewis IV, Dorien Olson-Lewis, Miyoshie Lewis, Meshach Lewis, Taylor Lewis , Kevai Lewis, Frayne Lewis Jr., Niya Lewis and Asia Lewis; great-grandchildren Jalen Simmons, Dennis Daniels III, Omari Jackson; nieces Paula Jackson and Kimberly Johnson; and his nephew James Johnson.
He was predeceased by his sons Ramsey Lewis III and Kevyn Lewis.
“Ramsey’s passion for music was truly fueled by the love and dedication of his fans around the world. He loved touring and meeting music lovers from so many cultures and backgrounds.
It was our family’s great pleasure to share Ramsey in this special way with all who admired his God-given talents. We will be forever grateful for your support. —Jan Lewis.
In lieu of flowers, please make donations to the Jazz Foundation of America at www.jazzfoundation.org.
Source: The family of Ramsey Lewis