Ramsey Lewis still jams with ‘The In Crowd’

Ravinia Festival photo
Jazz legend Ramsey Lewis will perform with his trio on Saturday, May 8, at Southold High School in a concert sponsored by The Arts in Southold Town.

If you grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, chances are you’ve heard jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis turn recognizable pop tunes such as “The In Crowd,” “Hang On Sloopy” and “Summer Breeze” into smooth and sophisticated jams, appropriate for both the dance hall and the elevator. And with his electric piano, Mr. Lewis defined the pop sounds of the mid-’70s, producing trippy, wordless funk anthems like “Sun Goddess” with members of Earth, Wind and Fire.

Though Mr. Lewis, now 74, had fun playing the role of “pop piano player” during those years, “anyone who came to my concerts back then knew that wasn’t the whole story,” he said. A pianist since the age of 4, this Chicago native studied Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, Brahms and Chopin during his younger years and discovered jazz as a teenager, taking inspiration from artists such as Duke Ellington, Art Tatum and Meade Lux Lewis.

Never known as a composer, Mr. Lewis recently discovered a long-hidden and prolific talent as a songwriter for solo piano, trio and full orchestra formats. After 80 albums over a 50-year career, Mr. Lewis released “Songs from the Heart: Ramsey Plays Ramsey” last September — his first-ever album of all originals.

When he’s not immersed in music as a solo artist or with his trio, comprising Larry Gray on bass and Leon Joyce on drums, Mr. Lewis hosts a morning drive-time radio show in Chicago and the syndicated two-hour radio program “Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis.”

The owner of three Grammy Awards, seven gold records and four honorary doctorate degrees, Mr. Lewis is on the board of trustees of the Merit School of Music, an inner city music program in downtown Chicago, and often speaks to students about the importance of music and education. He also serves as the artistic director for Chicago’s Ravinia Festival.

Before his performance at the Southold High School auditorium next Saturday, May 8, sponsored by The Arts in Southold Town, a reporter from Times/Review Newspapers got to chat with Mr. Lewis about his life and legacy as he took a break from composing a new song at his home in Chicago on Monday.

Q: What are you working on right now?

A: I’m in the middle of a suite of solo pieces, which will premiere in Tokyo. I’ve already written six and have about five to go.

Q: You’ve made a name for yourself interpreting other people’s songs — why start composing now?

A: Over the years, I’d write maybe one or two songs a year, but I never saw composing as my bag. Performance was where it was for me. But the last Ravinia Festival was a challenge, because I was commissioned to write hours’ worth of music on a deadline. And the response was outstanding. Critics who were ho-hum with me before took notice, “Hey — so this is what Ramsey is all about.” So it finally came to light that I should do an album of my own songs.

Q: With your background so rooted in classical and jazz, why did you stick with the easy-listening pop at a certain point?

A: From album one to album 17, I wasn’t given the title “piano player of pop music.” But fortunately, album 17 had a song called “The In Crowd,” and that album sold like a pop record. By that time, the jazz guys labeled me as a sellout. But we just called them fun songs, and it was the fun songs like “Wade in the Water” that took off within the meat-and-potatoes jazz we were also producing. I was labeled a pop guy throughout the SSRq60s and SSRq70s, but anyone who came to my concerts back then knew that wasn’t the whole story.

Q: What’s on the agenda for your Southold performance with the trio?

A: I make up a set list before every concert, but the guys have learned that this is just a ceremony I go through before the show. When I’m on stage, I go with the flow and the set list is gone to the wind. I like to change things up, the songs, the keys, the tempos.

We truly are a trio, not a piano player with guys accompanying me. We use our talents and energy to every possible advantage musically. On stage, we are intertwined.

Q: How old are you now?

A: I’ll be 75 next month.

Q: You don’t seem like you’ve slowed down.

A:Slow down? What does that mean? Why would I? I do what I do. My wife and 100 of my closest friends made a big deal out of my 70th and they probably will about 75, but I’ve never thought about age. I live in the moment. I’ve slowed down in that I used to play 125 dates a year, now I play 40 and I spread those throughout the year.

Q: But now, with your busy philanthropic schedule, is performing still your priority?

A: After my marriage — and I have a wonderful one — after that, music is my life. Performing, practicing, writing … I put them all on line number one. But I came to a point in my life when I realized how important it is to give back, not only to your immediate community but to the world at large. One does not enjoy a career such as mine in a vacuum. It takes support and encouragement — and people to buy CDs and tickets when they don’t have to. I don’t take any of that for granted.

The Ramsey Lewis Trio

in a concert hosted by The Arts in Southold Town

Saturday, May 8, 7:30 p.m.

Southold High School Auditorium

420 Oaklawn Ave., Southold

Tickets are $45. For reservations or more information, call 734-6320. Tickets are also available at Cecily’s Love Lane Gallery in Mattituck, Peconic Liquors in Cutchogue, Old Country Charm in Southold, JET’s Dream in Greenport and Barth’s Drugstore in Riverhead.