Three-time Grammy winning pianist and NEA Jazz Master Ramsey Lewis died in his sleep at home in Chicago on September 12. He was 87. His most recent Twin Cities appearance was at the Dakota with his quintet in 2017.
A native of Chicago, Ramsey Lewis was well known for his gospel inflected style that melded with his classical training. Studying piano from age 4, he was immersed in the great classical composers, hearing little jazz beyond his father’s recordings of Ellington and Tatum. When he was fifteen, he was invited to join a jazz band led by one of the musicians at his church, and soon Lewis was playing gigs with The Clefs. When the Korean War broke up the septet, Lewis formed his first trio with the remaining rhythm section. While jazz was now an important part of his musical life, it never replaced his affinity for classical and gospel music.
Lewis’ first trio hit the charts with Ramsey Lewis and the Gentlemen of Swing (1956). With pop grooves and often playing electric piano, Lewis attracted a wide following in the 50s and 60s, crossing genres with big hits like “The In Crowd,” “Hang On Sloopy,” and “Wade in the Water.” Moving farther away from acoustic formats, Lewis became a star of 70s R&B fusion and funk, releasing his chart-topping Sun Goddess in 1974. Lewis also gained popularity through his radio broadcasts, particularly Legends of Jazz. In 2006, he co-produced the thirteen-segment Legends of Jazz for PBS television broadcast, which in turn became an acclaimed DVD/CD collection and solo release. The first release from Ramsey’s “new” electric ensemble, Ramsey: Taking Another Look, hit the streets in late 2011, taking off where Sun Goddess left off, and garnering wide praise for its “hip grooves, funky guitar backdrops…and tight rhythm section arrangements” (JazzReview.com). A deluxe edition of this recording was released in summer 2015.
In addition to an unprecedented seven gold records and three Grammy Awards, Lewis received the NAACP Jazz Artist Award in 2004, Stellar Award for Best Gospel Instrumental Album in 2006 (With One Voice), and in 2007 was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Over the years he served on numerous boards of music schools and programs, and directed the annual Jazz at Ravinia in Chicago, where in 2007 the Joffrey Ballet premiered To Know Her, featuring original compositions from Lewis. In 2005, he formed the Ramsey Lewis Foundation to provide youth with instruments to study music as well as to develop skills associated with performance.
Lewis continued to actively tour with his band well into his 80s. His album, The Beatles Songbook: The Saturday Salon Series, Volume One, which will be released November 11 by Steele Records, was drawn from his recent series of livestream performances. Ramsey also spent the last year of his life working on his memoir Gentleman of Jazz with his co-writer, Aaron Cohen. The book will be released via Blackstone Publishing in 2023.
Ramsey Lewis is survived by his wife Janet Lewis; daughters Denise Jeffries and Dawn Allain (Michael); sons Kendall Kelly Lewis, Frayne Lewis (Julletta), 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, and Omari Jackson; he was predeceased by his sons Ramsey Lewis III and Kevyn Lewis. In lieu of flowers, please make donations to The Jazz Foundation of America at https://jazzfoundation.org/