By Ron Wynn
NASHVILLE, TN — Few musicians in any genre have enjoyed either the success or the relevance and durability of pianist and bandleader Ramsey Lewis, The Chicago pianist, who passed away Sept. 13 at 87, enjoyed a career that spanned six decades. He was not only a long time soloist and recording artist, he was equally important as a broadcaster and advocate for jazz.
A brilliant musician, Lewis began on piano as a child, and was equally knowledgeable and formidable in both jazz and classical music. He used his roots in classical and gospel music to create his own style of jazz, which he performed in many Chicago venues that gave young musicians their start.
Lewis was also the rare jazz musician who had pop hits in the mid-60s. He would become a beloved entertainer and global star, touring and performing with other musical greats like Aretha Franklin, Tony Bennett, Al Jarreau and Pat Metheney. He played at the 1995 state dinner then-President Bill Clinton had hosted for President Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil. He also helped start the career of Earth, Wind and Fire creator and great Maurice White, who played drums in one of Lewis’ trios. Lewis later joined Earth, Wind and Fire on the hit tune and album “Sun Goddess,”Lewis received seven gold records as well as the three Grammys and was named National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2007.
“I just know that when I put my hands on the piano it’s going to flow,” Lewis said in a 2011 interview with the Associated Press.
He composed large-scale musical works later in his career including an eight-movement piece for Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet. Later in his career, Lewis hosted radio and tv shows focusing on jazz legends and growing stars, most importantly his program “Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis.” It aired weekly on public television stations across the country for several years..
He also dedicated his time to charities that brought music to young people.
“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 Facebook post. “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.”
Lewis spent the last year of his life completing his memoirs which are scheduled to be published next year, his longtime representative Brett Steele said. “I believe that my father — his love for the piano and his passion for the piano and how he coveted this love and how he protected it — that gave him longevity,” Bobby Lewis said. “He recognized the gift God had given him.”
In addition to his wife Janet and son Bobby, Lewis is survived by daughters Denise Jeffries and Dawn Allain; two other sons Kendall Kelly Lewis and Frayne Lewis; and a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.