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Wendi Kromash: Ramsey Lewis, a jazz great who stayed true to Chicago

Ramsey Lewis died at his home in Chicago on Sept. 12.

Ramsey Lewis performs at Daley Plaza.

The prolific composer, jazz pianist and radio personality was 87 years old at the time of his death.

I no longer have a turntable to play the album, but I still cherish my copy of The Best of Ramsey Lewis, released in 1970. The sepia-toned cover of the album is a photograph of the Lewis family.

It’s a photograph I’ve looked at many times. Aaron Cohen, Lewis’ biographer (who grew up in Evanston, graduated from ETHS in 1987 and whose parents still live here) said it’s Lewis surrounded by his family. Lewis is wearing a dashiki jacket, a popular fashion item at the time.

Ramsey sits ramrod straight in the center on a chair with a back so high it could be a throne. Five of his six children encircle him, while the youngest, a son, sits on his lap. His younger daughter grasps his left wrist. Other than the child being held, this grasp is the only physical contact between any of the family members.

Ramsey Lewis in October of 2009

His first wife, Geraldine Taylor, is on the right, behind Lewis, visibly pregnant with their seventh child. There are two wooden plant stands with plants on either side of the family, serving as bookends or guards.

Two of the boys in the photograph, Ramsey Lewis III and Kevyn, would predecease their parents.

The other sons, including the one in utero, would go on to have careers in music. Frayne plays bass guitar and keyboards for his band, Frayne, and also produces music. Bobby is a gospel minister. Kelly is a drummer.

The two daughters, Dawn and Denise, stood. The older one holds on to one of the finials at the back of the chair. As adults, Denise worked in publishing. Dawn consults in the grocery industry, said Cohen.

Only one of the children, the second-youngest son, is smiling. Every other person in the photograph has a serious expression. There is tension in the photograph.

This is a beautiful family – truly, the best of Ramsey Lewis. I keep hoping for joy and don’t find it on the cover. The joy is on the inside, on the vinyl and in the music.

Cohen worked with the jazz legend for most of the past two years on this authorized biography scheduled to be published in 2023. The working title is Ramsey Lewis: A Gentleman of Jazz, a riff on Lewis’ 1956 album, The Ramsey Lewis Trio – Ramsey Lewis and His Gentle-Men of Swing.

Cohen recalled Lewis’ strong local legacy, from his birth in the Cabrini-Green housing project, through his life as he always remained true to Chicago. He worked locally and hired local musicians, according to Cohen. Lewis was well known for encouraging and mentoring younger musical artists, He was “a fixture in the local jazz community, constantly evolving, from Ravinia to his trio to developing work for a symphony,” said Cohen.

Lewis’ 1965 album The In Crowd was a crossover hit. It reached the no. 2 spot on the Billboard 200 and the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums. It was released on the Argo label. Lewis won a Grammy for Best Jazz Performance with The In Crowd in 1965. (“The In Crowd” is one of the songs on The Best of Ramsey Lewis; it’s the first cut on the B side.)

In 1974, his album Sun Goddess reached No. 12 on the Billboard 200, no. 1 on the Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums and No. 1 on Billboard’s Jazz albums. Sun Goddess was released by Columbia Records.

Lewis’ close friend, Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire fame, played on the album and helped produce it. Philip Bailey, also from Earth, Wind and Fire, sang.

When asked about the meaning of the lyric “Way-O,” Cohen said that Lewis told him that it meant nothing. Paraphrasing what Lewis told him, Cohen said, “It was a wordless sound, but White thought the beginning of the song needed something else and this made up sound was soothing. It worked.”

Lewis was fearless when it came to exploring musical genres. If it had a good sound and resonated to him, he liked it regardless of what type of music it was. Cohen said Lewis loved to be “surprised and delighted” when listening to new music. He established the jazz mentor program at Ravinia in Highland Park.

Lewis released an album in 2021 and his family intimated there is another release in the works. In an email to Cohen confirmed, “There is an album coming out of Ramsey’s Beatles’ covers, which he performed as streaming concerts from his home. It’s called The Beatles Songbook: The Saturday Salon Series, Volume One and (will be) issued by Steele Records.”

Lewis received many honors throughout his life including two other Grammys in 1966 and 1973. Five of his albums were certified gold in the US by the Recording Industry Association of America. In 2007, he received the Jazz Masters Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. That year, he also received the Legendary Landmark award from Landmarks Illinois, which recognized him as a “living treasure.”

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