Ramsey Lewis, a renowned pianist who seamlessly connected the worlds of jazz and popular music, passed away on Monday in Chicago, reports NPR. He was 87.
His son Bobby Lewis confirmed that his passing was due to natural causes. He also said that his father was at peace at the time of his death.
“Most people say when they met dad that he was a class act,” Bobby Lewis said. “He was that way even through his last breath.”
In a Facebook post, Ramsey's wife Janet Lewis paid tribute to her husband and his enduring legacy as a musician.
“Ramsey’s passion for music was truly fueled by the love and dedication of his fans across the globe,” stated her 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.”
Ramsey Emmanuel Lewis Jr. was born in Chicago and grew up in the Cabrini-Green housing project where he began playing piano at the age of 4. At his church, he played piano and the organ while studying classical music at the Chicago Music College Preparatory School.
The influence of gospel and classical music would be a major theme of Lewis’s artistry.
“I lucked out because both my parents loved classical and gospel music,” Lewis recalled in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times in 2018. “My dad loved jazz as well. So, I was hearing this music around the house since I was born."
After playing with several local bands, Lewis joined a jazz group called The Clefs as a freshman at Chicago's Wells High School. Drummer Isaac “Red” Holt and bassist Eldee Young were also part of the ensemble and they would eventually form the Ramsey Lewis Trio.
Shortly thereafter, the group became one the most sought-after bands in jazz, releasing numerous critically acclaimed and commercially successful albums. Their hit single “In Crowd” earned the group a Grammy award for Best Instrumental Jazz Performance; it also peaked at Number 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1965. The crossover success of the Ramsey Lewis Trio was a rare feat for jazz musicians in the 1960s.
When Holt and Young left the group (they would later have several hits as Young-Holt Unlimited), they were replaced by bassist Cleveland Eaton and a young drummer named Maurice White. White left the group in 1970 to establish Earth, Wind, and Fire.
In 1974, Lewis reunited with White on Sun Goddess accompanied by Earth, Wind, and Fire. The album topped Billboard's Top Soul Albums chart and its title track became a hit single.
Beginning in the 1990s, Lewis hosted a syndicated weekly radio program, “Legends of Jazz With Ramsey Lewis.” In 2006, he hosted a public television series of the same name. The program featured live performances by jazz legends such as Dave Brubeck, Chick Corea, Tony Bennett and others.
As a philanthropist, Lewis founded the Ramsey Lewis Foundation in 2005 “to help connect at-risk children to the world of music.”
The National Endowment for the Arts named him a Jazz Master, the nation’s highest honor for a jazz musician in 2007.Throughout his remarkable career, Lewis recorded over 80 albums, won three Grammys, and earned five gold records.
Lewis believed that improvisation was not only his musical style of choice but his way of life
"I think [in] everything I do, the common denominator is improvisation," he said in an interview for the National Endowment For the Arts in 2006. "Improvisation that should swing, have some forward motion to it, even if it's a ballad, to have some movement about it. Where are you going to find that spontaneous improvisation in the moment except in jazz?"
Ramsey Lewis is survived by his loving wife Janet Lewis, daughters Denise Jeffries and Dawn Allain, sons Kendall Kelly Lewis, Frayne Lewis, and Bobby Lewis, several grandchildren, great-grandchildren and a host of nieces and nephews.
He was predeceased by his sons Ramsey Lewis III and Kevyn Lewis.
We at EBONY extend our prayers and deepest condolences to the family and friends of Ramsey Lewis.