“A Writing Fool”: A Chat with Jazz Legend Ramsey Lewis
Chicago pianist Ramsey Lewis was gigging with his trio at DC..'s Bohemian Caverns 45 years ago this month when he covered Dobie Gray's hit single "The In Crowd." Lewis' version would become a massive Top Five hit, eclipsing even the original and marking one of jazz's last gasps as jukebox music.
Lewis has remained a jazz icon in the intervening years, but has recently reinvented himself as a long-form composer. His 2009 album of originals, Songs From the Heart: Ramsey Plays Ramsey, was a startling revelation and the best jazz record of the year. He performs some of that material on tomorrow night at the Warner Theatre with his trio (bassist Larry Gray, drummer Leon Joyce) and singer Ann Hampton Callaway. In anticipation of the show, Lewis spoke to Washington City Paper about his new career trajectory and his relationship with the city that made him a star.
Washington City Paper: This is your first appearance in D.C. with Ann Hampton Callaway. Have you performed with her elsewhere?
Ramsey Lewis: Oh, we’ve done three or four concerts together around the country in the past couple of years. She’s a wonderful musician and a wonderful singer.
WCP: What can we expect to hear you doing together?
RL: Well, it’s hard to say. We literally decide the night of the show. She will perform some songs together with my trio, then I will perform some songs alone with my trio, and then her piano player will come out and do some songs with her. But it’s whatever we feel like doing when it comes time for the show.
WCP: It sounds like this is really a double-bill concert with some overlap in the acts.
RL: That’s one way to put it, yes. But it is one continuous concert. There’s no intermission or anything; it all flows together. It is a single performance.
WCP: Will you be performing original material?
RL: Which originals?
WCP: Well, in particular the ones on Songs From the Heart.
RL: Oh, yes. Yes, that’s the basically the entire concert, is that material. And it’s been very, very well received; I think I’ll keep my composing hat on for a while!
WCP: I was just going to ask you about that – you seem to be enjoying quite the rebirth as a composer.
RL: That’s exactly what’s happening, and it’s quite a surprise, because it happened by chance. I’ve written music, on occasion, all the way back to the 1950s. But it was just on occasion, really. And what happened is that a few years ago, I was commissioned to compose one hour of music for the Joffrey Ballet. And I worked very closely with the Joffrey Ballet for quite a while. When it premiered, the performance was extremely well received, and then the music on its own was also very well received. My son made his way backstage after the performance, and said, “Dad, that may be the first performance of yours I’ve ever seen where you got a standing ovation without performing one of your hit records.” That was very encouraging to me.
Since then I’ve been a writing fool. In 2008 I composed a suite that I performed with the Turtle Island String Quartet, part of which is on the record, Songs From the Heart. Last year I was commissioned to write two hours of music for the Ravinia Festival for the bicentennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. In fact, I’ve been invited to perform that work at the Kennedy Center in November.
Now also, I have a new record label, Concord Records, and after I signed with them and we got all the business negotiations out of the way, they asked “Now what are you going to record for us? Let’s start with something along the lines of the sound that people expect from you.” So I actually had a set of other people’s music lined up to record, and it was my wife who suggested, “Why don’t you send them some of the things you’ve written?” So I did that, and Concord saw it and said, “Yes. Let’s put out a record of this.” And the reviews have been very, very positive, 100% favorable both on the record and in live performance.
WCP: You seem to have taken it in a different direction – a much more classical influence than we’ve heard from you in the past.
RL: Well, that comes from the many years that I trained as a classical musician. That was the music I learned first, and I spent quite a bit of time and dedication to learning the classical repertoire on the piano. So obviously it was in me to work with that music, along with the jazz and gospel that came later. But I don’t think that the classical rose to the top, so to speak, until I started writing like this. I’m not sure how or why, but it certainly does have an important place in what I write.
WCP: How much of that is the project – since, for example, ballet is so often associated with classical music?
RL: Well, I don’t really think about projects when I’m composing. I work with what I’m given. And it is a gift—a gift from Creation, from the Creator; from God the Father.
WCP: Have you written lyrics for any of them? In other words, will we hear any of these songs performed with Ann Hampton Callaway?
RL: You know, she had said that this was something she might take a crack at. She has the record and suggested that she might try writing lyrics for some of the songs. So we’ll see—maybe she’s come up with something.
WCP: Do you still feel an obligation to do “The In Crowd” or “Hang on Sloopy” at these concerts of your original music?
RL: Yes. You know, the concert proper is the original music, but in the finale and the encore I’ll play songs like those.
WCP: I wonder if you feel a kinship with Washington, having had your biggest success originate here.
RL: I felt a special kinship with Washington even before I recorded “The In Crowd” at Bohemian Caverns. When we were just an unknown trio from Chicago, we would come to Washington and play here, and people always came out to see us and filled up the clubs. For quite a while we were playing there so often that I thought of Washington as being a second home. So I do feel quite a kinship with the city.