Chicago guy guy chicago

Chicago guy guy chicago

This week, the jazz world lost one of its last great missionaries. The death of Ramsay Lewis at the age of 87 marks not only the end of a man, but in many ways it also marks the end of an era for music and for his hometown of Chicago.

For over sixty years, Lewis has wowed jazz fans with his innovative piano style and ability to combine jazz with Soul, Funk, and R&B. He was able to do what jazz artists couldn’t, some would argue. Ramsey Lewis sold records. When jazz was in decline in the ’60s, Lewis did what seemed perfectly reasonable now and then before, he looked to rock and soul of the day for jazz. Of course, jazz freaked me out. Of course, music lovers were delighted.

In 1965, after years of playing, Lewis released “The In Crowd,” the album and song recorded at Bohemian Caverns that became his signature. What makes the song a hit is Louis’ skillful playing, narrow band, and more room energy. When Ramsay Lewis got into a groove, so did the audience. It was the audience’s applause and a church-like call and response that led the song and album to the top of the Billboard R&B charts. The Ramsay Lewis trio’s follow-ups to this hit were “Hang on Sloopy” and “Wade in the Water” (my favorite and unofficial songs).

Like greats like Miles Davis or Oscar Peterson, Lewis has surrounded himself with genius musicians. In his trilogy, Lewis was flanked by Eddie Young on bass and Red Holt on drums. These two would later form Young Holt Unlimited, another trio topping chart aspirations. When Young and Holt left, Lewis replaced Cleveland Easton on the bassโ€”which always blows my mind Maurice White on the drums. White would continue to be the co-leader of Earth Winds and Fire. This made Ramsey Lewis something of a fulcrum for Chicago music in the ’60s and ’70s.

If anything, it’s this role as kind of the godfather of Chicago music. You see, Ramsay Lewis was more than just a world-class musician who created a musical genre. It was more than just a DJ who helped invent the Smooth Jazz radio format. Ramsey Lewis was a young man from Chicago. He told Jazz Monthly: “Well, I’m all about optimism, I’m all about keeping the faith, I’m all about making cheerful noise and if it gets to people, I’ve done my job.” Few have preserved the doctrine and story of Black Chicago better than Ramsay or Mr. Lewis as he was affectionately called in his South Shore neighborhood.

You can see this commitment in how it is in the world. According to his obituary in the Chicago Sun-Times, Lewis was born and raised in Chicago. He began taking music lessons at 4 years old at the Chicago Preparatory School of Music. He later graduated from Wales High School. (There must have been something in the water in Wales, because Lewis would be followed by “Snowman” Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield at High on Chicago’s near West Side.) Many musicians of his caliber have left Chicago for good. But over the years, I’ve seen Lewis all over town and beyond.

Lewis was a staple of the famous London House Club in downtown Chicago. Years ago, I interviewed another Chicago legend Tom Burrell for NPR’s Planet Money. One of the first black advertising directors of the 1960s, Burrell recalls how the London House was the apotheosis of downtown Chicago nightlife in the 1960s and Ramsey Lewis led the band. As Jane Seymour wrote for NPR, “Lewis has made a bold investment in an investment in the future of jazz as any (so-called) avant-garde or neoclassical.” Whether it’s the Grant Park jazz festival, playing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, defining smooth jazz on records and radio or his twenty-five years of leading jazz in Ravinia, Lewis has proven night after night that he’s a Chicago man. It was not simply that he chose not to leave Chicago, but rather that he invested so much in the life of the city.

According to the Sun Times, Lewis returns to his elementary school regularly to perform. In addition to Maurice White, and Verden White (both from Earth Wind and Fire), Lewis encouraged a city full of musicians. You can’t throw a drum in Chicago without hitting a musician he taught, played with, or inspired by Lewis. His elementary school, Jenner Elementary, was under the infamous Cabrini Green housing project. Cabrini Green is gone. Since 1980, nearly a third of Chicago’s black population (including myself) has left, according to the University of Illinois at Chicago. It’s that upbeat hustle that delivers so much success that Black Chicago had its heyday.

I feel the same about Ramsay Lewis’ death as when Ebony and Jet shut down, when the Gardners sold Soft Sheen or when Johnsons sold Afro-Sheen. The world has lost musically. Chicago lost a Chicago man. Not just someone who knows where to get a piece of ham at 2am or how not to get lost in the aisle.

A Chicago man uses his art, anger, strength, and love to improve city life. From Highland Park to Petrillo Band Shell to Jackson Highlands to 87th Stony Island and beyond, like the Ramsey Lewis esprit de Chicago. If his only contribution was his music, he would be a legend, but so much of his career and life was spent trying to improve city life. Musicians are saddened by their fans. Ramsey Lewis will be listed with names such as Thelonius Monk, Art Tatum, and Oscar Peterson. In Chicago, the name Lewis will join the names of Chicago greats like Dusable, DePriest, and Daley. He’s obviously a great musician but he was born in his hometown, a real man from Chicago.

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