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Beloved Chicago jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis marks his 80th birthday - Chicago Tribune

Ramsey Lewis seats himself at the Steinway grand in the living room of his downtown home, opens his score, ogles it, then unfurls a series of expansive, gorgeous chords.

Soon he's off and running, improvising on his theme, his music evoking the French impressionist sounds of Claude Debussy, albeit with an unmistakable jazz pulse.

But this isn't just any tune he's playing: It's the opening pages of his Concerto for Jazz Trio and Orchestra, which he'll perform in its world premiere Saturday night at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park. Onstage with Lewis' trio will be the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, meaning that this evening not only will launch one of Lewis' most ambitious works but will mark his debut with a hometown orchestra revered around the world.

At age 80, a milestone Lewis passed on May 27.

Not a bad way to celebrate.

"It doesn't get any bigger," says Lewis, as he offers a visitor a brief, annotated tour through his four-movement jazz concerto. "It opens the door to other things."

Yes, even at this exalted age, the beloved Chicago jazz pianist is looking ahead to where his long journey in music will take him next. But first there's the matter of getting through a magnum opus that bristles with dialogue between soloist and orchestra, passages of free improvisation and swing-driven music for trio.

Can all the parts come together without causing a train wreck? Will Lewis' score — arranged and orchestrated by Scott Hall, who will conduct the CSO — live up to listener expectations for a sprawling concerto?

Can Lewis pass the high hurdle he has set for himself?

"The proof will be in the pudding," says Lewis, after he has played the main themes of the work.

Regardless of what happens, "the performance on Aug. 8 means a lot," he adds. "It's telling me that I can write long-form works, that I've gone from writing a song or two for an album to being able to write for 45 minutes to an hour with no less than the symphony orchestra. Though I didn't arrange it — Scott (Hall) came here and we stayed here (to work).

"And it gives me comfort to know that I can finally call myself a composer. … I can finally put on my cap that says 'composer.'"

In truth, Lewis has been wearing that hat for years, the Ravinia Festival – where he serves as artistic director for jazz — having commissioned him to create several major concert works.

Among them, his dance score "To Know Her …" unfolded as a warmly lyrical, chamber-style collaboration with the Joffrey Ballet in 2007; his "Proclamation of Hope" marked the Abraham Lincoln bicentennial as a multimedia extravaganza in 2009 (later reprised at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.)

But the concerto stands apart from these compositions, in that the new piece carries no extra-musical narrative (like "Proclamation") nor a collaborative role ("To Know Her …"). Instead, the concerto will succeed or fail as pure concert music, a formidable test — all the more because of the rarity of jazz concertos.

The idea for the piece came from the same source that instigated all of Lewis' jazz-meets-the-classics affairs: Ravinia President and CEO Welz Kauffman.

An accomplished classical pianist in his own right, Kauffman in effect has given Lewis an unexpected chapter late in his career.

"I think the timing was right for me to come to Ravinia, meet this man who had been an idol of mine from when I was a kid — as a pianist, as a musician, as someone who inspired me to try to be a jazz pianist, which I'm miserable at," says Kauffman.

"To give back a little bit and open up a new avenue (for Lewis) is an excellent opportunity — and it just seemed kind of logical."

But how do you top a bicentennial jazz tribute to the American president who saved the Union?

And "what do you do for someone's 80th birthday, when he's already done so much for the world and Chicago and Ravinia?" Kauffman asked himself.

"I knew that he started as a child to be a classical pianist. I thought: Great, CSO debut, maybe he'd play 'Rhapsody in Blue' or a Mozart concerto or who knows what?

"Then I thought: No, let's take it up a notch and have him write something, since he's enjoying composing so much."

Lewis "jumped all over it, no hesitation" when he heard the idea, Kauffman says.

Indeed, Lewis recalls immediately dipping into four notebooks of original musical ideas he has been collecting since Kauffman commissioned him to write the Joffrey score nearly a decade ago.

Once Lewis began riffing at the piano on a couple of those musical snippets, he didn't need the notebooks anymore: "It takes on a life of its own," he says.

Arranger-orchestrator Hall, who's director of jazz studies at Columbia College Chicago, repeatedly visited Lewis' home to hear and record the new music, studied it, then returned often with suggestions. The two musicians quickly realized that the piece Kauffman had asked for, a straightforward concerto for piano and orchestra (without bass and drums), wasn't going to work.

"I said, 'Ramsey, I don't think you're going to want to do this without your trio,'" recalls Hall. "'You're going to want to have moments when you want to improvise, and the orchestra will not be able to accompany what you do.'"

Even a symphonic ensemble as formidable as the CSO, in other words, is not trained or equipped to respond the way seasoned jazz musicians can.

Kauffman says he immediately approved the idea of making this a concerto for jazz trio and orchestra, and Lewis and Hall have spent the past year honing the new opus.

For Lewis, though, this was far more than just a commission: It was a precious opportunity to complete a circle in life. As a child, he had dreamed of becoming a concert pianist, but the odds were stacked sharply against him.

His father, a maintenance man, and his mother, who cleaned homes in the Gold Coast, struggled to afford piano lessons. Somehow they managed, nurturing Lewis' love of classical music.

"By the time I was 13 years old," he told me in a 1996 interview, "I figured that I would tour the world playing classical music in all the Orchestra Halls and Carnegie Halls in the world."

But opportunities for young black soloists to crack the virtually all-white world of classical music were scarce.

Even so, when Lewis — who also had been playing gospel music in church since childhood — was invited to the join the Cleffs jazz band at age 15, his mother still harbored the hope that her son might yet become a concert pianist.

"She was afraid I was going to mess up my technique" playing jazz, remembers Lewis. "She didn't see that I was already playing gospel music, which is not classical."

So Lewis' mother went to visit Dorothy Mendelsohn, who had been teaching the youngster at Chicago Musical College since he was 11.

"And she said: 'Miss Mendelsohn, Ramsey has an opportunity to play with a dance band, but I don't want him to mess up his technique — he's playing Chopin and Liszt!'" remembers Lewis.

"She said to my mother: 'I'll be honest with you. … There are not many opportunities for an African-American musician to play classical music,'" says Lewis. "'And I think little Ramsey should take every opportunity he can to play where and when he can. And, no, it will not mess up his technique.'"

So Lewis joined the Cleffs, and when the Korean War broke up the band, the core of Lewis, drummer Red Holt and bassist Eldee Young carried forth.

By 1955, legendary deejay Daddy-O Daylie discovered the trio's bluesy, gospel-tinged work and arranged for an audition with Phil Chess, who had founded Chess Records with his brother Leonard.

The "Ramsey Lewis and His Gentlemen of Swing" album put the musicians on the cultural map in 1956, and their 1965 album, "The In Crowd" — with its irresistibly swaying rhythms and finger-snapping backdrop — made them stars. Singles such as "Hang on Sloopy" catapulted what had become the Ramsey Lewis Trio into soul-tinged popular culture.

And, as the old story goes, success ruined everything.

"We were like brothers, and we took that feeling onto the bandstand," says Lewis.

But the hits "spoiled us," he adds. "And the wives got involved. Their wives were like: 'How come every time I turn on the radio, all I hear is: Ramsey Lewis?'

"Now the three of us are back in our dressing room," with Lewis' partners complaining about the trio's name.

"It ended up leaking over into the bandstand," says Lewis. "This great love and warmth we had on the bandstand began to just be diluted, diluted, and it became three guys looking at each other looking at their watches. … And after a few months I said, I can't take it, so I put the wheels in motion to end it."

Yet Lewis' career soared, his church-tinged jazz practically ubiquitous in the late 1960s, no small feat considering how youth-focused rock was rolling over everything else.

"It was big," pianist Ellis Marsalis told me in 2007. "I don't know how many times I played 'The In Crowd' back then. Why was it so popular? The melody was real simple, the rhythm was danceable, and it didn't challenge the listeners' ears."

But that was practically highbrow compared to Lewis' more brazenly commercial fare of the 1970s and after. His funk-tinged "Sun Goddess" went gold, affirming his Midas touch in reaching a wide audience, but it bordered on Muzak and propelled Lewis into other lightweight, heavy-on-the-electronics fare.

Lewis lost considerable credibility among serious jazz listeners, a turn of events that later gave him pause.

"In the '80s, when I was recording for CBS, there wasn't really a definite direction or definite musical goal," he told me in 2007 of music that sold piles of records but did not do much for his reputation.

"Nobody makes you do anything," Lewis added. "When you look back, you say, 'Wait a minute, you didn't have to.'"

But jazz listeners who considered Lewis artistically washed up had miscalculated. In the 1990s, the pianist returned to his jazz roots in duets with Billy Taylor and in small-group ensembles, his 1999 album "Appassionata" reimagining operatic arias and other classical fare with his new jazz trio.

A "Legends of Jazz With Ramsey Lewis" series on public television in 2006 and a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship in 2007 reaffirmed his position as bona fide jazz advocate, as has his tenure at Ravinia (a radio version of "Legends of Jazz With Ramsey Lewis" is being rebroadcast from noon to 2 p.m. Sundays on WDCB-FM 90.9).

Now Ravinia has given Lewis an opportunity that was well beyond his reach in childhood: a belated bow with the CSO, not in repertoire of Beethoven or Brahms but in a music reflecting where his art flourished — jazz.

"When I was in high school, Wells High School, they took us to a rehearsal of the CSO, and we were flabbergasted," says Lewis.

"And here I am now," soon to be onstage with that orchestra, "and it's almost bringing tears to my eyes right now.

"Because my father, he was really proud of me," says Lewis, of Ramsey E. Lewis Sr., a church choir director who called his young boy Sonny.

"And right now, if he knew (that) Sonny's going to play with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — oh my God.

"He'll be there with me that night," says Lewis, taking off his glasses to dab away those tears.

Ramsey Lewis premieres his Concerto for Jazz Trio and Orchestra with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, plus other repertoire with gospel choir, 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Ravinia Festival, near Lake Cook and Green Bay roads, Highland Park; pavilion seating $25-$75, lawn $10 at 847-266-5100 or www.ravinia.org.

Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.

hreich@tribpub.com

Twitter @howardreich

Copyright © 2015, Chicago Tribune

 




 
 


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