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‘Butt-shakers and toe-tappers’: Ramsey Lewis brought jazz to the people | jazz

For the first half of the 20th century, jazz musicians would interpret the popular music of the age, with Tin Pan Alley hits, Broadway showtunes, blues songs and Latin dance numbers providing the basis for every jazz musician’s set list. But by the mid-60s, many jazz musicians felt cut adrift by the rise of rock’n’roll, Motown and the British invasion. Almost uniquely among jazz musicians, Ramsey Lewis – who died this week aged 87 – didn’t see this as a problem. Instead of just revisiting the showtunes of previous decades, his piano trio would play the hits of the day, setting each one to a funky backbeat. It proved enormously successful.

“I always thought it was a shame when jazz stopped being a music you could dance to,” said Lewis. “It’s why we always liked to feature a few butt-shakers and toe-tappers.” In 1965, after a recommendation from a waitress in a Washington DC coffee shop, his trio took a Motown-style Top 20 hit by Dobie Gray called The In Crowd and played it in a DC club called the Bohemian Caverns. The recording of that performance was released as a 7in single and, amazingly for a jazz instrumental, it entered the US Top 5 and sold 1m copies. You can hear the audience whooping, cheering, singing and clapping along. “They were literally dancing in the aisles,” said Lewis. “I love how an audience can completely transform a performance like that.”

Where the original song saw the sharp-suited Dobie Gray unilaterally entering an “in” crowd and setting himself apart from his fans (an exclusivity maintained by Bryan Ferry’s later cover), Lewis’s version seemed to invite his audience to join him in the cool set . His improvisations were effortlessly hip but never too “out there”, never alienating. I stayed close to the original melodies, adding crunchy, bluesy slip notes, and stuck to simple, chant-like repetition. Lewis, who started piano lessons aged four, recalled how his first teacher always told him to “make the piano sing”, and his playing was heavily informed by his experience playing gospel piano in Chicago’s Black Methodist churches from the age of nine.

Ramsey Lewis – playlist Spotify

“I can, if necessary, play quite complicated jazz improvisations,” he once said. “But you’ve got to make sure you carry the audience with you. Most people don’t have an MA in music scholarship, they haven’t sat a jazz improvisation 101, they don’t want to hear you play bebop inspired by Béla Bartók. You’ve got to follow the audience, and play off their energy.”

I continued to do this throughout the 1960s. Like his version of The In Crowd, his cover of Hang on Sloopy by the McCoys and his funky reading of an old African-American spiritual called Wade in the Water, made famous by the Staple Singers, sold a million copies each. Eschewing swing rhythms and playing hard bop to a rock backbeat became Lewis’s USP. He started playing hard-grooving versions of Beatles songs, such as A Hard Day’s Night, Day Tripper, And I Love Her, Lady Madonna and Something. I even recorded Mother Nature’s Son, a 1968 album featuring 10 reinventions of tracks from the White Album.

He was not an overnight success. By 1965, Lewis and his trio had already recorded around 20 albums for Argo, the jazz imprint of Leonard and Phil Chess’s blues label Chess. These LPs often reached outside of the usual jazz repertoire. There were versions of Bizet, Puccini and Rimsky-Korsakov arias, along with Alex North’s theme to Spartacus and folk tunes from Greece, Mexico, Scotland, Italy and Spain. From 1958, Down to Earth features gospel-infused versions of traditional tunes like Greensleeves, Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child and the Neapolitan folk standard Come Back to Sorrento; 1962’s Country Meets the Blues – recorded around the same time as Ray Charles’s Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music – saw Lewis add some gospel soul to country standards by the likes of Hank Williams, Willie Dixon and Hoagy Carmichael. In the same year Lewis was one of the first US jazz musicians – alongside Stan Getz and Quincy Jones – to record an entire album of bossa nova tunes; while 1964’s Bach to the Blues saw him playing hard bop variations on themes by Bach, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Brahms.

But it was Lewis’s embrace of rock and soul that was a game-changer, and the likes of Herbie Hancock, Cannonball Adderley and Joe Zawinul all acknowledged their debt as they followed him into the crossover world. Lewis also led the way in his embrace of electric keyboards, including the Fender Rhodes electric piano, and had a fruitful dialogue with contemporary R&B. When his first rhythm section – bassist Eldee Young and drummer Red Holt – left him to form the much-sampled funk outfit Young Holt Unlimited, Lewis enlisted musicians who were just as funky: his later accomplices included the star producer, arranger and songwriter Charles Stepney and the drummer Maurice White (later the founder and lead singer of Earth, Wind and Fire). White played a crucial role in rebooting Lewis’s career when he co-wrote and produced two tracks on the 1974 album Sun Goddess, featuring a host of blissful electronic R&B tracks that took off on the dancefloor and paved the way for the jazz-funk of Roy Ayers and the quiet storm soul of Smokey Robinson. By the end of the century, Lewis had become one of the most sampled musicians of all time, with the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, the Fugees, Public Enemy, Gang Starr, Run DMC, Beck, Mos Def, Jurassic 5, Wiz Khalifa, J Dilla and Company Flow among the hundreds of acts to sample his 1970s recordings.

Lewis warming up before a taping of Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis in 2005.
Lewis warming up before a taping of Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis in 2005. Photograph: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

He never moved from his native Chicago, where he hosted a morning show for a local smooth jazz station, presented a TV series called Legends of Jazz, and was artistic director of the Jazz at Ravinia festival. In later decades, Lewis started playing more orthodox jazz, recording several albums with his old friend Nancy Wilson, a duet album with his fellow piano populist and broadcaster Billy Taylor, an album of jazz readings of classical themes (1999’s Appassionata), and seven albums with the smooth-jazz and fusion supergroup Urban Knights featuring heavyweights such as Freddie Hubbard, Omar Hakim and Grover Washington Jr. He also used his early classical training to complete more ambitious works: in 1998 he wrote an eight-movement piece for Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet; in 2010 I completed a tribute to Abraham Lincoln, a symphonic poem entitled Proclamation of Hope.

But it was his simple, more direct interpretations of jazz and his magnificent touch that Lewis will be remembered for. Critics were snooty (Richard Cook and Brian Morton’s canonical Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings dismisses most of Lewis’s output as “happy-clappy soul jazz”) but some of jazz’s greatest names were much more generous. Dizzy Gillespie called him “a taste of fresh air on the musical scene” while Duke Ellington described Lewis’s music as “a bouquet of tonal delight”. But it’s as the musician who brought jazz back on to the dancefloor – and was able to inject a much-needed dose of funk into an increasingly cerebral art form – that Ramsey Lewis will be best remembered.

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