The Ramsey Lewis Quintet
For more than 60 years, pianist Ramsey Lewis has brought a sophisticated form of funk to the world of jazz, earning three Grammys and a designation as an NEA Jazzmaster. Now, on the eve of the soul-jazz pioneer’s retirement in 2018, he leads the Ramsey Lewis Quintet – Henry Johnson on guitar, Tim Gant on keys, Joshua Ramos on bass, and Charles Heath on drums – through a decades-spanning overview of his career.
Coming up in Chicago, Lewis started playing jazz at 15. The first group to bear his name – the Ramsey Lewis Trio, with bassist Eldee Young and percussionist Redd Holt – was a fixture on the Chicago jazz club scene, leading to his full-length debut, Ramsey Lewis & His Gentlemen of Jazz, in 1956. Later, Lewis scored a massive hit with a cover of Dobie Gray’s “The In Crowd,” from an album of the same name recorded at the Bohemian Caverns club in Washington, D.C. The song earned him his first gold record and a Grammy Award in 1966 for Best Instrumental Jazz Performance. He spent many of the following years on the charts, with singles like “Hang on Sloopy” and “Wade in the Water.”
After Holt and Young left to form a new group, Lewis teamed with bassist Cleveland Eaton and Maurice White for albums like The Piano Player, Back to the Roots, and Funky Serenity, featuring more pop material reconfigured for jazz heads. When Eaton and White left to form Earth, Wind, & Fire, Lewis found himself inspired by the funky fusion their new combo was creating, and he enlisted White to produce the fusion album Sun Goddess in 1974. Featuring members of Earth, Wind, & Fire, including vocalist Philip Bailey, it was a major crossover success, finding footing among disco and pop listeners. In 1983, Holt and Young reunited with Lewis for a new album, appropriately titled Reunion.
Throughout the 1980s, Lewis spread his sound across multiple genres, collaborating with Nancy Wilson on The Two of Us in 1984, teaming up with the London Philharmonic Orchestra for A Classic Encounter in 1988, and issuing We Meet Again, a collection of piano duets with Billy Taylor, in 1989. In the mid ’90s he launched the Urban Knights ensemble, an all-star jazz combo that included, among many others, Grover Washington, Jr., Earl Klugh, and Dave Koz.
In 1997, he became the host of a popular jazz program on Chicago’s WNUA-FM. A new program, Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis, was syndicated in 2006, airing on jazz stations all across the country. That same year, Lewis hosted a television series of the same name on PBS. Featuring performances by Chick Corea, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Joey DeFrancesco, Tony Bennett, and many more, the show showcased Lewis’ skills as an adept interviewer and host.
After spending much of the previous decade playing with an acoustic trio, Lewis once again went electric in 2011 with Taking Another Look. The album revisited material from throughout his career, offered new songs, and featured covers of Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” and the standard “Betcha By Golly Wow.” On “Tambura,” Lewis returns to the signature sound of the Fender Rhodes.
Whether covering pop material, interpreting the songs of rock legends, or performing his own funky originals, Ramsey Lewis has earned his place in jazz history. Closing out his on-stage career, he remains one of jazz’s long-running and most varied performers.