By Rebecca Bulnes
By Lee Zimmerman
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"You Better Get It in Your Soul." Bassman Charlie Mingus's song title could be considered the watchword of jazz in the Sixties, especially for African-American jazz musicians. Young piano virtuoso Herbie Hancock created the greasy R&B monster jam "Watermelon Man." Established piano man Horace Silver rolled out brass-fueled fandangos such as "Senor Blues" and "Song for My Father." Organist Jimmy Smith removed his instrument from the church and put it Back at the Chicken Shack. Trumpeter Freddie Hubbard made his solo debut with Backlash, bumping and grinding with urban grit. Black was beautiful, and jazz climbed down from its chilly precipice on the avant edge to return to its downhome roots.
In the midst of this soulful explosion emerged the classically trained, bookish-looking Ramsey Lewis, who was setting ablaze the Chicago jazz scene. The buzz on Lewis and his trio soon reached the ears of record mogul Phil Chess, whose label was synonymous with Chicago blues. "We were brought down to [the Chess studios to] audition one Saturday afternoon," Lewis recalls from a hotel on the West Coast, where he's recording with the GRP All-Star Big Band. "[Phil Chess] didn't know a lot about jazz, because he'd been involved with blues. He listened to us and he went out to the shipping room and brought in Sonny -- I've forgotten his last name -- a shipping clerk. 'What do you think of this music?' Sonny said, 'I think it's pretty good.' So Phil said, 'Okay, we'll sign you.'"
More than those of his jazz contemporaries, Lewis's Chess (later Cadet, Chess's jazz arm) sides appealed to mainstream audiences with their groove-seeking renditions of modern pop songs -- "High Heel Sneakers," "Hang on Sloopy," "Hard Day's Night." But before the hits started rolling, the Ramsey Lewis Trio (Lewis, bassman Eldee Young, and drummer Red Holt) was the jazz band to see in Chicago. "We were fortunate that when big-name artists would come to Chicago, Daddy O'Daley, who was sort of our sponsor, would say, 'You know, you ought to go hear this group'," says Lewis. "And they would come, people like Duke Ellington, Nat Cole, Clark Terry, Dizzy Gillespie, which just made us feel great and gave us inspiration to continue on with what we were doing."
And that perseverance paid off. It was album number eighteen, Lewis remembers, that included the trio's take of "The 'In' Crowd" and propelled them to the top of the charts. Besides the pure pop gems, there was Lewis's masterpiece, "Wade in the Water," a spiritual with a primal riff that featured a brass chorus testifying along with the piano-pounding preacher and his two freaky deacons. "I had played that in church," Lewis says of his classic adaption, "so I just did an arrangement on that. In fact, I had played that one in person, and the record company heard me and -- I wasn't even thinking about doing that song -- they said, 'Do that song we heard you play in person.'" As it would again and again, serendipity had played a major part in Lewis's career.
A more recent example of kismet-at-work: Lewis's latest recording, Sky Islands, on the GRP label, offers a medley of his three biggest hits which has received more airplay than any of the new tunes. Lewis didn't even want to include it. "[GRP] said, 'Our demographics show that in Europe, they're still into some of the stuff you did in the Sixties. Why don't you do a medley of those Sixties hits, and we'll just put it on the CD to be released in Europe?' And I said, 'Great! 'Cause I don't think there's anybody interested in those things in the United States.' But what happened is they sent a preview of the album out to several radio stations [in the U.S.] and, mistakenly or not, they put that medley on it and they got phone calls regarding the medley! So they called me: 'Ramsey, all the stations picked two or three songs they like. Some of them were different, but it was unanimous with the medley. So we've got to put that on domestically.'" Although politened and tightened, these songs still communicate the tremendous joy Ramsey Lewis has displayed in his music since the late Fifties.
Times have changed, particularly in the less-than-adventurous world of Nineties Jazz, which generally is as downhome as a weekend at Martha's Vineyard. Lewis realizes that fact, and the new GRP release, currently breathing lofty chart air, is certainly making a bid for new ears.
No longer a three-piece, Lewis's backing -- his repertory band, he calls them -- consists of guitar, sax, bass, drums, and electric keyboards, with vocals on a few tracks. Although one could argue that Lewis rarely made straight-ahead jazz records, Sky Islands is definitely not one. As he did in the beginning, the piano man includes a tune by Lennon and McCartney ("Julia," a standout), as well as contemporary songs by Janet Jackson and Lionel Richie. Production duties are handled by onetime sideman Maurice White (of Earth, Wind and Fire fame), who keeps things moving on the bottom, and son Frayne Lewis, who, along with brother Bobby, keeps the old man from the mothballs. "Being the age they are, 24 and 25 years old, they are in tune with what is going on in the musical field today. And I can't say that for myself, because so much of what I hear doesn't please me, so I'm not terribly influenced by it."
Surprising words from the man who found the funk in basic three-chord rock and roll such as the McCoys' s "Hang on Sloopy" in the early Sixties and dug out the jazzy elements buried in War's politically charged "Slipping Into Darkness" in the early Seventies. "As long as there's been pop music, jazz artists have played their versions of it," he explains. "We never thought of it as 'covers.' That word came out of the rock era of 'I'm doing his tune, therefore my version is less than the original.' But if you go back to Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, they all did tunes that were popular during that day."
Of course the trick was, and is, transcending the material, as Lewis did on his inspired early cuts. "I guess that was the gospel influence in me. When I played at my church, there weren't great complex harmonies. The intention was simplicity and emotion, feeling, rhythm. The feeling that would come from playing that kind of music was born in me."
As for those who feel the need to categorize his music into neat little compartments, Lewis advises, "Whether you call it jazz or apple sauce, forget about the title -- contemporary, traditional, modern, new age -- forget about it." And if you're not hearing the brand of jazz you want to hear, Lewis says, you -- the listener -- have an obligation to do something about it. "Jazz listeners are passive. They listen to the radio and they find stations that aren't playing the music they like, so they turn the radio off in disgust. And that's the end of it. There's people in their late twenties, early thirties, and they weren't introduced to Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington, so they don't demand a whole lot from what they think is jazz or not jazz. I don't know, I'm not one to judge. But they've found a kind of music they call jazz and they're in great numbers. Radio stations aren't dumb."
And neither is Ramsey Lewis, who can now be heard on the radio, again.
Ramsey Lewis performs tomorrow (Thursday) at 8:00 and 10:00 p.m. at the Lincoln Theatre, 555 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; 661-6571. Tickets cost $20 and $25.