Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

With 'Jazz Police,' Pianist Ramsey Lewis Is a Scofflaw

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

With 'Jazz Police,' Pianist Ramsey Lewis Is a Scofflaw

Article excerpt

ATLANTA -- When Ramsey Lewis' father, Ramsey Sr., pulled up stakes and left Augusta, Ga., for Chicago, he became part of the Great Migration of Southern African-Americans seeking better fortunes in the North.

One thing he didn't leave behind was his love of music, which he and his wife cultivated in their son. So young Lewis went from playing songs in his Chicago church to becoming one of the world's prominent and prolific jazz pianists.

Lewis, 77, spoke with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about his legacy, what it's like to have recorded one of the most popular jazz renditions of all time and about the "jazz police."

Q: Like so many jazz artists, your musical roots from childhood are in gospel music. How heavily does that style influence you now?

A: Gospel music is embedded in my very being because I began studying piano when I was 4 years old and by the time I was 9 years old, I was playing in our church for the choir. So performing gospel music two or three times a week until I was 15, it remains with you. We have to understand, the music we call jazz is an outgrowth of the African-American experience, which goes back to slavery and comes forth. And the bedrock of African-American life at that time was church. ... So it's impossible to really study the history of jazz and not end up in the same room as African-American sacred songs.

Q: Hubert Laws is another great jazz musician who grew up in both the gospel and classical music traditions. But Laws said that for him, classical was initially a struggle for him to master because it comes from a different impulse, one that wasn't his part of his tradition growing up.

A: The approach to playing classical music is totally different from playing jazz and you cannot make a career out of both of them at the same time. With classical, there are rules. You can't be too unwieldy because then you get outside of what the composer meant. With jazz, jazz is all about starting with the composer and going as far as you can go. It's all about improvisation. There is not improvisation in classical music. There is only interpretation. So it's impossible to do both.

Q: Your 1965 version of "The In Crowd" is one of the most indelible live jazz recordings in the history of the idiom. …

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