*To name a top 5 list of living jazz greats and not name Ramsey Lewis is just plain ignorant and borderline blasphemy. But simply calling Lewis a jazz artist is a misnomer as well. He has garnered accolades and props for his ability to cross genres and do the do with such hits as Pop chart climbing “In Crowd,” “Wade in the Water,” “Hang On Sloopy” and the venerable soul music classic “Sun Goddess” featuring Earth Wind & Fire. [Scroll down to hear the original and watch the live version(s)]
And who could forget how big the Ramsey Lewis Trio was back in the day? Well, other than those people who weren’t born yet, who could forget? Once again Ramsey Lewis and his band will grace the friendly confines of the Hollywood Bowl for this weekend’s 34th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival to bring jazz enlightenment to the masses and, once again, our fearless leader Lee Bailey sat down with Lewis to talk about it. Here, Lewis reflects upon his past experiences at the Playboy Jazz Festival and why it’s always a pleasure returning year after year.
“I’ve played the Playboy Jazz Fest before and it’s always a great experience,” said Lewis. “Not only are there thousands upon thousands of people in the audience but there are so many other artists that you don’t get to see. Sometimes, at airports, you run into other artists and it’s like ‘Oh, hey! How you doing? I’m late for my flight. See you later.’ But it’s great to spend a few days to be sociable with the other artists and the Playboy Jazz Fest has been going for so long that those people who do come know what to expect. They’re old hands at it. They’re a great audience and they seem to know what to give the entertainer on stage to help us get into it right away. It’s like a love affair.”
It has to be an absolute thrill for any musician to perform in front of thousands of fans, but music festivals are unique beasts and it’s sometimes hard to corral such a massive audience.
“Festivals are fun and some of them become a social gathering,” he explained. “There are thousands of people and some of them are seeing their friends they haven’t seen in a long time. I have one or two things I do to make the audience aware that ‘Hey, we’re up here! Give us your attention.’ One of them is, even when there’s between 8 to 20 thousand people, I start playing a very soft ballad. I start out so they can hear me, but I just get softer and softer. It still can be heard, but it’s like something goes off in people’s mind and it’s like ‘Whoops! What happened to the music?’ And they all quiet down. I haven’t had to do that at the Playboy Jazz Festival. I actually haven’t had to use it very often, but it’s one of my little tricks. I guess it’s not a secret anymore.”
There are hundreds of famous music festivals across the world and while we’re certain Ramsey hasn’t played them all, we’re equally certain that he has played a significant number of them. But Playboy is different. To say it is in a class by itself is an understatement. It is its own class.
“The Playboy Jazz Fest is unusual because it has a history of having some of the greatest jazz artists ever as opposed to some other festivals. I think it’s unusual too to have Mr. Bill Cosby as the Master of Ceremonies. I think it’s unusual that he spends, not only the whole day with you, but the whole festival he’s on stage. The Playboy Jazz Fest audience has to be the most well-versed on jazz. I think it’s such a wonderful thing for audiences to come and not only check us out, but check out the other artists.”
“I’ve got nothing bad to say about the Playboy Jazz Fest,” said Lewis. “It’s a positive experience for the musician and for the audience. I think there’s anywhere from 17 to 20 thousand people there.”
Wow, this has to be the only venue on the United States where tens of thousands of fans show up to pay homage to jazz. But how can this be? Not even a decade ago jazz, as an art form enjoyed by modern masses, was written off as dead. Well, according to Lewis, rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated. What better way to bring a thing back from the dead than to inject it with new life?
“I have to tell you these days there are more and more young people getting into jazz,” Lewis tells EURweb.com “I would say it is from high school and college students that are getting into and studying jazz. There are a handful of universities that are offering degrees in jazz studies. So, we do have a wonderful attendance of young people. Young people, in most cities, don’t have a place to go and listen to jazz year round, not only to listen to the music but young people who are looking to study the music to perform themselves. Once finished with college and university they are struggling to find places to practice performing.”
“Except for L.A. and Chicago, and a handful of big cities, there aren’t any places for those young people who studied a particular instrument to go and play. When I was coming up there were plenty corner taverns, bars, field houses, YMCAs … a lot of places. After all, how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice and you’re not going to get to Carnegie Hall by just practicing in your bedroom. The way to Carnegie Hall is, after practicing in your bedroom you get out and practice in front of people. Practice what you’ve learned. Practice what you feel.”
Practice, practice and more practice is what it takes to succeed at anything. But one can only imagine the thousands upon thousands of hours put in my 77 year old Ramsey Lewis. Lee Bailey asked Lewis about his new work. Titled “Ramsey: Taking Another Look”, this selection features some of his biggest hits as well as some new selections.
“The way it came about, we were playing in Japan, and I play there often, and they said ‘Next time, if you come with your trio, would you like to come with a singer or guitar player? If you add another instrument it will be fine’.” he explained. “And I went back home to Chicago and thought about it for while. I got the guys together and told them we needed some music to think about and I told them to check out the music on the Sun Goddess album. So, we’ll just jam on some of those songs and see how it works. I thought if we played an hour or two I would get some idea of what I wanted, but after three hours of having fun with these musicians I decided that’s what I wanted to do. I put together a quintet that not only could play some of the music the trio could play, but put together some new music. And also to revisit some of the music that I played when I was in a quintet or bigger, like some of the music that’s on the Sun Goddess album. Of course, the young guys that are in this band had their own ideas on how they wanted to approach this music. So the songs ended up with a new flavor, a new direction. So, after about a week or so I decided that this is what I wanted to do, we went into the studio and record and album. It’s called ‘Ramsey: Taking Another Look’.”
The Playboy Jazz Festival is scheduled to kick off this Saturday, June 16th and the jam won’t stop until late Sunday night June 17th. Lewis is scheduled to go on the second day. For more information on the Playboy Jazz Festival log on to www.playboyjazzfestival.com. But we’re not done with Mr. Lewis. We will continue our conversation with Ramsey Lewis in a future edition of EURweb.com.
Original version with EWF: