CHICAGO (CelebrityAccess) — Ramsey Lewis, the Grammy-winning jazz pianist, composer, radio personality, and NEA Jazz Master, has died. He was 87.
According to a statement from his family posted to social media, Lewis died peacefully at his home in Chicago on Monday morning.
“Ramsey’s passion for music was truly fueled by the love and dedication of his fans across the globe. He loved touring and meeting music lovers from so many cultures and walks of life. It was our family’s great pleasure to share Ramsey in this special way with all those who admired his God-given talents. We are forever grateful for your support,” his wife Jan said in the statement released on Monday.
Born in Chicago and raised in the city’s notorious Cabrini Green housing project, Lewis began taking piano lessons before starting elementary school.
He was supported in his passion by his father, Ramsey Lewis Sr., who played jazz records at home, took his son to jazz concerts and as choir director for a local church, provided a stage for Lewis’ first public performances.
Through the church, Lewis met saxophonist and pianist Wallace Burton, who asked Lewis, who was still in high school at the time, to join his band, a college septet that fused jazz and R&B.
The group dissolved after several members were drafted into the military during the Korean War but Lewis, bassist Eldee Young, and drummer Redd Holt, combined to form a group that would become the Ramsey Lewis Trio.
The group released their debut album, Ramsey Lewis and His Gentlemen of Jazz, through Chess Records in 1956, paving the way for Lewis to perform at legendary venues such as Birdland in New York, and the Newport Jazz Festival.
In 1965, Lewis crossed over into the mainstream with “The In Crowd” a song written by Billy Page and originally performed by Dobie Gray in 1964. For his take on the song, Lewis dropped the lyrics and the rock n’ roll tone of the song and added a generous portion of urbane jazz chic infused with a whiff of West Coast Cool.
The track, which was recorded live at Bohemian Caverns in Washington D.C., peaked at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and spent three weeks at #2 on the Hot Rhythm & Blues Singles and went on to win Lewis a Grammy in 1966.
He also recorded major crossover hits in 1965 with “Hang On Sloopy” and “Wade in the Water,” an instrumental version of the traditional spiritual that reached #19 on the Hot 100.
After Young and Holt left to form their own group, Lewis continued in the trio format with bassist Cleveland Eaton and Maurice White, who later went on to fame with Earth, Wind & Fire on drums.
The group, which was more experimental, using instruments such as electronic keyboards, struck sparks in 1974 with the album Sun Goddess. The album was a crossover hit, peaking at No. 12 on the pop album chart on the strength of hits such as “Hot Dawgit” and “Sun Goddess.”
In 1994, Lewis joined other prominent jazz artists such as Herbie Hancock and Roy Ayers to record Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool, which helped raise funds and awareness about the AIDs epidemic in Africa. The album was named “Album of the Year” by TIME magazine.
Among his many honors were five honorary doctorate degrees and an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Jazz Artist. He was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Award in 2007 and his single “The In Crowd” single was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
In addition to his work as a musician and recording artist, Lewis shared his love of jazz with radio audiences. Starting in 1990, Lewis hosted the weekly syndicated radio program Legends of Jazz on Chicago “smooth jazz” radio station WNUA (95.5 FM). The show went on to become part of the Broadcast Architecture’s Smooth Jazz Network and aired around the country before finally ending its run in 2009.
Lewis also served as artistic director of Jazz as part of the Ravinia Festival which takes place annually at Highland Park, in Illinois.
Ramsey Lewis is survived by his loving wife Janet Lewis; daughters Denise Jeffries and Dawn Allain (Michael); sons Kendall Kelly Lewis, Frayne Lewis (Juletta), and Bobby Lewis (Crystal); grandchildren Apryl Daniels (Dennis), Regan Lewis, Kris Jeffries (Nailah), Joshua Allain, Junell Lewis, Malachi Lewis, Aja Alain, Jordan Lewis, Ramsey Lewis IV, Dorien Olson-Lewis, Miyoshie Lewis, Meshach Lewis, Taylor Lewis, Kevai Lewis, Frayne Lewis Jr., Niya Lewis, and Asia Lewis; great-grandchildren Jalen Simmons, Dennis Daniels III, Omari Jackson; nieces Paula Jackson and Kimberly Johnson; and nephew James Johnson. He was predeceased by his sons Ramsey Lewis III and Kevyn Lewis.
In lieu of flowers, please make donations to The Jazz Foundation of America at www.jazzfoundation.org