Ramsey Lewis, Chicago-Born Jazz Great Who Continually Evolved, Dead at 87

Video: Ramsey Lewis performs “Dear Lord” by John Coltrane in the WTTW studios on April 8, 2010.

Chicago is mourning the loss of one of its most celebrated native sons, as the family of Ramsey Lewis announced the award-winning musician died peacefully at his Chicago home Monday morning. He was 87.

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Lewis grew up in Cabrini Green and began taking piano lessons at age four, playing at the church where his father was choir director. It was his father’s appreciation of artists like Duke Ellington and Art Tatum that heavily influenced Lewis’ embrace of jazz, a love he then inspired in others.

“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,” his wife Jan Lewis said in a statement. “It was our family’s great pleasure to share Ramsey in this special way with all those who admired his God-given talents.”

Those admirers were legion, dating back to Lewis’ beginnings in the 1950s with the Ramsey Lewis Trio. His biggest hits — “The In Crowd,” “Hang on Sloopy” and “Wade in the Water” — were released in the 1960s but remained fan favorites throughout his long career.

“I used to try to get off the stage without playing one of those songs. People, they gotta be tired of those songs, I’ve been playing them so long — for 20, 30, 40 years,” Lewis told WTTW News in a 2020 interview. “As we’d walk off the stage, people would say, ‘Aren’t you going to play “The In Crowd?” Aren’t you going to play “Wade in the Water?””

As the decades passed, Lewis experimented with a broad array of musical genres from Bach to the Blues, introducing himself to new listeners, and teamed up with a variety of collaborators, among them Maurice White and Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind and Fire.

Three times a Grammy winner, Lewis’ accolades also include an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Jazz Artist and a 2007 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Award.

But Lewis wasn’t content to rest on his status as an elder statesman. He continued recording, with a new album of livestream performances, “The Beatles Songbook: The Saturday Salon Series, Volume One,” due this November. His memoir, “Gentleman of Jazz,” penned with co-writer Aaron Cohen, is due in 2023.

WTTW News arts correspondent Angel Idowu caught up with Lewis in 2020, just before the musician’s 85th birthday. The pandemic had given him cause for reflection, he said, but he didn’t want to get too bogged down in nostalgia.

“It’s a joyous occasion to be 85,” Lewis said, “and to be able to sit and play the 88.” 

Lewis is survived by his wife Jan, five children, 17 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his sons Ramsey Lewis III and Kevyn Lewis.

Contact Patty Wetli: @pattywetli | (773) 509-5623 |  [email protected]

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