Smitty: Our special guest in the spotlight is one of the greatest piano players in the world. He’s created music beyond the imagination, a Grammy award wining artist. He has just released a wonderful project titled With One Voice. Please welcome Narada Jazz recording artist, the legendary Ramsey Lewis, Ramsey how are you doing my friend?
Ramsey Lewis: (RL): I’m great. It’s great to talk with you, and how are you doing today?
Smitty: Wonderful thank you, so how is it in Chicago?
RL: We haven’t decided that fall should come yet. It’s been 85, 89 degrees and it’s supposed to be like 50-55 degrees outside, but that’s okay. You know, I love Chicago, it’s in my blood so I’ll always live here (laughing).
Smitty: Well I'll tell you, being a former mid-westerner, I moved to Texas some time ago, but when I lived in St. Louis, I spent a lot of time in Chicago, and I must echo your sentiments, I love Chicago.
Smitty: Yes indeed. Let’s talk Ramsey, and we could talk for hours about this; your career spans so many years and you have such a remarkable career. Talk about those who were the early influences in your life and career, who helped you to elevate your career, to really put you on the path to doing what you love most.
RL: Well I think we have to start with my Mother and Father, because they continued my piano lessons. I wanted to start piano, but after I found out you’re supposed to practice, I didn’t want to continue, but they said ‘you’ve started now you’re going to stay with it’. Then it moves on to a lady named Dorothy Mendelson. When I was eleven years old I began to study piano with her and she really peaked my interest, that’s when I really began to love music and really love the piano, the sound of the piano, the feel of the piano, and figured that I would probably practice and play the piano for the rest of my life. At that point, eleven, twelve years old, of course I did not see the bright lights, the big city or hit records, or any thing like that. I just loved music, period. At fifteen years old Wallace Burton, another young man, who was attending our church, he was in college and they had a college dance band that played for various functions and fashion shows on the weekends, and he asked me if I would play with his band. I knew nothing about jazz at that point. I knew gospel and classical music. Dad had brought home some Duke Ellington, Nat Cole Trio, and things like that, but I was pretty much buried in classical and gospel.So Wallace Burton took me aside and said ‘come over to my house and I’ll get you started on what this jazz business is about’, and he did. And there it is. Oh! Danny O’Dailey, he was a disc jockey here in Chicago, we had our trio, and we were playing only on weekends, still just picking up loose change, and he heard us, and he was the guy who got us a record deal.
Smitty: Oh ho, yeah!
RL: I think yeah, that those people and no doubt others, you know along the way Billy Taylor, I mean if I start naming people, it’ll take a longtime because along the way in a musicians career, in fact in anyone’s professional career, there are people who do or say even little things that would inspire you, or pick up a phone and call somebody on your behalf, so there’s been a lot of that too.
Smitty: Yes I can just imagine, those are fond memories now, as you look back at those wonderful times leading up to the beautiful time you’re having now in your career.
RL: It’s a wonderful time, it’s a wonderful time, although there are eighty records that I have recorded, With One Voice, is the eightieth one. It’s gorgeous and what’s interesting to me is, I turned seventy years old this year.
Smitty: Wow, congratulations my friend!
RL: I keep blossoming, I mean not only the record career, but in concertizing, I have two radio shows, and then there’s a television show that we are filming and taping shows to start airing in 2006.
Smitty: Wow! That sounds exciting.
RL: And it’s just wonderful, and none of these things; not unlike playing the piano and having a career in music, none of these things did I sat down and say ‘well one day I want to do this and one day I want to do that. I just always kinda stayed with what I was doing in the present, and did the best I could do with that, and out of that. Whatever it was, it just grew other things, blessings, blessings, many blessings.
Smitty: Yes, and isn’t that the way. I must say one thing about Time Flies, I truly, truly enjoyed and still enjoy that record, it’s just a magnificent piece of music, book of music, and I just had to mention that because I was so overwhelmed by that particular one among many others but, Time Flies is just a great project that you put together.
RL: Well I set out to do an album of original material and while doing it, other songs started coming to mind, my bass player suggested a couple of classical pieces, and for some reason I could never get away from gospel music, so I ended up doing a Kirk Franklin tune and a Yolanda Adams tune. So it was more or less a collage of a lot of different kinds of music that I love. It came out very well, I’m very proud of it. Thank you for liking it.
Smitty: Yes indeed, well let’s talk about this new record With One Voice, talk about the title just briefly if you would, why the title, With One Voice?
RL: Well I think that it’s instructive to people, that we are one people, there is one God, there’s one earth, and we best look after each other, love each other, take care of each other, take care of this earth, and praise God, or we will pay the consequences.
Smitty: Yes, that's so true. It's a very fitting title and you have some excellent songs here that has to reach the heart of those who share those sentiments, that's for sure; songs such as "Thoughts and Reflections", and "Pass Me Not". These are words and phrases that we hear in the religious circle on a regular basis, but to put that to music is one other thing. Wouldn't you agree?
RL: I would, and you know the inspiration I got from playing in our church and still a member of not the same church, but the church that my sister Reverend Lucille Jackson, who is co-pastor of our church. And the music stays with me, the scriptures, the lessons that I learned when I was young and of course I’m older now, I understand much better now what they all mean and they are food, they are food for life, food for sustenance. And when I play the piano, quite often I understand that it’s the spirit moving, it’s the spirit moving in me. These phrases, these words, these scriptures are always there. So when I started writing this music and putting the album together, these things just came to me, the words just came.
Smitty: When you were recording this record, did you reflect back to some of the memories with the Cleff’s, and those times?
RL: Well, when I was doing “Time Flies” I reflected back to the Cleff’s. But when I was doing this album we were live at church.
RL: Smokie Norful was there, Darius Brooks, Donald Lawrence, and the congregation, and the pastors were all there. And the spirit was moving through the building and I think I was just right there with it. I wasn’t reflecting on anything from the past at that moment.
Smitty: Yeah, that’s had to be quite an experience.
RL: Yes indeed.
Smitty: When you first developed the concept and the songs, what were your thoughts at that time when you were putting that together? I know you mentioned a little bit about the message of the album title, but what overall message were you trying to convey other than those things?
RL: Well it was really easy putting it together, because, I for the last, oh, for the last forty years, began closing my concerts with a medley of spirituals, gospels songs, hymns, and I would vary them from time to time, just playing different one’s, and they’ve always been with me. So when it came time to put this album together, I kinda knew what songs I wanted to be on it. Of course Smokie wrote his own song (God Can Work It Out) which of course was apropos, and Darius Brooks wrote his own song (Healed Heart) which was apropos. Donald Lawrence we chose, we just told him we were going to do “Prayer Of Jabez” of his (both laughing), and “Pass Me Not” has always been one of my favorite songs going back to when I was a kid, because we used to do it almost every Sunday morning when daddy (Ramsey Emmanuel Lewis Sr.) was the choir director. “Oh Happy Day”; when that song came out in the sixties, it was one of the songs I dearly loved and it was on an “LP” and I must have worn out two or three “LP’s”, that whole LP, but especially “Oh Happy Day”.
Smitty: Yes, a very familiar song after all these years. Talk about how you came up with the melody for “With One Voice”?
RL: Yes, the song “With One Voice”, I was finished practicing one day or at least I thought I was finished, and that little simple eight bar melody came to me and I found myself just playing those eight bars over and over and over again. And each time I played it I was waiting for something to say, well you know it’s a simple song and it doesn’t feel good anymore. However, seems like the more I would play it, the better it felt. So I just played it for a couple people and said, ‘what do you think of it this’? They said “Yeah you should put that on the album”. It was a moment of inspiration that the song “With One Voice” came to me. So it was just a love affair, a love of God, a love of all that abound, a love of the spiritual life that brought this album together finally, and all the wonderful people. I mean if you listen to the album, this is the first album out of the eighty that I have done that I have played many times for my family and friends. It’s not so much that I’m on it, but, you know there are sixty-five people in the choir and there are ten musicians including my trio and the gospel musicians, and Smokie, and Darius and Donald, and the parishioners. And the theme that we captured, the spirit that was in the church that night, and when I play it, it all just comes back to me. So if nobody buys it (laughing)……….
Smitty: (Both Laughing) Oh I think you’ll have several buying this record that’s for sure. Because it’s a great record and it’s something that is so common to the masses of people.
RL: Well that’s true, when you speak of gospel music, I don’t know how many people realize it, but it is very, very popular in Europe. The European people, although I don’t think there’s any A.M.E. or Baptist over there, but you go over there and we play this music and of course I’ve never taken the choir over, but as I said, as I end my concerts, I end them with a series of hymns and they all LOVE the music. It’s amazing when we play concerts, there’s any mix of religions, creeds and colors, but there’s something about gospel music that has a common language about it, of course we know what that is.
Smitty: Yes of course, and isn’t that a beautiful thing that music has such a commonality among such a variety of humans.
RL: That’s true, that’s true, and especially gospel music, there’s something about the sound, the feel, and the words. Of course I don’t sing, I’m just playing the chords, the melodies. And I notice how it feels when I’m playing it, much less how it affects the audience; I can feel the audience coming on in with me. Yes it’s a wonderful thing.
Smitty: Well I think you’ve scored a hit here, not so much for the hit itself but for what it does for people, and how it reaches people like you mentioned.
RL: Well I’m all about optimisim, I’m all about keeping the faith, I’m all about making a joyful noise and if that reaches people, then I’ve done my job.
Smitty: Yes, so true. I want to touch on something before I let you go and before I forget too, because I would be so remiss if I didn’t. I had a conversation with Nancy Wilson, oh maybe a couple of years ago, and we had such a delightful conversation, that I mentioned you and your relationship with her and the albums that you’ve done together and the many different shows you’ve done with Nancy. I asked her to talk a little bit about her relationship with you in the business and she was so thrilled and talked about the wonderful times that you both had together doing different events and touring. And she talked about Meant To Be, and how you both wanted to do one album together while you were in the same town. She just lit up like a lightbulb talking about the wonderful times recording and doing different theaters and concert halls. I just wanted to follow up with that and have you talk about your times of touring with Nancy and what that meant for you and your career.
RL: Well Nancy is a special lady, Nancy Wilson is a very talented lady; she’s a one of a kind, she takes her place among the great jazz singers of the world. I met Nancy, oh back in the early sixties, we had the same manager John Levy who still manages her. At the time she was just getting started in her career and she was living in New York. I was in John Levy’s office and I don’t know if it was Cannonball (Adderley) or someone who was there and introduced me to her, and she became friends with me and my family, she’s God-mother of one of my daughters. And you’re right, throughout the years we’ve always wanted to do an album together. And on many occasions, more times than we can count on one hand, we’ve played concerts together and she’s just down to earth, wonderful, sophisticated, but still a down to earth human being that can sing and sing and sing.
Smitty: (Laughing) Yes indeed my friend. She talked about those very things, so you two share some very special projects and memories in your careers and the times that you’ve had together on tours, making great soulful music, and that’s a beautiful thing. You both have earned your way to the stellar careers that you have developed over the years. She’s like you just mentioned, a wonderful performer over the many years and she has such grace and class, and so down to earth and conversational, you got to love that.
RL: She has a sense of humor, a no nonsense lady, but a very bright lady.
Smitty: That’s beautiful, well Ramsey it’s been a pleasure to talk with you about your great career this wonderful record, “With One Voice” and all of the many other fantastic projects you have put together over the years and you’re doing your radio show for many years now, and then there’s the TV show, and I’m certainly looking forward to this TV show.
RL: Well it’ll be on the first quarter of 2006 and it’s going to be on public television throughout the nation.
RL: Pleases look out for it and I want to thank you for taking the time to talk to me today.
Smitty: Yes my friend, well let’s get together in the future, perhaps once the TV show airs.
RL: I’d like to do that.
Smitty: Alright, it’s been my pleasure to talk with one of the greats of the business, a living legend that’s full of life and great music, Narada Jazz recording artist Ramsey Lewis. Please pick up this latest record, it is one for your collection for sure, it’s called With One Voice. Ramsey thanks once again and big ups to you my friend.
RL: Thank you and the best to you.
Baldwin “Smitty” Smith
© January 2006 Jazz Monthly LLC ALL RIGHTS RESERVED