• U.S.

Jazz: View from the Inside

3 minute read

THE RAMSEY LEWIS TRIO THEY’RE IN, declared the electric sign atop Chicago’s London House. But no one had to be told; the lines of fans snaking around the block last week were testimony enough. Pianist Ramsey Lewis, 30, is not only In, he is the hottest jazz artist going. And amazingly enough, he is going strongest in the rock-‘n’-roll market where jazzmen have customarily gone over like the tenor in a burlesque house. The younger generation, it seems, having grown up at a time when the Young Turks of jazz are grimly exploring the wild beyond, has adopted Lewis as the purveyor of a new and wondrous sound.

It, of course, is neither. Lewis’ happy, finger-snapping, foot-tapping music harks back to the early 1950s; in the funky, blues-rooted idiom that is his forte, he is an accomplished but by no means a revolutionary stylist. His attack is clean, straightforward, unsophisticated—basic stuff by the standards of modern jazz. Where he does excel is in imparting a freewheeling, come-join-the-party feeling that, he candidly admits, is the only way to make jazz “a salable item that people will understand, enjoy and pay for.”

No Antiseptic Vaults. Lewis began his musical career pounding out the piano accompaniment for the choir of Chicago’s Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church, moved on to the Chicago Musical College, with aspirations of becoming a concert pianist. But he got married at 18 and quit college to take a job as a clerk in a record shop. Soon he shelved the classics to form a jazz trio with a pair of high school chums—Bassist Eldee Young and Drummer Isaac (“Red”) Holt. For the next ten years, the trio roamed the outskirts of success as virtuosos of the expectable in a trade that doted on the different.

Then last July, Lewis heard a rock-‘n’-roll vocal version of The In Crowd on a jukebox, decided on impulse to enter his rendition in the sudden-death singles market. He insisted that it should be recorded not in the antiseptic vaults of a sound studio, but in a living, breathing nightclub pulsating with the infectious rhythmic handclapping and exultant cries of “Yeah! Yeah!” from the audience. The In Crowd took off, to date has sold more than 1,000,000 copies, followed by an album that is currently nestled among the top ten bestsellers.

Out with the In. Virtually overnight, Lewis’ fee has soared from $2,500 to $6,500 for a one-week club date. “I’m doing things I never dreamed I’d be doing.” Things like buying a new ten-room town house on Chicago’s South Side, a mink coat for his wife, a $5,000 Steinway, like enrolling three of his school-age children (he has five) in a private school. As a result, he is Out with the In jazz crowd, who accuse him of “going commercial.” Lewis could not care less. “Apparently they identify poverty with sincerity,” he says. “Some jazz musicians say you don’t have to entertain; just play it, baby. But to get them to come back, I say you’ve got to merchandise it—baby.”

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