Ramsey Lewis

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Ramsey Lewis

Mystic Chords

In the midst of an illustrious career that had spanned more than half a century—a career that included some 80 albums, three Grammy Awards, seven gold records, and a nationally syndicated radio show—Ramsey Lewis was well into a project that would make 2009 the capstone of his own springtime renaissance.

Proclamation of Hope—the sweeping, eight-movement jazz symphony that Lewis would compose to mark the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth—was set for a worldwide premiere at the Ravinia Festival in June 2009. But several months earlier, in September 2008, Lewis had felt a small pain in his side. Nothing, really—a tweak, he thought, from overdoing it at the gym. The discomfort was so minor he nearly forgot to mention it during a checkup. Within a few weeks, however, he found himself lying on an operating table, undergoing major surgery to address a spot on his pancreas. The spot proved benign, but complications followed the operation, including a blood clot that traveled to one of his lungs. At one point, doctors weren’t sure he was going to make it.

“They told my wife, Jan, there was nothing more they could do,” Lewis recalls. “It was up to me whether I was going to pull through.” Buoyed by Jan’s prayers and support and the well-wishes of fans, friends, and loved ones, Lewis slowly began to rally. But facing months of recuperation, he canceled all his concert dates—and prospects for completing Proclamation of Hope in time for its summer 2009 opening appeared dim.

Even more disturbing for Lewis was the indifference he felt toward the instrument that had largely defined his life. Since his first piano lessons at age four, Lewis, a lifelong resident of Chicago, had scarcely gone a few hours without playing—much less several weeks. But when he returned home in late October, “my piano was there, but it didn’t call me,” he says. “It had been my friend, my buddy, and my companion for years and years, but I would pass by it and it didn’t say hello.”

Fortunately for Lewis, Jan kept one open concert date in November—“just to give him something to work toward,” she says. “I’m glad she did that,” Lewis responds. “The guys [his jazz mates] came over to rehearse, and it was the most wonderful thing. We must have played for a couple of hours. And once I started playing, I wasn’t weak anymore, I wasn’t sick anymore, I wasn’t tired anymore. I was rejuvenated.”

In June 2009, Lewis, 74, took to the stage at Ravinia. Not only had he completed his Lincoln composition—the most ambitious undertaking of his six-decade career—but, inspired by the election of the first African American president of the United States, he had crafted an entirely new ending for the piece. Surrounded by his trio and 21 other musicians, dwarfed by giant screens flashing photographs representing each movement of the symphony, Lewis played live for some two hours just a few months after lying close to death.

To the world, Proclamation of Hope was about the energies, passions, and accomplishments of one of the greatest U.S. presidents. To Lewis, given all that he went through to produce the composition, the title held a different, deeply personal meaning. “Lying in the hospital for five weeks takes something out of your being,” he says. “It takes something out of who you are, why you are, what you are. I had to take a hard look at who Ramsey Lewis is.”

Lewis’s 2009 did not end with the Lincoln piece. He also came out with a new CD: Songs from the Heart: Ramsey Plays Ramsey, a lush collection of original songs that the Chicago Tribune critic Howard Reich hailed as “some of the strongest work of Lewis’s career.” Add to that Lewis’s continued work with the Ravinia Festival’s jazz mentor program and the Merit School of Music—an inner-city music program based in downtown Chicago—and it’s clear that Lewis is indeed rejuvenated and that the friendship with his piano, and his passion for playing it, has not only survived but sprouted fresh blooms.


Photograph by Katrina Wittkamp