Monday, April 8, 2024

Ramsey Lewis "Soul Survivor" - The Barbara Gardner Interview [From the Archives with Additions]

 © -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Signifyin’ and testifyin’ and other ritualistic elements of the Sanctified Church are important elements in helping Black people cultivate and interpret themselves as a collective community. Historically, they have also helped to enable the search for a deeper spiritual meaning and power in relation to the troubles, sorrows and pain of Black life.

Testifyin’ and signifyin’ sometimes are expressed in the music that’s played and sung in the Sanctified Church [an association of holiness Christian churches headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. The members and clergy of the churches are predominantly African-American. The official name of the body is The Original Church of God or Sanctified Church, General Body].

The music itself was given the casual name of “Soul Music,” and not surprisingly, it found its way into Jazz in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s with Cannonball Adderley, Horace Silver and a host of other “soul groups” emphasizing this influence because Soul Music’s pronounced rhythmic nature and straight-forward melodies were appealing to a broader audience.

However, many Jazz critics and Jazz purists dismissed Soul-inflected Jazz, in part, because of this wider appeal, or, if you will, due to its “commercialism” - a dreaded word in Sanctified Jazz World.

This background perhaps lends some clarity to the full title of this feature - “Soul Survivor: Ramsey Lewis Discusses Soul, Funk, Critics, Jazz As A Business, And Success with Barbara Gardner” - which appeared in the May 6, 1965 edition of Downbeat.

“To the embarrassment of Jazz's critical hierarchy, Ramsey Lewis will not close his piano top and go away. Seven years ago, he was typewritered and dismissed as a flash in the pan.

Today that flash glows steadily, and he has achieved some remarkable things as a jazz artist. He is the pivotal member of a tightly knit unit that has remained together since its inception. The group works steadily to expanding audiences, and its record sales run into five figures annually.

Ironically, the pianist — who is sometimes praised, sometimes damned as a purveyor of "soul" — has his roots deep in the European classical tradition. In 1941, when he was 6 and shooting up with the tall weeds on Chicago's west side, his older sister began studying piano, and Ramsey Emmanuel Jr. cried to go along.

Convinced it was a childish whim, the elder Lewis permitted his son to begin. Six months later his sister dropped out. Ramsey continued studying classical piano with the same teacher until he was 11. After high school, he attended Chicago Musical College and later studied music at DePaul University.

Lewis wanted to be a concert pianist then, and he never seriously considered popular music as a career even after he had begun playing dance dates on the city's west side with a seven-piece group called the Clefs. Eldee Young played bass and Isaac (Red) Holt was the group's drummer. Beyond the world of the west side, the Korean conflict was heating up, and by 1952 Uncle Sam had raided the Clefs and tapped three members, including Holt. The rest of the band drifted off. Lewis, at the time, was in his second year of college and clinging to his aspirations to "concertize and tour the world," as he jokingly remembers.

But first, he married.

"Now, I figured you get married . . . two people can live as cheaply as one and all that, right?," he laughed as he recalled this. "Are you with me? I could finish college.”

The wife would work full time, and I could work part time. You know . . . have my cake and eat it too! But I forgot about old Mother Nature. Jerrie got pregnant, and I had to get out of school and get a job."

He went to work as manager of the record department of Hudson-Ross music store. In addition, he and two other musicians went into rehearsal, and he began moonlighting as a part-time entertainer. This arrangement was soon altered.

"Eventually," he recalled, "my nighttime work overcame my daytime work. ... I couldn't get up to go to work."

End of management career in record department.

The original Ramsey Lewis Trio included bassist Young of the Clefs and Butch McCann on drums. Their major jazz-circuit debut was made as featured attraction with vocalist Bill Henderson at Chicago's Sutherland Lounge. Holt returned from the Army and became the trio's drummer. The group continued working clubs in the Midwest, attracting among their following a Chicago policeman (whose name Lewis has forgot) who was instrumental in securing the group a record contract. The first disc was cut and promptly shelved for months. A Chicago disc jockey, Daddy-O Daylie, heard them and finally persuaded the record company to release the record.

This first album was pompously packaged . . . the three men were tuxedoed in the cover photo. . . and titled Gentlemen of Swing. With plugs from Chicago disc jockeys, the trio gained a substantial following. They were booked into Chicago's SRO Room for six months. There followed two years in the city's Cloister Inn, interrupted once by a two-week engagement at New York's Birdland.

The most indelible memory Lewis has regarding New York is pragmatic; before Birdland, the group was enjoyed though officially unheralded at the Cloister, but after two weeks at the "jazz corner of the world," the trio returned to a blazing marquee announcement of that fact and a doubled salary.

New York still has not officially dealt with the Ramsey Lewis Trio. The three young, intelligent, healthy musicians went to the city not to prove themselves but to perform, not to seek acceptance but to entertain, not to apologize for their Second City origin but to meld naturally into the mainstream of professional jazz. This is an attitude New York has seldom dealt with graciously, even though in his case Lewis remembers that, individually, members of the New York jazz establishment were warm and very helpful.

Another characteristic the trio took to New York was a definitive solidarity, allowing little room for technical alteration and no place at all for any tampering with its style and approach. A prominent jazz saxophonist who had liked and lauded the trio in Chicago was frustrated when the unit went to New York.

"For me, it was kind of a drag, really," he said. "I dug him so much in Chicago, and his thing sounded exactly right then. So I went around telling all the cats, 'Man, look out for this group from Chicago.' But I don't know. When he came to the Apple, somehow it was different. It was still altogether, but it wasn't 'New York'."

Lewis still isn't New York, and, further, he does not consider such identification and acceptance essential. He has no idea of ever living there unless forced to do so because of musical demands. He summarized his view of the city: "There's a lot of good cats there — but New York is just another stop on the circuit to me."

ONE OF THE SIMPLEST METHODS of assessing the unknown is to relate it to a well-known. This technique was employed with the new Lewis trio. It often was tagged a copy or an offshoot of the other major Chicago trio, that of Ahmad Jamal.

"In a way, I was flattered because Ahmad is one of my favorite musicians," Lewis recalled. "I could understand how the comparison might come up. First, we're both piano trios, and then, in expressing our own ideas, we might have crossed tracks one way or another. .. not on the same track mind you. Ahmad loves to be lyrical and beautiful with his melodies, not too much embellishment. So do I.

"Still, nowhere can you sit down and listen to one of our records and say, This is like Ahmad.' Ahmad has a completely different concept about music. Often he will be light and suggestive where I like to lay it out and play with all the depth I can muster.

"Then, of course, our books are very different. I could never do his tunes, and he would probably not be comfortable with some of mine."

Lewis has gone through a wide range of influences. The pianist's father was a jazz enthusiast and tried to saturate his son with the sounds of Art Tatum.

"At first I didn't understand Art Tatum," Ramsey explained. "He was playing too much piano. Then I grew older, studied a little more, and grew to love Art Tatum — probably even more than my father."

The tall, lean musician sat back, stretched his legs and his memory to pull together all the early influences.

"Oscar Peterson was tremendously influential on me at the beginning," he said. "Then I went through a stage where John Lewis could do no wrong. Then Erroll Garner came into my picture and then Bud Powell. I guess all pianists go through a phase when Bud Powell is God. After that I started widening my scope and listening to everything. I fell in love with Horace Silver and so many of the really good current musicians. But I would say John Lewis and Oscar Peterson were my most lasting influences."

Perhaps it is the technical mastery and effective use of classical references that most attract Lewis to these particular artists. Often his own approach incorporates the hint of Old World dynamics and progression to a climax. Still, underlying all is the consistent fusing of powerful, contrasting dynamics, and earthy, straightforward projection. This is the quality that marks a performance as distinctively Ramsey Lewis Trio. And, loosely applied, this quality has earned the trio a reputation as a "soul group."

Surely the most recurring criticism leveled against the pianist is that there is something pretentious about his playing. One critic, within the space of 50 words, termed Lewis' contribution as "pop jazz . . . semiclassical schmaltz and stylized funk." Lewis' customary defense against such attack is to cite the evidence of his increasing night-club and record audience. This time, however, he minced no words in his assessment of critics.

"There may be a couple — not more — who really know what jazz is all about," he said. "Either the others know music pretty well and have no idea of how to give good criticism, or they know how to write a good critique but don't know anything about jazz. What really gets my goat is their arrogant stamp of finality . . . their this-is-it attitude. They could express their views, then leave it up to other people to do the same, you know."

When asked to give an objective appraisal of his work in connection with such criticism, Lewis differentiates between what he is trying to do and superficial commercialism.

"To me 'soul' represents depth and great feeling," he explained. "I know some pianists today where everything they play comes out, not with depth and feeling exactly, but downright funky. Now, when everything you do comes out funky, that's trying. . . that isn't really soulful."

He thought further and then continued, "I don't try to play funky all the time, but there's a certain depth and feeling I try to portray no matter what I'm playing."

Lewis rejects the idea that his group can be defined strictly as a soul group, explaining, "To me, Ray Charles is a soulful musician ... all the time. Not the piano playing so much, but his singing. He makes me feel the story he's telling. And he does it in a simple form ... all the time. Now, that's real soul."

Again Lewis paused cautiously in an effort to achieve the impossible — absolute clarity not subject to misinterpretation.

"I want to have the depth and feeling there always," he went on. "There's a certain amount of it that I got from playing in the church for years, and I can never get it out of my system. Still, in some tunes, I try to alter the character of the tune, project another mood other than outright funk . . . another kind of soulfulness that comes from way down inside. You see, often funk becomes a vehicle . . . just a combination of blue notes certain musicians learn and keep using to carry their ideas in ... to try and create soul. Well, if it's really soulful, it's there in the depth of everything you do — you don't need so much help to get it across."

FORTUNATELY, LEWIS FOUND two musicians with similar musical concepts. Young and Holt are more than fellow workers. They are major contributors to the unit's success.

"Our trio is a partnership," Lewis said. "Everything is literally split up in thirds. Salaries, expenses, organization responsibilities are divided equally. The trio uses my name only because when we first started, the guy who set up some things for us thought a person's name would be better than a group title.

"Musically, we're different from most trios because the pianist does not monopolize the music. We try to distribute the musical duties equally. In one given arrangement, I might have a melody, Eldee may have a countermelody, and Red will have a definite drum pattern designed to emphasize each segment. He's not just back there keeping time. He's there for a reason, to build the whole thing to a certain point.

"After you listen to a couple of our sets, you know that everybody is featured about equally. You don't go away with the feeling that the pianist is all right and maybe the bassist or the drummer would be if you could hear more of them. Everybody gets a chance to stretch out." He laughed. "In fact, the best proof I can give of that is that Eldee has come closer to winning many more polls than I have."

This complementary relationship has been building constantly since the inception of the trio and has yielded a solid bond of musical awareness of individual and group potential. It has precluded the possibility of group expansion, according to Lewis.

"Certain fellows have sat in, and it's just too hard for a fourth musician to feel what's happening," the pianist said. "The three of us really have a thing, and it's pretty tight. I don't think we could make another notch there."

The exception was the late vibraharpist Lem Winchester.

"Now Lem came close to fitting right into this groove," Lewis said. "He's about the only musician I can think of who seemed to be able to anticipate along with us, fill that little slot. Vocalists? That's another thing altogether."

The trio has recorded with other artists, more often with vocalists than instrumentalists. Argo, the company for which it records, has a penchant for tagging the group onto fledgling, waning, or one-shot performers on the label, perhaps hoping to infuse the material with a sales-booster shot.

The Lewis trio has worked in person with many outstanding vocalists. More than one have offered the group steady employment and the chance to team up as a vocal-instrumental unit. The offers do not appeal even slightly to the pianist.

"No good," he said. "There're only a couple I dig playing for under any circumstances, and I don't think I could make it as regular accompanist for anybody. So many singers are just not together with their music. Things like arrangements, keys, pace — these things just don't seem to mean that much to a lot of them. They just expect to walk right in and have everything fall into place. Well, it usually doesn't happen like that."

The implied need for attention to technique and training is most explicit in the preoccupation with rehearsals and study in the unit. They have recorded 16 albums for Argo, utilizing more than 100 compositions, many of which are originals. Most of these are by Lewis though Young and Holt are free to offer for rehearsal and possible recording any original material they feel is good for the trio.

"We try to consolidate our ideas for the group," the leader said. "But there's still room for individual expression outside the unit. Each man has his own record date in which he can do anything he wants to do. Eldee, for example, has many, many ideas of his own beyond the group. Eventually, we get everything worked out so everybody has had his say."

There is plenty of time for experimentation, for this is a relatively young group. In spite of its impressive track record, the average age of the trio members is less than 33. On May 27 Lewis will be 30.

There is a mundane solidarity in the lives of these three musicians who earn their livelihood in the razzle-dazzle of night life. Each man is married to a high-school or childhood sweetheart, and, aside from the extended tours, the performers continue to participate in community activities and civic affairs throughout Chicago.

Jazz is a business to Lewis, not a way of life. Currently his business is making possible a most agreeable way of life for his family.

"I admire Armstrong and Duke and Basie," he said thoughtfully. "But I can't see staying out on the road all my life. I want to get to the place where financially I can afford to stay home. I think I know my failings and my abilities. I wouldn't say that I'm so different from every other pianist and I know I'll make it; but I like to believe I have sort of an original style and a good chance."

Humility is admirable, but cold fact must tell the man that he has become an important, bread-and-butter commodity in at least two of the shops that guide the trio.

While Argo hedges a direct answer, the most casual survey of the company's recording activity in recent years reveals that the consistently selling trio is prime, valuable stock in the jazz department of a record company primarily and profitably pop and rhythm-and-blues based.

The group's personal manager, John Levy, molder of many stars, is currently struggling through a phase, unfortunately all too familiar in entertainment — artistic disenchantment resulting in the explosive or unexpected exodus from his fold of the money-makers. Ironically, while the time period between obscurity and stardom can be considerably shortened by a knowledgeable personal manager, frequently, the artist's mental grasp and business acumen develop by leaps and bounds. Once there, the artist finds he has "outgrown" the need for the same personal manager. Lewis has declined to join the stampede.

"You just don't forget," he stated. "On our second trip to New York, John Levy stepped into the picture, and I learned how important a real manager can be. And for us, John was the best. All we had to do was go to work. Before I saw the room, I knew it was all right. I knew the piano was right. He saw to it that that was part of the contract. . . . All the details, he handled. So now, we just can't walk out."

A rare loyalty in the music business.

The trio works continuously now, which indicates a growing audience and an entry into broader markets than those offered by jazz. They are on the road approximately 42 weeks a year, play Chicago four, and vacation the rest. That's a good year.

Ultimately though, the pianist has other ambitions.

"Ideally," he explained, "I would like to work six months a year, take a break for a couple of months, then seriously woodshed three or four months. I try not to draw only from jazz, maybe because I studied classics — but there's so much meat there and in folk music and naturally the old masters. I'd like to experiment with these ideas a while."

Until this is achieved, he travels, listens to records whenever he gets a chance, steals time from music for recreation with his family, and very occasionally plays tennis. Though the grind is tough, he said he still prefers the hubbub of night clubs to concert work because "usually concerts have so many artists or you're allotted only a certain amount of time. You go on cold. Now, it's a cinch you have to warm up. Before you know it, your time is shot and you often haven't done your best. So I guess I'd rather work night clubs until the right kinds of concerts come along."

This, too, is in the offing. Things could hardly be better now. . . . Well, yes they could. Take away the stings of the typewriters, and Ramsey Lewis will be a happier man.”



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