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Ramsey Lewis brings his jazz pianism to cyberspace

Howard Reich
Chicago Tribune

Chicago — Last year, Chicago jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis declared that he was retired.

Well, not wholly retired — just “retired from O’Hare,” as he put it to me.

Meaning that he still wanted to perform, he just wasn’t going to travel to the gig anymore. He’d had his fill of delayed flights, lost baggage, hotel rooms that weren’t ready on time and other perpetual annoyances of life on the road.

Now that just about everyone is stuck at home, Lewis has found that he doesn’t have to venture to his audience anymore — the audience can come to him, via streaming.

Granted, watching a concert on a computer screen, tablet or smart phone doesn’t remotely resemble the real thing. But that’s about all we’ve got now, making Lewis’ pre-coronavirus decision to stay home rather timely.

Ramsey Lewis poses on the red carpet during 2016 Grammys On The Hill Awards at The Hamilton on April 13, 2016 in Washington, DC.

To that end, he’ll play a livestreamed recital at 2 p.m. Friday from the grand piano in his living room, where he typically practices a couple hours a day.

“I’ve always loved playing and sharing my music, but O’Hare and Midway and the New York and L.A. airports — the big airports, man, give me a break,” says Lewis, 84.

The idea to do the recital from home came about rather spontaneously.

“It was funny,” says Jan Lewis, the pianist’s wife, who often paints in her home studio while her husband practices in the living room.

“I was in here painting, and Ramsey was practicing, and I hear him. Usually when he’s practicing, he’ll play the song, then play scales, then go into a different song.

“For some reason, when he just started a song, I grabbed my phone, went in and video’d him doing this one song. He played it from beginning to end. It was the coolest thing. You could see him working it out ... to get this song just right.

“I knew when he finished that I would startle him, because when he’s deeply into a song, that’s where he is.”

Indeed, once he was done, Jan Lewis — cellphone in hand — announced herself, catching her husband unawares. They later posted the video on the pianist’s Facebook page, and “the thing almost went viral,” says Jan Lewis. It prompted the Lewises to see potential.

Thus was born the idea of a live-streamed recital, but one that’s more than a musical performance alone.

“It’s an hour concert,” says Ramsey Lewis. “It’s mostly music. ... I do have a little something to say about most of these pieces.

“I’m not going to do too much talking, because then it’s like: ‘Oh, boy that’s too much talk.’

“I think there’ll be close to 10 pieces.”

Lewis will decide at show time exactly what he’s going to play, depending on what strikes his interest. The possibilities include John Coltrane’s “Dear Lord,” Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday,” selections from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” themes from the film “Black Orpheus,” Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You,” a Cole Porter medley and some originals. It’s probably not a far stretch to suppose he may dip into such Lewis hits as “The In Crowd,” “Wade in the Water” and “Hang on Sloopy.”

If the venture proves popular, it may develop into a series, says Lewis. A portion of the proceeds from the $20 ticket price will go to MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund.

How is Lewis faring during our shelter-in-place era?

“Fine,” he says. “I always had books that I had stacked up that I had intended to read. Now I’m reducing that stack. Also, newspapers every day, and magazines that I also would let stack up.

“But lots of practicing.”

Specifically, Lewis has been pulling out scores by Bach, Beethoven and Chopin, each a keyboard visionary whose works bear lifelong contemplation.

“I get out the pieces that I studied when I was taking lessons with Dorothy Mendelsohn,” recalls Lewis of his long-ago teacher at Chicago Musical College.

“When I’d get to certain pieces, she’d say: ‘Get up. You’ve got to make it sing!’

“I’m 16 years old, and I’ve got to make the piano sing? You’ve got to be kidding. But I thank God I picked up on what I was shown.”

So what does Lewis do with the rest of his day?

“There is no rest of the day,” he says.

“Jan has these bowls and paintings — we took one bedroom and made it into her studio — she goes in there and puts on her apron and smiles while she’s painting. And I’m at the piano, smiling while I’m playing.

“After I practice, after I read, and after I do all the things like that, it’s almost 5 o’clock. And 5 o’clock is cocktail time. Hello!

“There’s no reason to go out. They deliver groceries now. So we’re happy.

“We stocked up on wine at the beginning of this thing.”

To view Ramsey Lewis’ live-streamed concert, visit www.ramseylewis.com.