Ramsey Lewis Joins A New "In" Crowd with His First Classical Concerto

Wading No More

By John McDonough

The traditions of jazz and classical music have enjoyed parallel histories but relatively few intersections. Yet players from Benny Goodman to Wynton Marsalis have famously commuted between the two realms, and composers from George Gershwin to Duke Ellington to Leonard Bernstein have negotiated areas of artistic agreement that have linked certain of their traditions in often exciting ways, creating the bedrock of symphonic jazz.

On August 8 Artistic Director of Jazz at Ravinia Ramsey Lewis will join the ranks of those who have contributed to this lively body of work, which has loosened the forms in which modern music is created and influenced much of the music around it from program pieces to motion-picture scores. To commemorate his 80th birthday, Ravinia commissioned Lewis to compose his four-movement Concerto for Jazz Trio and Orchestra, which will be premiered by his own trio and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (with which he will simultaneously be making his debut as pianist).

Lewis recently talked with Ravinia Magazine about what he hopes to bring to the genre, coming from the perspective of a deep jazz background that goes back nearly 60 years to when he released his first album, Ramsey Lewis and his Gentle-men of Swing, in 1956.

How does one become a composer? What’s the learning process?

For a jazz musician it’s an unorthodox process because we come at it from a different perspective. We play in the moment and refresh our material with every solo. Yet jazz players who aren’t composers by training or choice nevertheless always compose a few songs to go on their albums. It’s ego to some extent. If there’s room for one more song, why shouldn’t it be my own? And I used to do that on every album I put out—just because.

I started playing Ravinia in 1966, and continued through the periods of Zarin Mehta and now Welz Kauffman, who’s become something of a patron. On two or three occasions, I had lunch or dinner with Welz when some of the Joffrey Ballet people were also there. He would off-handedly suggest that we should do something together. And, of course, we would all say yes, that would be wonderful. Then nothing would happen. But Welz was serious. It was about 10 years ago that he asked if I’d be interested in actually writing something that could be choreographed and performed by the Joffrey. He saw a collaboration in which part of the troupe would be onstage with me and the trio. I first assumed that he meant one or two short songs. But no. He was thinking an hour. I said okay, with much hesitation.

I sat at the piano here at home for I-don’t-know-how-long, scuffling and not knowing where to start. When my wife asked what I was doing, I said Welz wanted me to write a long-form piece. She said, “Why don’t you just sit down and improvise, for hours on end if you have to?” I said that was different. She said, “No it’s not. You’re making up melodies. Just turn on a tape recorder and play.” So I did. After a few days, I listened, and sure enough, there was something there, ideas I could use. So I was able to distill some of that material down to a real [narrative] I was proud of. Welz got a choreographer involved, and it went very well. So much so that next Welz asked me—off-handedly, again—to write something for the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. And that went well enough that we were later able to perform the work, Proclamation of Hope, at the Kennedy Center [where it was filmed for television].

So it was Welz Kauffman who got me started in this direction. Now comes my 80th birthday. I was already due to play Ravinia August 8 this year. And again Welz called and suggested that I write something for the occasion, something that could be performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “Really?” I thought. Yes, he said, a piano concerto for Jazz Trio and Orchestra. That’s how it got started, and now, between Welz and my wife, I’ve become comfortable being a composer.

How much time did you allow yourself to complete the work?

I started last year. I didn’t want to have to hurry with something so important. Fortunately I have a workbook of manuscripts. That helped a lot. In those manuscripts I have melodies and ideas that have come to me, for whatever reason and for no particular project or song. While I’m practicing, something may come and I’ll say, oh, that’s nice. And I’ll put these little ideas—sometimes maybe only a few notes—into my manuscript file. And you never know.

Over the time you worked on this large piece, did you come to any creative blocks?

No, I’ve learned to be a pretty positive guy. If I get to a point in writing where I feel I can’t go on at that moment, I just stop. I certainly never get despondent. I just stop and get a book or do something totally different. Then I come back later and pick it up right where it was. Or sometimes when I would hit a spot where I can’t seem to move on, I would pull out some Chopin or Bach—especially Bach—listen for a while, then come back and try again. I compose at the piano. Some, like Quincy Jones, can sit on an airplane and compose. I’m not one of those. I need to hear immediately what I’m doing. But then I come back because I know it’ll start again.

You’ve titled it a Concerto for Jazz Trio. Modernity has opened up the definition of the concerto. But did you organize your work into the more traditional form?

Only that it’s in four movements. It started out a concerto for solo piano. As time went on, I found that when I got to the solo parts where I was improvising, I didn’t know if that would be compatible with the orchestra. I don’t know how often the bass players get to play jazz. That’s when Welz and I talked, and he suggested that maybe I should use my bass player and drummer. So we called it Concerto for Jazz Trio and Orchestra.

The concerto is typically a showcase for the solo performer, often featuring a climactic cadenza near the end. Did you hold to that?

I don’t know where that might happen, but the cadenza isn’t purely the domain of the classical concerto. We jazz players often, at the end of a piece, have the group stop for a solo as an extended cadenza, and we don’t know what shape it will take until it’s performed. But yes, there is room in it for me to say what I have to say. There’s also space for my bass player and drummer to have solo opportunities. In my regular touring group, not a concert goes by that I don’t give them a chance to shine.

In term of your intentions, did you create this music with any programmatic purpose in mind, that is, to describe specific events of images, as perhaps you did in Proclamation of Hope?

No, I didn’t visualize any sort of images or even emotions necessarily. I’m a Romanticist at heart, not in the Tin Pan Alley sense, but in the spirit of the Romantic period of classical music. I like beautiful melodies. I imagine only how a given part will sound when the orchestra comes in, or perhaps doesn’t come in. And there are parts when the orchestra is on its own and soaring. The only thing in my mind was the evening itself and how the music would sound; my intent was to let the music follow its own logic and not some external narrative. I regard the occasion itself as a major event, particularly because of my growing up in Chicago and my relationship to music in Chicago. I would go to the Chicago Symphony in Orchestra Hall when I was 11 or 12 years old. Who would ever think that one day I would get to play with them, and that I would get to play my own work? For me, that was the impetus and motivation that was in my mind while composing.

You mentioned that you create original songs for your trio albums. Is there a distinction between a songwriter and a composer?

They might be similar. Duke Ellington was definitely a composer, one of the greatest of all time. But everything he wrote left space for improvisation. So for jazz composers, improvisation is a large part of what their music was intended for, whereas Stravinsky and others didn’t embrace that. Now, you interpret classical music, but in jazz the theme is to be stated and then played according to the player’s intent. What jazz players work with is not only the melody, but the harmonies and chord changes that steer the improvisation.

How do you integrate these two languages, these two traditions, without simply alternating between one and the other?

Well, you don’t ask the symphony to do what it wasn’t intended to do. Symphony orchestras don’t swing well. They can play patterns that are rhythmic, and you can pat your foot to them. But you can’t ask too much. However, the jazz component is what I bring to the table with my bassist and drummer, and that’s where we marry. And between two, the piece takes on a life of its own.

Orchestration is sometimes a separate aspect of composition. The composer provides the themes; the orchestrator shapes them into moods and feelings. Did you have such a collaborator?

Scott Hall is my collaborator. I was working on a small piece that needed some orchestration; he’s from Columbia College, and someone suggested him to me. We met and talked for a while, and it went so well that he’s now my partner in these works. I don’t arrange at all, except for my trio. The first big piece we did together was Proclamation of Hope. We often talk in terms of colors, of changing the color in this movement. He’ll talk about a softer color here, more boldness there. When I’m composing I don’t think in those terms. It’s very difficult to put music into words, to take a sound and describe what that sound is or what it’s meant to mean.

You’re a pianist, and a piano comes closer than any instrument to an orchestral sound.

That’s what’s wonderful about the piano, of course. You have 88 keys and 10 fingers. And that’s the wonder of playing from night to night—making up melodies, feelings, and colors, as it were, and fitting them into the bass, mid-range, and upper registers of the keyboard. None of it is preconceived. It’s great when a band member says, “I never heard you play that before.” I don’t carry around preconceived ideas. Every performance is a new starting point for me.

You’re one of the rare postwar jazz musicians who ever hit the charts. And when you have something like “The ‘In’ Crowd,” aren’t there a lot of folks who only want to hear what they’ve memorized from the record?

That’s true, but I don’t play those things until the end of the show. They have their place. But the rest of the show is fresh material, all the time. And when I do those songs, I play enough of the arrangement and the record to get the recognition. But when we get into the song, we lay something fresh on them, because that has more to do why me and the guys are onstage. We defeat why we’re there and what we’re about if we start arranging solos into set routines. We have to inspire each other. We look at each other and smile, as if to say, “Hey, that was nice.” And the audience knows that something’s cooking because we’ve inspired them to become part of the group on stage. Once you start losing that, your days are numbered.

At Ravinia you’re going to have the CSO on stage. Is there some part of you that wants to impress them a little, too, with the music you’re asking them to play?

I certainly want the orchestra to feel good about the performance. After the first rehearsal they’ll know what the music is about, but the night of the performance—oh yeah. What I play is meant to motivate the orchestra as well, to get them to dig a little deeper into how they perform the music because of the energy and creativity that I can generate in the moment.

Do you find it encouraging or discouraging that after a year’s work, this concerto may not be performed again? Is one night of glory enough to make it worthwhile?

It doesn’t discourage me because life is what it is. Technology has taken over our creative business and made music a very crowded space. But this will be a hallmark in my life and career. It brings to mind my dad. He used to listen to WFMT here in Chicago. He was not only into jazz and gospel music. He loved classical music, too, and loved to hear me play it. If my dad were alive now and he was sitting out there in that audience and saw me up onstage playing jazz with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, I’m sure he would just stand up and shout. So does one night make it worthwhile, if indeed it’s to be only one night? The answer is yes.

A contributor to DownBeat and National Public Radio, John McDonough teaches jazz history at Northwestern University.