80 albums and 3 Grammys later, Ramsey Lewis is still thrilling crowds with his unique, masterful jazz piano playing. His accolades include being selected a Jazz Master by the National Endowment of the Arts, receiving an NAACP Image Award for Best Jazz Artist and being chosen to light the cauldron and carry the Olympic Torch in Chicago for the 2002 Winter Olympics. Ramsey Lewis sat down with the LA Beat to talk about jazz, his music, his career and the Long Beach Jazz Festival.
Q: You started playing piano at 4 years old. When did you fall in love with jazz?
A: I started practicing and taking lessons at 4 and I fell out of piano at 5 or 6 because I didn’t realize you had to practice and I thought you only had to go to a lesson once a week. I ceased piano teachers at 12 and started classical music, Bach, Beethoven etc. Then I fell in LOVE with the piano at 15 years old, one of my church’s musicians wanted me to play with their band. They were in college so they played on weekends. Their piano player had left to go play with Sarah Vaughan. That should have been a signal to me that if he left to go play with Sarah Vaughan and I’d never played jazz in my life—-what am I doing? At our rehearsal they said ‘OK, we’re playing Friday night so show up’ and I showed up. None of the songs they were playing-I didn’t know how to play blues, 12-bar blues—I’d played church songs and Chopin. Wallace Bird, the leader of the band, was a very nice guy. He said ‘come over to my house in a couple days and I’ll show you what’s up with this stuff’. He did, and here you and I are talking!
Q: You’ve had several different groups over the years. Who are the Urban Knights?
A: The Urban Knights are a group of musicians that live here in Chicago and became part of my band and now they’re all of my band. Before we used the name as part of our band they were a studio band, but then we decided that we would be the Urban Knights and its trying to use Chicago musicians to the best advantage, in terms of recording and touring.
Q: Your main forte is jazz, but you’ve also had success with R&B and pop.
A: Well I don’t play R&B and I don’t play pop. I play jazz, and my music crosses boundries. I definitely do not play Bach and Beethoven or Chopin in concert, I’m not a classical piano player. But those elements are definitely found in my style and I think that’s what you’re alluding to.
Q: Ramsey, you had a period where you played electric keyboards and then went back to acoustic piano. Did you return to electric piano lately?
A: Well I actually didn’t go back to electric the second time. I played electric the first time, and a Steinway was sitting on the stage also; and I found myself playing the Steinway much more then the electric piano, so I decided to hire somebody to play the electric piano so I could spend the time playing the Steinway. I love the Steinway piano!
Q: Have you been to Long Beach? Are you excited about playing the Long Beach Jazz Festival?
A: I’ve played the Long Beach Jazz Festival at least two or maybe three times. It’s always a great Festival, I don’t know how people arrange it but the weather’s always great! There’s always a group of other fine musicians on the bill and I look forward to doing it. And especially being a part of the 30th Anniversary.
Q: What is special about doing a concert in a festival setting?
A: It’s partly due to a large group of musicians that would overflow a performing arts center, which usually seats anywhere from seven to eight hundred or a thousand, maybe twelve hundred people, so there’s an overflow of audiences. And then there’s a camraderie of meeting up and having a chance to talk and joke around with fellow musicians, much more then if you passed each other in an airport. ‘Hey, how ya doin’? Oh, good, OK, see ya. Where you playing? Gotta catch my plane. OK, goodbye’. So it’s wonderful to have a few minutes to check out other musicians, to listen to them playing and then have a conversation with them.
Q: Who are some of your favorite musicians that you’ve played with?
A: Well mainly singers, Nancy Wilson was probably the singer I played most often with. When she was touring, every year for at least eight, nine, ten, twelve concerts a year, we would tour together and of course I toured in Europe with Dee Dee Bridgewater and that was wonderful; that lady is quite the entertainer also. She’s one of the best. I did a couple of concerts with Ann Hampton Callaway and that was wonderful also.
Q: You have an interesting concept with your Taking Another Look album. What was the thought process with that?
A: Well it’s interesting that you asked that question, because we just decided to put together a group of songs that have stayed with me throughout the years and I play most of them still in person. So when they said, ‘what do you want to call the album now?’, we scratched our heads, looked at the list of tunes and well, were taking another look at these songs. So we just took off the word songs and left it Taking Another Look.
Q: Thank you, Ramsey. We’ll see you at the Long Beach Jazz Festival!
The Long Beach Jazz Festival runs for three music-filled days. The show schedule features:
CONCERT / MAIN STAGE SCHEDULE
FRIDAY, AUGUST 11, 2017
Jazz Funk Soul featuring Jeff Lorber, Everette Harp, Paul Jackson Jr.
SATURDAY, AUGUST 12, 2017
30 Years of Long Beach Jazz
Featuring: Ndugu Chancler featuring Bobby Lyle, Craig T. Cooper, Alphonso Johnson, and
Jazz in Pink
SUNDAY, AUGUST 13, 2017
Ramsey Lewis and Urban Knights
Al Williams Jazz Society
Featuring: Barbara Morrison and Special Guests
Other special events will take place at the Festival also. There will be a Jazz, Health and Wellness Pavilion with plenty of interesting vendors, health and motivational speakers, food sampling and many other displays having to do with living a healthier lifestyle. More jazz music will be featured on the Pavilion’s stage.
For those with EXQUISITE TASTE, The VIP Experience allows VIP attendees premiere services such as a specially prepared cuisine and table service with dinner linens and wine. VIP restrooms are conveniently located.
Those seeking the exclusive touch have an option to reserve their own private cabana. An increasingly popular choice for festival goers, the cabanas seat up to 6 and are furnished and private. They include a personal attendant (for cash bar service only). All guests receive Complimentary Souvenir Programs (6) and access to VIP restroom facilities. To purchase a cabana, you must call Rainbow Promotions, LLC office directly at (562) 424-0013.
Tickets range from $60-$210
Tickets are available through Rainbow Promotions, LLC at (562) 424-0013 or online at the
So enjoy yourself at the 30th Anniversary Long Beach Jazz Festival and make sure you catch Ramsey Lewis and the Urban Knight’s very special show. It’s bound to be fantastic!
The 30th Annual Long Beach Jazz Festival
August 11-13, 2017
Rainbow Lagoon Park
Long Beach, CA 90802