Ramsey Lewis began playing the piano at age 4. In his early 20s, the Chicago jazz icon embarked on a professional career that has spanned 65 years and includes a virtual holiday concert this weekend.
Last year, the 85-year-old stopped concertizing. But he never stopped playing.
“I always loved to play the piano,” he said. “And although I wasn’t concertizing anymore, I’d spend time daily at the piano just playing.”
He was noodling around “The Wind,” a song by pianist/composer Russ Freeman featured on the 1954 album “Chet Baker & Strings.”
“I finally nailed it,” said the Grammy Award-winning musician and radio host, whose WNUA morning show ended in 2005 after 15 years. His syndicated radio show “Legends of Jazz” remains available through the United Stations Radio Network.
Unbeknown to him, his wife recorded him and sent the tape to Lewis’ manager, who suggested the pianist perform concerts from his home once a month as part of a Saturday salon. The series, which debuted before the COVID-19 pandemic, has attracted listeners from around the world.
“I wasn’t expecting that. It’s very satisfying to have a response like that to something I was doing anyway,” he said, adding modestly, “At my age, it’s wonderful people want to listen to me.”
The salon series continues Saturday, Nov. 28, with a holiday edition showcasing selections from Lewis’ Top 10 1961 album “Sound of Christmas,” which included tunes such as “The Christmas Song,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and “Christmas Blues,” which he wrote with composer/conductor Skitch Henderson.
Lewis compares playing jazz to serving audiences a good meal. Taste this, he encourages them. What do you think?
While jazz is rooted in improvisation, Lewis said he’ll play fairly traditional versions of Christmas classics. He says that’s how most audiences want to hear them. Still, each number will have that Ramsey Lewis flair.
“Rest assured I will be respectful of what those songs meant and mean to those people even as I give my own interpretation, which can change from moment to moment and measure to measure,” he says.
At a time when clubs and concert halls have closed, putting hundreds of thousands of musicians out of work, Lewis remains optimistic that live music will return, perhaps in a different form.
“We’ll find that new normal,” he said. “Those of us who love music, who love the arts, will find a way.”
• • •
Ramsey Lewis Saturday Salon — Sound of Christmas
When: 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 28