“Composing makes me feel like I’m 12 again,” said the celebrated jazz pianist, who turned 75 on May 27. “When I get up in the morning, I feel giddy and I’m so happy to get to the piano and start working.”
Lewis will pull himself away from composing to celebrate his more than seven decades at the piano with a special concert tonight at 7 at the Ravinia Festival.
He estimates he has composed between 500 and 600 songs so far and shows no signs of slowing down. His latest work, “Colors: The Ecology of Oneness,” is a seven-movement opus that will premiere later this year in Tokyo.
“I’m still in the beginning stages here,” he said. “I’m trying to get my mind out of the way and just compose from my feelings. Writing is about what you know. Composing is writing about what you don’t know and letting the music take you where it will.”
Ramsey said he can recall a time when he was less eager to sit down in front of those 88 keys, though.
“I started piano when I was 4. My teacher was our church organist, Ernestine Bruce,” he recalled.
“Most of the time I had good lessons, but my older sister – who was also taking piano lessons at the time – remembers one time when I didn’t look at the lesson and Mrs. Bruce hit me with a ruler on my knuckles.
“Had I known back then what I know now, I might have been able to say, ‘You don’t know whose knuckles you’re hitting; that was an original piece,’ ” he added with a throaty laugh.
He stayed with Bruce for seven years, at the end of which she told Lewis’ parents she had taught her pupil all she could. While she had imparted the essential musical fundamentals, his next teacher ignited his passion for music.
“My next teacher was Dorothy Mendelssohn, and after several lessons with her I fell in love with the piano,” he said. “There is a moment when you strike the keys and they sound these notes that seem to weave around you. From that moment, I was in love.
“I would spend four or five hours a day at the piano practicing or writing music – not for achievement or fame, but simply for the love of music.”
Although the early years saw Lewis trained in both classical and gospel music, he credited his father for first exposing him to jazz.
“He would bring home these records by Art Tatum and Duke Ellington. I heard the music and kind of liked it, but didn’t get into it,” Lewis said.
“Art Tatum intimidated me, though. He was the greatest jazz piano player ever and he played so much piano, it sounded like he had three or four hands at the keys.”
“I had to join the musician’s union and you had to be 16 to do that, so I told them I was,” he said.
“They also thought I knew standards and jazz tunes, and when they asked me to play Charlie Parker’s ‘B-Flat Blues’ it ended up sounding like boogie-woogie by Meade Lux Lewis,” Lewis said.
The Cleffs’ band leader, Wallace Burton, saw something in Lewis’ playing, though.
“He ended up writing out some blues changes and told me to learn them,” Lewis said.
“He also told me to go downtown to some of the record stores, go into the listening booths that they had at the time, and learn what jazz is all about.”
And learn he did. Though Lewis still professes a love for European classical music, he said no other form of music speaks to him like jazz.
“If I wake up and I’m feeling a certain way, with other music I have to thumb through my music collection to find that tune that will fit the moment,” Lewis said.
“With jazz, I just sit down at the piano and express my feelings with my own notes. There’s a certain freedom there.”
Ravinia Festival president and chief executive officer Welz Kauffman said the birthday celebration was a bit of a no-brainer.
“Ramsey has been a part of the Ravinia family for a long time. Not only as the artistic director of our jazz program, but he’s been performing here since the 1960s,” Kauffman said.
“It is our honor to celebrate not only his longevity, but the breadth of music he brings to us.”
In addition to performing with longtime collaborators Larry Gray and Leon Joyce, Lewis will be joined in concert with three-time Grammy award-winning vocalist Nancy Wilson and 2009 Kennedy Center honoree Dave Brubeck.
Wilson said she wouldn’t pass up a chance like this.
“I’ve known Ramsey for forever. We were both with John Levy Management for a long time and he’s like an older brother. It’s always fun to watch and listen to him play,” Wilson said of Lewis.
“And, in addition to it being a birthday celebration, it’s hard to say no to Ravinia. It’s such a great venue and I enjoy playing there whenever I can.”
Since a music education led Lewis to his passion and gave him a career, it’s perhaps most fitting that students from Ravinia’s Steans Institute for Young Artists will open the concert with a set.
“Just because they’re stu dents, that doesn’t mean they aren’t musicians,” Lewis said.
“Those kids are good enough to hold their own up there. It’s an honor to be sharing the stage with them.”
BY MISHA DAVENPORT, Sun-Times Media