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By Andy Argyrakis
Live Photos by Matt Schwenke & Publicity photo
Jazz legend salutes Lincoln with "Proclamation of Hope" concept concert at Ravinia
"One on One"
May 25, 2009
Throughout his illustrious career thus far, Ramsey Lewis has scored three Grammy Awards, five gold records and become one of the world's most renowned jazz pianists and composers. In recent years, he's expanded that reach into the world of radio and television, including his longtime "Legends of Jazz" audio series hitting the screen in an immensely successful PBS mini-series. This summer, the 73-year-old legend with over eighty albums under his belt expands his legacy even further with the multimedia presentation "Proclamation of Hope." The conceptual concert is part of Ravinia Festival's Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Celebration, which draws parallels between that freedom-instilling era and newly crowned President Barack Obama. Here's more from the man behind the music on this historic endeavor and a lifetime of jazzy reflections.
Livewire: How did you develop such a close relationship with Ravinia Festival?
Lewis: The first time I played there was 1966 and I fell in love with it. It's one of most romantic and beautiful venues in the world. It's perfect for listening and enjoying music. I've played lot of places around the world, and it's not only physically attractive, but also very comfortable. There's plenty to enhance the listeners' enjoyment and the people who run it also enhance the performers' enjoyment. I do travel a lot, and unfortunately when I compare it to a lot of other venues, they don't stack up.
Livewire: What prompted this ambitious "Proclamation of Hope" conceptual concert?
Lewis: Welz Kauffman [Ravinia's President and Chief Executive Officer] called me up and said "let's go to brunch because I want to talk with you about the Lincoln Bicentennial coming up." He wanted to make something special for the celebration, which is of particular prominence in Illinois, and threw out a few ideas but basically said "I leave it up to you." I accepted it as a very positive challenge and was looking forward to getting my teeth into it. But before doing so, I read several books, spent a very inspiring day in Springfield and also at the Historical Society in Chicago.
Livewire: How did you narrow down which stories from Lincoln's life would end up in your final work?
Lewis: At first I didn't know how to write music about a politician, let alone how it would make sense to an audience, but as I read books about his life, it came to me one evening. I felt I should write not only with his feeling, sense of humor, character and honesty, but that I should pick some of the key moments in his life. There were many that moved me and resonated with my being, which led to eight main themes. For instance, the second section is called "A Horrid Picture: A Peculiar Institution," which refers to Lincoln's characterization of slavery after witnessing it first hand. He was making a trip down to Mississippi working on a boat in his late teens, and when the boat pulled over, he witnessed auctions and saw family of four being sold separately. The father, the mother and the two kids were all split and that vision stayed with him.
Livewire: To what degree is there a poignant parallel between Lincoln's emancipation of the slaves and Barack Obama becoming the first ever African American president?
Lewis: When I first started writing this, Obama had not declared he was running, so I changed the ending after he did. Before the ending was going to speak to fact that without Lincoln's actions and influence on culture, we would not have spirituals, blues, jazz or even pop as we know it. There would be no rock n' roll since that came after R&B. After Obama declared himself, I took a chance and started writing with the feeling this guy was going to win. And I thought to myself "if he does, the 16th and 44th president will both have come from Illinois and that just so happens to fall on the Bicentennial Celebration. I don't think Lincoln in those days would've ever thought of an African American president, because at that time, they couldn't even vote. I don't think he could see past freeing the salves, much less becoming president of the United StatesÉAt times, it was almost as if I were writing music for a film. In another section of the show, I had pictures of the slaves in mind and the emotions they must have felt after being free. On one hand, it was probably "hallelujah we're free," but also "what do we do now and where do we go? We don't have any money!" So there's this combination of jubilation, confusion and sadness.
Livewire: How do these emotions translate musically?
Lewis: I found myself combining [those concepts] with my background in classical, gospel and jazz. We have an orchestra- a twenty-two piece ensemble- that's basically a traditional big band with additional instruments. In addition to the trumpet, trombone and woodwinds, we've added three French horns, tuba, flutes, clarinet and the human voice.
Livewire: Will this be a one time presentation or make its way onto television?
Lewis: When I write, I write for the occasion of course, but also with the idea of it being recorded and performed in other venues. It could make for a wonderful television program if used in conjunction with visuals. [At the concert], we'll have visuals up at the beginning of each section to enhance the music.
Livewire: Speaking of television, what inspired your "Legends of Jazz" mini-series for PBS?
Lewis: We realized it had been over forty years since jazz was presented on television, but the whole idea of the show wasn't just to bring together legends of our music like Dave Brubeck and Billy Taylor, but also younger musicians. The whole idea was to first of all tape it in the best way possible, which was high definition and with several cameras. That way before anybody even heard the music, we wanted it to catch their eye while flipping channels. And in addition to seeing Chick Corea and Dave Brubeck perform, we wanted to have a conversation with them for people to know a little bit about the performer- both in their art and as a person- which I think we were successful in doing.
Livewire: What is your opinion on the current state of the jazz genre?
Lewis: It's interesting because I see two things going on in jazz right now. At the high school, college and university level, there is a lot of activity with thousands of young people wanting to play music and earn degrees. But in terms of entertainment, attendance at venues, television and radio are down because society is distracted by so many different choices. Jazz started when there wasn't even television, but now with so many social activities and the internet, it doesn't have the popularity it once did. I believe a lot of it has to do with music being taken out of the public school system...Jazz also gained a lot of entertainers from churches. As you know now, most churches are not being attended like they were years ago, so you don't have those opportunities to perform in front of people. Dinah Washington and Aretha Franklin came out of churches to play and sing jazz, and while the music is still there, it's not as popular.
Livewire: What is the fondest moment of your career thus far?
Lewis: I don't know if there's one incident or event, but one ongoing highlight of my life is the ability to key into that creative force in all of us and connect to the great creative universe. I'm amazed at how ongoing that process is, which is what thrills me when I sit down at my piano and write a new piece. The wonderful thing about jazz is to stay in the moment, what I feel like when I'm playing the notes and when I'm able to find that other world.
Livewire: What's next on the horizon for you?
Lewis: I just finished recording my first trio album in five years called Songs From the Heart: Ramsey Plays Ramsey. It's my first album out of eighty recorded that's made up of all original compositions. There's that, along with the Lincoln work, which is a major endeavor for me and something I'm really looking forward to!
Ramsey Lewis presents "Proclamation of Hope" as part of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Celebration at Ravinia Festival on Friday, June 12. For additional details, visit www.ravinia.org.