Prolific Jazz Pianist Ramsey Lewis Dies at 87

The Chicago artist recorded over 80 albums and was sampled by Beck, A Tribe Called Quest and more
Prolific Jazz Pianist Ramsey Lewis Dies at 87
Photo: Todd Winters
Ramsey Lewis — the Grammy-winning jazz composer, pianist and broadcast host who recorded over 80 albums across a career of more than five decades — has died. The artist's family announced Lewis passed away at his Chicago home this morning, though a cause of death was not revealed. He was 87.

"Ramsey's passion for music was truly fueled by the love and dedication of his fans across the globe. He loved touring and meeting music lovers from so many cultures and walks of life," the artist's wife, Jan Lewis, wrote in a statement. "It was our family's great pleasure to share Ramsey in this special way with all those who admired his God-given talents. We are forever grateful for your support."

A three-time Grammy Award winner, Lewis was named a Jazz Master by the United States National Endowment for the Arts in 2007, and that same year, was named a Legendary Landmark in his home state of Illinois as a figure "critical to the civic well-being of Illinois and stand as a testimony to the greatness of our cultural integrity." 

Lewis's recordings have been sampled and interpolated by the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, Fugees, Beck, Gang Starr, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, E-40, Saukrates, the Pharcyde, Cannibal Ox, Company Flow, Little Brother, Knxwledge, Group Home, Mos Def and many more.

Born in Chicago in 1935, Lewis began taking piano lessons at age four and played the instrument in church, where his father — a jazz listener who would take his son to live performances and play the music at home — was choir director. 

As a high school freshman, Lewis would join a seven-piece jazz group called the Clefs, which would later have some of its members drafted into the Korean War. The three players who were not drafted — Lewis, bassist Eldee Young, and drummer Isaac "Redd" Holt — would then form the classic lineup of the Ramsey Lewis Trio, delivering debut album Ramsey Lewis and his Gentle-men of Swing via Argo Records in 1956.

Lewis and the Trio would score their first major hit in 1965 with "The In Crowd," the title track from a live album recorded that year at the Bohemian Caverns nightclub in Washington, DC. While the album would hit No. 1 on the Billboard R&B Chart and No. 2 on their top 200 albums chart the year of its release, the title track single would climb to No. 2 on the R&B Chart and No. 5 on the Hot 100 singles chart. 

The In Crowd would capture the trio the 1966 Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Jazz Performance by an Individual or Group, while its title track was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2009.

1966 would see bassist Young and drummer Holt depart the Trio to form Young-Holt Unlimited, leaving Lewis to add Cleveland Eaton and future Earth, Wind & Fire leader Maurice White in their respective places. With this lineup, the trio won another Grammy Award with 1966 album Wade In the Water, with the track "Hold It Right There" winning in the category for Best Rhythm & Blues Group Performance, Vocal or Instrumental.

Into the 1970s, Lewis began playing electric piano and synthesizers in exploring fusion music and jazz-funk styles. His most recognizable release from the era is 1974's Sun Goddess, which achieved crossover success through its title track (performed with Earth, Wind & Fire) and "Hot Dawgit" landing on R&B, pop and disco singles charts.

Later career work would see Lewis reform his original Trio for 1983's Reunion, and cut eight albums as a player and producer with fusion supergroup Urban Knights. In 1990, the artist began hosting weekly syndicated radio program Legends of Jazz, and also hosted the Ramsey Lewis Morning Show on Chicago's WNUA (95.5 FM). On television, Lewis hosted a 13-episode Legends of Jazz television series, which featured the likes of Dr. Lonnie Smith, Dave Brubeck, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Tony Bennett and more.

The announcement of Lewis's passing also points to a forthcoming album, The Beatles Songbook: The Saturday Salon Series, Volume One, arriving November 11 via Steele Records. The collection draws from the artist's monthly Saturday Salon livestream series, produced during the pandemic by his wife Jan.
During the last year of his life, Lewis was also at work on his memoir, Gentleman of Jazz, with co-writer Aaron Cohen. The book will be released via Blackstone Publishing in 2023.

Lewis is survived by his wife, two daughters and three sons.