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Jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis dead at age 87

Ramsey Lewis

Truly a Chicago icon and native son, Ramsey Lewis was born in Chicago in 1935 and grew up in the Cabrini Green public housing project and went on to master the piano and perform for audiences the world over.

Unknown 1 2According to his Facebook page, he died peacefully at his home in Chicago Monday morning. His wife, Janet, announced his death on September 12. “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. 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 Twitter account managed on behalf of the late Chicago journalist Merri Dee posted: “We send our love and prayers to Jan and the entire @RamseyLewis family. Ramsey was so loved and cherished by Merri. We imagine they are once again together, surrounded by music and the love of their families”…the Honoring Merri Dee Twitter account.

The National Endowment for the Arts tweeted,

“We are deeply saddened to hear that pianist, composer, and 2007 NEA Jazz Master Ramsey Lewis passed today in Chicago at the age of 87. We presented Lewis with vocal legend Nancy Wilson at the Masonic Auditorium in November 2003 during the 21st San Francisco Jazz Festival.”

Lewis’ son Bobby told NBC5 News: “He started playing jazz piano in clubs when he was 15 or 16. The excitement and the energy he got from his fans is what kept him going. His music lives, so celebrate him by playing your favorite song tonight.”

The Rev. Jesse Jackson tweeted:

“Ramsey Lewis, from Chicago’s West Side and one of the greatest musicians of all time, has died. For more than 40 years, we were neighbors. Our children grew up together. He first hired Maurice White to be his drummer before his Earth Wind and Fire fame. He had a kinship with musicians.

“Ramsey had exquisite taste and was formally trained and disciplined. I will miss him as a friend and a neighbor. He joined the ranks of great musicians. He was a radio personality, international pianist and composer. Rest In Peace, my brother beloved. Jesse.”

The mayor also shared condolences:

“Ramsey Lewis was a first-class representative of Chicago to his fans around the world, and we’re grateful that he was a native son of our fine city,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said on Twitter. “Fans here loved experiencing his creative genius at our many concert venues, and he was equally as energized by the local crowds.”

Chicago radio veteran Richard Steele told NBC5 News:

“He really crossed genres along with being a great piano player.”

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RAMSEY LEWIS WAS a native Chicagoan who went on to play the piano all over the world. I was at a work fundraiser years ago. Merri Dee was the mistress of ceremonies. What a great night for “the in crowd.”

According to online sources, Lewis started playing piano at the age of four, was an American jazz composer, pianist and radio personality. Lewis recorded over 80 albums and received five gold records and three Grammy Awards in his career.

“Ramsey Lewis was one of the giants of the American musical landscape. A jazz man, yes, but even that would not adequately describe this legendary pianist/composer and his contributions to us all. His approximately 80 albums and three Grammy Awards stretch from Sinatra and Ella and the beginnings of rock and roll to hip-hop and jazz being recognized as America’s truly only classical music,” said Kevin Powell, writer/civil and human rights activist. “Mr. Lewis is a national and global treasure whose work and spirit will be with us forever.”

R&B singer Anthony Hamilton had these thoughts:

“Everybody–we all know how important he is to our fabric and to our culture and the legacy that he leaves behind. He is going to inspire a lot of kids. He’s pivotal to who we are.”

“Chicago mourns the loss of one of its favorite sons. Mr. Lewis was elegant, talented and humble.  His music was part of the soundtrack of my life. My Dad had all of his albums. One of the greatest jazz pianists who ever lived,” said Former Morning Drive Anchor WBBM/Founder/Principal, Saltshaker Productions LLC Felicia Middlebrooks.

A Chicago Magazine article by Mike Thomas in 2018 quoted Lewis as saying:

“The piano is my buddy, my friend—forever and ever.”

The article noted that Lewis played for the gospel choir at church for about six years and that Lewis requested a nine-foot Steinway concert grand piano at his performances.

THE RAMSEY LEWIS Trio featuring Lewis, Cleveland Eaton (left) and Maurice White.
THE RAMSEY LEWIS Trio featuring Lewis, Cleveland Eaton
(left) and Maurice White.

Lewis also showed respect for his piano teacher. “My teacher Dorothy Mendelsohn at the Chicago Musical College was the one who made me fall in love with the piano. She’d say, ‘Make the piano sing’ and ‘Listen with your inner ear.’

The pianist got his start with the Ramsey Lewis Trio, comprised of Lewis, Eldee Young and Redd Holt, which released their debut album in 1956.

In 1965, the Wells High School graduate performed his big crossover hit, “The In Crowd,” for which Lewis won a Grammy. This was followed by two more chart-toppers, “Hang on Sloopy” (Grammy win) and “Wade in the Water.”

Some of Lewis’ other songs include: “Slipping Into Darkness,” “Sun Goddess,” “People Make the World Go Round” and “South African Jam.”

Recently, Lewis and his wife hosted the Saturday Salon livestream series.

Lewis graduated from DePaul University and Roosevelt’s Chicago College of Performing Arts. He is survived by his wife, five children, and several grandchildren and great grandchildren.

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Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J.

Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader. She is a National Newspaper Publishers Association ‘Entertainment Writing’ award winner, contributor to “Rust Belt Chicago” and the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood: South Side of Chicago.” For info, Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago ( or email: [email protected].

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