The legendary Ramsey Lewis performs at CAU’s Jazz Under the Stars

By Regina Schaffer Special to The Atlanta Voic | 5/3/2013, noon
Ramsey Lewis was just 11 years old when he first sat down with his second piano teacher, Dorothy Mendelson, and ...
Jazz legend Ramsey Lewis

Ramsey Lewis was just 11 years old when he first sat down with his second piano teacher, Dorothy Mendelson, and prepared to show off. Instead, Lewis was about to learn a lesson - one that would eventually make him part of jazz history.

“I was rather proud of the fact that the 88 (piano keys) were no danger to me,” says Lewis, 77. “So when I went down to play for her the first time, I thought I’d dazzle her with a little (piano) footwork. She said, ‘Oh, you have a lot of technique, wonderful. Now let me hear you make the piano sing.’

“And there was silence,” Lewis says. “I didn’t know what the hell she meant. So she sat down and played a couple bars, and it was just gorgeous.”

It was Mendelson, Lewis recalls, who taught him to “think in terms of phrases” and “listen with the inner ear.” He began practicing late into the evenings, learning to slow down and focus on the melody.

Now, 80 albums and three Grammy Awards later, the lessons still ring true, he says.

“Even now, with my group, you know, music is not unlike talking to people in an assembly hall,” says Lewis, a recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award. “You can take a half hour and get into details and technical stuff, and people will go to sleep. Or, you can take 5 to 10 minutes and simplify it into beautiful sentences - and people will give you a standing ovation. It’s not the length of what you write. It’s the meaning behind it.”

Lewis will bring his group of stellar musicians to perform at the 20th Anniversary of the Jazz Under the Stars, Clark Atlanta University’s annual scholarship fundraising event, 7 p.m. Saturday, May 4 on the campus.

Founded in 1992 by former CAU First Lady and Judge Brenda Cole, the guild is a volunteer organization of staff, faculty and alumnae devoted to raising the awareness of the university’s programs in art, music, drama and film.

Opening for Lewis, will be the CAU Jazz Orchestra and Jazz Vocal Ensemble.

The event normally sells out. Tickets are available through the university’s website at: www.cau.edu.

Lewis, who spoke by telephone from his home in Chicago, says jazz fans can expect one thing this - great music.

“I’m in heaven because I have a quintet of some young guys - well, young to me - they’re in their 30s,” Lewis says. “Not only are they proficient in their instruments, but they’re very creative. We become one unit up there.”

Lewis says he likes to take his fellow younger bandmates “on musical curves” while they’re on stage performing.

“It’s fun to see how they handle them,” Lewis says.

Lewis is known for his unique sound that allowed him to cross over several times between pop and R&B charts. Lewis is perhaps best known for his cover of Dobie Gray’s hit “The In Crowd,” which earned him his first gold record and a Grammy award for best jazz performance in the 1960s. He had follow-up pop hits in 1966 with versions of “Hang On Sloopy” and “Wade In The Water.” His latest album, “Ramsey, Taking Another Look,” was released last year.

Over the decades, Lewis says his music has matured.

“There used to be a time when I’d think too much about what I have to play,” Lewis says. “I’m sure I left a lot of good ideas on the floor. Now, in my mature age, it’s more fun to speak in terms of starting with a melody and see how I can develop it - turn it upside down, change keys.”

(This article was originally written by Regina Schaffer and published in the

At The Shore section of Press of Atlantic City. Reprinted with permission. Additional reporting by staff, The Atlanta Voice.)