Pop On Top: A Conversation About the Jazz-Pop Continuum with Ramsey Lewis and Kirk Whalum


​Ramsey Lewis takes part in a live DownBeat interview at the The Midwest Clinic in December 2009. Saxophonist Kirk Whalum (not shown) also took part in the conversation.

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

It’s the week before Christmas in Chicago. The tree in Daley Plaza has been decked out and glowing — all 90 feet of it — for weeks. Shoppers bundle up and bustle down State Street in search of last-minute this and that. And it’s cold, Chigago-style cold. So cold that friend from California shivers crossing Michigan Avenue and asks, “Why, again, do you people live here?”

It’s also time for an annual rite of passage for music education — The Midwest Clinic. After 64 years, Midwest, as it’s known, has become one of the largest gatherings of music educators in the world. Every year — the week before Christmas — some 18,000 educators and their students slide into Chicago to meet, greet, share, perform and learn.

This year, Midwest moved into new digs at McCormick Center West. It’s a big, beautiful space giving the clinic the opportunity to take on an expanded mission — one that includes a lot more jazz programming.

So, DownBeat gladly jumped in with Frank Alkyer, DownBeat’s publisher, conducting the inaugural Midwest Jazz Interview. The guests for the event are two artists who are known more for their connection to Gold Records than music education. But the legendary pianist Ramsey Lewis and the soulfully sweet saxophonist Kirk Whalum came prepared to entertain, inform and inspire a roomful of teachers and students.

One of Chicago’s favorite sons, Lewis recently released Songs From The Heart: Ramsey Plays Ramsey (Concord). It’s the first time that the soon-to-be-75 Lewis has done a recording of solely comprised of his original music. He recently ended his long-time side project as a morning drive-time DJ after WNUA, Chicago’s smooth jazz station, went off the air. But he has found plenty to keep him busy. Last summer, Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Ill., presented the world premiere of Lewis’ large-ensemble composition Proclamation Of Hope: A Symphonic Poem. The piece was written as a commission by Ravinia in honor of the Abraham Lincoln bicentennial celebration.

And following in the great Memphis soul tradition, Whalum is working on a recording dedicated to the music of the late, great singer Donny Hathaway, scheduled to come out later this year on Rendezvous Records. He last recording, The Gospel According To Jazz, Chapter III (Rendezvous), serves as a testament that Whalum knows the reason for this holiday season.

In fact, he and Lewis are both the sons of ministers, got their musical starts in the church and both have recorded and performed on gospel side of jazz.

It’s just the first of many things the two have in common. During the hour-long conversation, they discuss humble beginnings, the great jazz tradition, expanding the boundaries of jazz education and Earth, Wind & Fire and even hip-hop.

Frank Alkyer: Let’s start from the beginning. We’ve got an audience of music students and music educators here. So, I’d like to really focus these questions on our audience, if that’s OK with you guys. Let’s start with your own musical education, Ramsey.

Ramsey Lewis: I started studying the piano at 4 years old, by chance. My sister was offered the opportunity. My family could only afford one lesson. She was 6 years old. But I thought, “Why does she get to go, and I don’t?” So, after two or three days of having a tantrum, my parents said, “OK, OK you can go.” It was the worst thing that could have happened to me because I didn’t know you were supposed to practice. I thought you just went once a week for 20 minutes and then come out in the neighborhood and say, “I play piano.”

So, the practice part disillusioned me, but my dad said, “You started it. You finish it. Get in there and practice.” So, I did. Then, at 9 years old, he said, “Now, you’ll start playing for our church.” And I did that. But it wasn’t until I was 12, 13 years old that our neighborhood piano teacher, Ernestine Bruce, said, “I’ve taught him all I can. You’d better take him downtown.”

They did.

They took me to Chicago Musical College, which is now part of Roosevelt University. And I met a lady named Dorothy Mendelsohn. She stood about 4-feet, 9-inches, but she could play the piano — Rachmaninoff, Tchaikowsky, the big concertos. She could make the piano dance. She would say things like, “Make the piano sing.” You figure I’m 12 years old, how am I supposed to make the piano sing? [Laughs.] But it touched something, “Make the piano sing.” And she said, “Now listen with your inner ear.” Now all these years of playing in our church, it was all about your inner self. But I hadn’t connected with what that meant until Dorothy Mendelsohn said, “Listen from inside.”

At that moment, something said, “That’s your life. I’m going to play piano.” I did not see Grammys. I did not see Gold Records. I did not see name in lights. I did not see radio or television. I only saw 88 keys. And I figured, “Well, this is me.” And, here I am.

Alkyer: Kirk, how about you?

Kirk Whalum: Definitely some parallels. I’ll play this melody. It’s the first melody I played in public. I’m going to play it like I probably played it then. [He plays a choppy, student-like version of “Amazing Grace.” The audience laughs and applauds.]

Alkyer: And you got a hand for that!

Whalum: It’s funny that you should applaud because that’s exactly what happened. My dad was a pastor. So, the first place I was going to play any instrument was going to be in church. And the first song I was going to play was … [Points to the audience which says in unison, “Amazing Grace.”]

So, I did it, and it sounded great to me. Thinking back, it couldn’t have sounded good, but what did happen was exactly what just happened. Some really kind people applauded, and that something that happened — that interchange — impacted me forever. I think there was that part of the thing — that you band directors have identified — is that you have to latch onto that something to inspire and encourage that student. To say, “That was good,” though it was terrible. [Laughs.]

But the idea of giving that child something to go with, “Now take that and make it even better.” Well, that song, I was fortunate enough to play many times since then. I’ve even heard Ramsey Lewis play it so beautifully. But I played it standing next to this lady who I worked for at the time, Whitney Houston. I enjoyed working for her for seven years. And I did not work with her. I worked for her, just to set the record straight. People say, “Weren’t you the band director?” No, no, no. I was in the band. And it was great. It was a great job.

But I stood next to her in South Africa, in front of 70,000 people in 1994. Those of you who have studied history know that that was the year that apartheid fell. So, to be there, as it happened, and to look out, much like right now, on a mixed audience in South Africa — a legally mixed audience — and to know that it was live on HBO, so there were 7 million or so other folks watching. And I played … [At this point, Whalum plays a beautiful verse of Amazing grace, complete with fills, trills runs and terrific improvisation. The audience applauds heartily.]

Basically, that song is the story of how I got started. Definitely, playing in church.

Alkyer: Playing in church. Did either of you play in your school music programs?

Whalum: Absolutely. Going right for the junior high band. 12 years old, in the 7th grade. They were demonstrating instruments. I picked the saxophone. Wouldn’t it be great if they were still doing that, and letting kids take instruments home like we did?

That was how I got into it, but when I got to 9th grade, to high school, the band director said, “OK, well great. I heard you were doing pretty good over there at Sherwood Junior High. How would you like to be in the jazz band?” And I said, “Well, I don’t really want to be in the jazz band.” And he said, “Well, let me rephrase that. You’re are now in the jazz band.” [Laughs.] You know, it’s like sweet potatoes or something, where you say, “I don’t like that.” Next thing you know, you’re loving you some sweet potatoes.

Alkyer: Ramsey, how about you?

Lewis: Well, I was very fortunate because in grammar school, I was probably one of the only piano players that could play for graduation and such. So, I became sort of the school pianist at General Elementary School on the North Side [of Chicago]. It sits in the middle of Cabrini Green. When I was going there it was just called Cabrini.

The word got to our high school because my sister was a year or two ahead of me. She went to Wells High School, which is Augusta and Ashland, a year or two before me. They’d ask her about her brother and she’d say, “Yeah, he plays for graduation and such.” So, Wells High School was an exceptional school, a public high school in the middle of the inner city. We had marching band. We had jazz band. We had concert band. We had orchestra. We had ballet. We had creative dancing. We had fine arts class. We had industrial arts. And all the equipment that we needed, all the instruments were provided. This was the way it was, and we were very fortunate. In every instance, they didn’t need a piano. In orchestra, they didn’t need a piano. So, I got to play tuba and trombone. I had taken some trombone lessons. And sousaphone. I got to play sousaphone.

It was quite an experience at our high school because we had, about once a year, the students would produce their own extravaganza. And the fine arts class would draw the scenery. The industrial arts class would make the scenery. And the bands, the various musicians would perform. The dancers would dance. It served its purpose, not only for those of us going to school there, but also for those guys that thought they wanted to drop out, standing on the street corner, saying, “What are you guys doing?” We were late coming back [home] because we were rehearsing for the event. “What was that?” So, long story short, I do know of two or three guys who came back to school because they were musically inclined, and they wanted to be part of this.

But they were told, “You have to make grades.” If you maintained a certain grade average, you can be a part of what’s going on. So, I was very fortunate to go to that high school. It was very advantageous.

Alkyer: For both of you, you are talking about what you consider to be a bygone era. In those high schools today, what are the music programs like?

Lewis: Well, I don’t know if they even have one at Wells High School right now.

Alkyer: I wonder if they do. That’s one of the great traditions of Chicago music and Chicago musicians. How many of those guys came through those fantastic school music programs?

Lewis: Well, DuSable, Walter Dyett, right? Nat Cole. Dinah Washington.

[Walter Dyett was a legendary band director in the Chicago Public School System from the 1930s to the 1960s at Dusable High School. Cole and Washington were two star pupils there. So were Gene Ammons, Von Freeman, Johnny Griffin, Joseph Jarmen and a host of others.]

Alkyer: DuSable, that one alone! The job that these folks [music educators] do out here, is the job that we need to fight to put back into our schools, correct?

Whalum: Absolutely. And it’s funny, just thinking about Chicago and Memphis. There’s this natural connection there. If you’re Black and you live anywhere, you can say you’ve got folks in Chicago. [Laughs.] It’s a cultural anomaly. The nice thing, that I’ve been able to study a little bit, is that connection. For instance, Ramsey Lewis played with a young musician — actually, he kind of trained a young musician — by the name of Maurice White, who went on to make this group called Earth, Wind & Fire.

[Lewis jokingly waves his hands as if it were a little-known band and laughs.]

Whalum: He was a young kid who certainly got part of his musical shaping in Chicago and part in Memphis because he was there as a 3-year-old with folks like David Porter and other great soul musicians. And I think a lot of what you hear in Earth, Wind & Fire — which is a great example I guess of what we’re going to get to a little later — the idea that the fewer labels [on music] the better with this new generation of kids. But just to say that Earth, Wind & Fire, you hear the soul of it. You feel that. It’s something that I don’t think Maurice White [forgot] after hanging out here in Chicago with Ramsey and then studying the jazz masters, and then being right there on Beale Street in Memphis, McLemore Avenue, making soul music. I think those elements had to be part of what he did along with these classical elements and all these other things. He had a big enough vision to incorporate a lot of those things.

But it took those kind of mentoring relationships with Ramsey Lewis. It took those band directors struggling, and I guess duking it out, to get the resources and get the support in the community and with the school organizations and the board of education in order to provide the world with a Maurice White and an Earth, Wind & Fire. So, it goes beyond, well, just jazz or classical.

Lewis: I’m glad you brought that up because for students today, it’s important to get a well-rounded education. We’ll talk about other than music at another time. But it’s important not only to have your head stuck in music books and listening to records all the time. It’s important to broaden your cultural experience. You can do that through reading and traveling. If you can’t afford to travel, you can read books.

But Maurice White, you know him as the soul-pop-jazz guy. But my advice to young people coming up today is to get a well-rounded education. Before Maurice played with me, he had played with Sonny Stitt, and he had played with Gene Ammons. He had played with Johnny Griffin before he played with me. Then, he played with Howlin’ Wolf. He played with the blues guys at Chess [Records]. Muddy Waters. Then he got with me. He was a very humble, very quiet young man.

Before I hired him, in those days, at Chess they had house bands and house producers on staff. You were available to whatever artists that they signed to accompany them, if they would like you to. So, Maurice was the house drummer for Chess Producing. And before he came with me, he’d stop me in the hallway and say, [In a quiet, whispered rasp, imitating White] “So, Ramsey, you’ve got a publishing company, right? What’s that?” “Hey, Ramsey, you’ve got a manager, right?” He had all these questions. So finally, I said, “I need a drummer. Would you like to play with me?” Of course, he would. In the three or four years that he played with me, he was always, “So what is this? What is that?” Still, very humble, very quiet. I’ll never forget the first time he brought a kalimba to rehearsal, and I said, “Man, we ought to use that in concert!” He was like, “Well … OK.”

So, we got a tune together. We said when we get to bar whatever, you’ll play kalimba. So, he was sitting at the drums and he pulled out the kalimba. Well, Maurice liked to play with his cymbals up. Sometimes you could not see him. He pulled out his kalimba, and he played the kalimba like that. Well, people went wild, but they couldn’t see him. So, I said, “Maurice, you know, you’ve got to let them see you.” So, he sat up a little bit and played it. Finally, I said, “Maurice, you’ve got to stand up and play it.” And he was like, “Awwwwhhh.” So he finally stood up and played it. And then, it became so popular that we had to use it every time we played somewhere.

So, I said, “Walk up front like a featured vocalist and play the kalimba.” That was like pulling teeth. You know the Earth, Wind & Fire that you all know, right? He was immersed in music and all that show business stuff came later. Finally, he walked up to the microphone and he started playing kalimba, and it really went over well.

After three or four years, he said, “Ramsey, I’m going to be leaving in the next few months because I’m going to be forming my own group.” Well, I knew he had been immersed in jazz, and I didn’t think he wasn’t going to do a blues group. So, I figured he was going to do a quintet or whatever. And he said, “No, no, no. We’re going to do some jazz. But we’re gonna do rock ’n’ roll. We’re going to do blues. We’re going to do R&B. We’re gonna dance. We’re gonna do magic.” [Laughter from the audience.]

I told him, “Take a couple aspirin. Take a nap. And I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” [Laughs.] Well, as you know, the rest is history.

Well, I think, what I’m trying to say is that fundamentals come first. Thank God my parents bought me up in such a way that I was more involved in fundamentals than I was in a record contract.

Alkyer: Now, we’re going to turn a little bit. Each of you are very gifted instrumentalists and you have something in common that most instrumentalists never see. And that’s hit records. You are both very fortunate in that regard. I’d like to ask you each about the experience of being part of hit records.

Ramsey, let’s start with you. A few years ago I sheepishly asked you a question about a little song you made in 1966 called “The In Crowd.” Can you tell the audience about your feelings toward “The In Crowd”?

Lewis: Well, I’m very fortunate. In some people’s quarters, they are going to say I’m very blessed in that I have had several hit records, Gold Records, Platinum and all that stuff. You won’t believe this, but none of them were planned. There was no time where we went into the studio and said, “This is going to be the single. This is going to be the whatever.”

We were most interested in those days in putting out a good album, a well-balanced album. The In Crowd album was the 17th album. The last four albums prior to The In Crowd, we got into the habit — Eldee Young and Red Holt by the way, two wonderful gentlemen [who were the other members of the Ramsey Lewis Trio] — we got into the habit of after Duke Ellington and a couple of originals and some blues, and a Charlie Parker tune, we had what we called a fun song, something easy.

Maybe people might be able to dance to it. So, long before “The In Crowd,” we had “Something You Got,” now that might have been before your time, but … So, we got to Washington, D.C., and we were going to record live at the Bohemian Caverns, and we didn’t have one of those songs. So, we were sitting in a coffee shop and this was like a Monday and we were going to start recording on a Thursday and the waitress came over and said, “What are y’all doin’?” “Well, we’re trying to come up with this song.” And she said, “Have you ever heard Dobie Gray’s “The In Crowd”? Well, Eldee and Red had heard it. They said, “Yeah, yeah, it’s kind of nice.” I said I hadn’t. So she played it on the juke box. That’s the other thing in those days. They had juke boxes in coffee shops.

And so she played it. I said, “Oh yeah, we can whip that up.” So, I went and bought the 45. Boy, I’m dating myself here. These people out here don’t even know what a 45 is, right? [Laughs.]

Alkyer: Round, about this big, hole in the middle. [Laughs.]

Lewis: There’s one guy out there saying, “I know what it is.” [Laughs.] So, we played it at the hotel. We learned it. We recorded it only because it fit the rest of the programming, if you will. We sort of programmed our albums like we programmed our show. You end with something happy and up, and such.

We put the album out, and I think it came out in June. So, by August or September, we got a call from the Chess brothers saying, “We think you guys have a hit record.” To tell you where we were coming from, we said, “Why? What? Which one?” Because “The In Crowd” was not put on there for that reason. And “Wade In The Water,” “Hang On Sloopy,” “Sun Goddess” [weren’t either].

I can tell you a great story about “Sun Goddess.” You all might have heard of that song. By now, Maurice has left the group and he’s formed a group called Earth, Wind & Fire. And I’ll never forget, he called me from Philadelphia, [quietly rasps again] “Ramsey, we opened for Sly, and he wouldn’t let us off the stage. We blew Sly Stone off the stage.” And I said, “Great, Maurice.” Later on, they were in New York, and I was recording an album. I had to stop for a couple of days and go to Washington and play a concert. And on the way back, Maurice called me and said, “What are you doing?” I said, “Recording an album.” “Well we’re in New York, on our way back. Hey, I’ve got a tune for you.” By then, I had “The In Crowd,” “Hang On Sloopy,” “Wade On The Water” that were fairly good sellers.

So, he said, “I’ve got a record that’s gonna make ‘The In Crowd’ … I mean it’s gonna be so baaad. Are you going back to Chicago?” “Yeah, I’m going back to Chicago.” {Do you want me to stop in Chicago and show you what I’ve got?” “Yeah.” “Well, I’ll bring some of the guys with me.” And I said, “OK.”

He brought Verdine [White] and Phillip Bailey and some of the guys with him. We worked three days on that song because he wanted it to be just so because it was going to be a million seller.

We got through recording it and mixed it. And I said, “What’s the name of it?” And he said, “Hot Doggit.” I said, “OK.” And that’s that. But as he was packing up to go to the airport, he said, “Oh, there’s this other melody. It’s just a 12-bar melody, and it’s got sort of an R&B, Brazilian beat to it. We don’t even have any words to it. We just kind of say, ‘Way-o, Waaay-o.’ You wanna do that?” I said, “Yeah, why not?” So it took about two or three hours, not two or three days, to put that song together. In fact, it was after that, he said, “It doesn’t even have any words, and it needs a melody. So, we’re just going to say, ‘Way-o, Waaay-o.’”

On his way out the door, I said, “What are you going to name it?” And he said, “I don’t know, call it ‘Sun Goddess.’ You’ve already got your hit.” Well, the rest is history.

Alkyer: And that’s the way it goes. You never know.

Lewis: I think that’s the worst thing that ever happened to music is when people thought you could plan a hit record. Before you put together a good group of songs for an album to make it a wonderful experience. You start with song one and by the time you get to the last song, it was a wonderful experience. And, oh by the way, there was this one song that’s kind of catchy, or whatever. They did it the other way around. They started looking for the catchy songs before they looked for the meat and potatoes. And I think that it had to do with, in my estimation, the downfall of pop music.

Alkyer: Kirk, as a sideman, as a front man, you’ve had great success. But you will probably never be part of something bigger than Whitney Houston and The Bodyguard. What are your feelings today about being part of that?

Whalum: Well, I’ll comment on that and piggyback on some stuff that Ramsey said. First of all, me playing the saxophone solo in The Bodyguard. I’m told, a friend of mine who knows these types of statistics, said that that saxophone solo is the most listened to saxophone solo in history. Now, I say that with tongue in cheek because you ask me about the greatest saxophone solos, of course, I can run off a long list of Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt and Coltrane and Joe Henderson and on and on and Kenny Garrett.

But again, back to what Ramsey was talking about of what touches people in a mass consumption kind of way, well, the movie was compelling. You have this beautiful lady and this handsome guy and all of that. So, that all fed into the hype that allowed her to make space to put her beautiful voice out there with this song, “I Will Always Love You.” But the way that I got on that was absolutely attributed to her because when she was going to do that song in the movie. You know, David Foster, a big producer, he’s in charge of that aspect of it. Again, this is a movie we’re making. They’re not making a record. They’re making a movie. So, it’s all about the image. It’s the lighting. It’s the makeup. It’s the wardrobe. It’s all about making the movie. So, it’s all of that.

Into that, you’re making a movie about music. So, certainly, we’re going to add that element, but in a controlled way. So, in other words, the track is going to be done already. She’s not going to be singing live. She’s going to overdub later. But It’s all about her up there, the imagery of it.

Well, she’s like, “No, I actually wanna sing this song live.” And they’re like, “Oh no, no, please.” Because now you’ve thrown a complete monkey wrench into their program. And then, on top of that, she said, “And I want my band to play — live.”

Then, everybody just went and did their drug of choice, you know. [Laughs.]

They’re like, this lady is a diva, and she’s making our lives miserable, and we don’t know why, blah, blah, blah. So, they tried to milk it and say, “Well, Whitney, would you mind if we just did this to a track? We’ll use the best studio musicians. And she said, “Oh, by the way, my band is all studio musicians. They all have records out … next.” And they said, “Well, yeah, but blah, blah, blah.” They’re back and forth, back and forth. She said, “Fine, I’ll tell you what. Get a studio band. Make a track. Get somebody to sing it. Because if I sing it, I’m gonna sing it live and my band is going to play.”

And she was the star of the movie, so what are they going to tell her. Sure enough, they acquiesced. And we did that live, similar to this. [Points at the room we’re in.] Like a hotel ballroom type thing. And she’s up there singing. Live. And we’re back there playing. Live. And what you see on the movie is what we did. It was like first take. That was it. But the interesting thing is that I wouldn’t have been there if she hadn’t said, “No, I want my band to play.”

And, when you hear that track — speaking of people trying to contrive “Well, we’re going to make this hit” — you’ve got to trust whatever that is that God has given you and go out on the limb and do whatever that is. If it’s going to work, then we’ll all be happy. If it doesn’t, you just keep right on doing what you do. So, with that attitude, there we were. You’ve got the rough mix of “I Will Always Love You” from the day’s session. A DAT, we don’t use those too much anymore, digital audio tape. Rough mix of that experience. Clive Davis. They hand that to Clive Davis. He listens to it with the idea, of course, that we’re going to take that, we’re going to make the multi-track. We’re going to strip it down. We’re going to add this. We’re going to fix that. I had a note in there that was very sharp. I would have fixed that under normal circumstances. I couldn’t wait to get in there and fix it. Clive Davis says, “Thank you.”

In other words, the rough mix of that day, where she said, “This is what it’s going to be.” That is the record that’s enshrined now in the history books. He would not let them touch it. They could not go back and do post-production. They could not go back and add reverb. It’s a good thing that they had reverb on the rough. But the rough mix of that day is what you hear. They never let them touch it. So, basically, a two-track went straight to the record.

So, that’s just an example. But I’ll piggyback on Ramsey, and say I really do think it’s about you being who you really are …

Lewis: Amen.

Whalum: … not about you trying to accomplish some type of marketing goal. In fact, I have a pet peeve about that. I think now that we’re in an age where we’re doing everything, you know, we have this expectation that I’m not only going to be the artist, I’m going to produce the record. I’m going to play all the instruments. I’m going to program it. I’m going to mix it. I’m going to master it. I’m going to market it. I’ll be out there networking.

Yeah, that sounds good, and I guess maybe somebody can do that. But I like — I’m starting to sound more and more old-fashioned — but I kind of like somebody else come around and listen to that and say, “Hey, what’s that song? Oh, ‘In Crowd’? That sounds like something everybody’s going to love.” Well, that’s a perspective that we don’t have. We don’t go into the studio with that perspective. We just go into the studio and be who we are. We say, “Yes, I can make that melody work. Yeah, I can do that. That’s something I can play and really feel good about.” And it’s a part of who I am, as opposed to saying, “Oh, play this because it’s going to be a hit.” I like the idea of having marketing people do their thing, and let us do the music. That way, we can put our heart and soul into the music and stop trying to contrive something.

Alkyer: Now, guys. I wanted to ask you about those two particular things about pop music and having hits and things like that because I wanted to ask you this question. What is, or what should be, the role of pop music in jazz education today?

Whalum: It’s really invaluable for us to approach exposing young and aspiring musicians to something that they’re going to be passionate about in the context of where they are already.

In fact, James Moody sat me down. I begged for a lesson when I was 19 with James Moody. I was in Nice, France. Long story. And he taught me something that [his generation] got. He said, “Yes.” Ramsey’s done that for a lot of people. And I know you [all] have too. When people come up for help, you don’t mind helping.

James Moody taught me that day, in an hour, what I’ve been working on for the rest of my life. And that is start where you are. Figure out a way to make that thing more difficult. And then accomplish that. In other words, you don’t run — unless you’re my 14-year-old son — you don’t run and jump up eight steps at a time. You normally take a step at a time. And I think the concept of meeting kids in their culture, especially musically, where they already are, takes a little homework. Because we can’t just come to them and say, “Well, this is the way I did it back in … .” No, no, no. I think the idea, the more important thing is for them to be passionate about it. Those of us who are parents do this all the time. What you’ve got to do is find where they’re passionate and work your way backwards.

I remember when I told my uncle, Mickey Tucker, who was a great jazz pianist who moved to Australia, but I remember when I told him I was playing the saxophone. The first thing he did when he came by from New York, he handed me a John Coltrane record. Now, I’m 12. [Audience laughs.] You know, and later on as I appreciated and treasured that record and everything else I have about John Coltrane, I wasn’t ready for John Coltrane. But I was ready for The Crusaders. Again, we’re talking about back in the early ‘70s. I was ready for Ronnie Laws. I was ready for Grover Washington. I was listening to The Jackson 5.

So, all those things. There was a representation in the jazz music that caught my eye of the overall place where the culture was. Where the music and the pop radio was. And I think that’s got to be the case today. Some might say, “Well, I don’t like rap music.” Well, guess what? You need to get your head around what that music is about. Not necessarily all of it. Not necessarily all the lyrics. But try to find a way to make a connection where you can present this profound music called jazz. Because there is a connection with rap and every other kind of music. Presenting it in such a way that captures their imagination based on where they already are. And work your way backwards. That’s just the way I look at it.

Alkyer: Ramsey, your thoughts?

Lewis: I guess I was interviewing somebody, and it was a saxophone player. And I said, “Who’s your influence?” This was maybe six or seven years ago. And he was maybe 25 years old. And he said, “David Sanborn.” And I said, “Who else?” “Kenny G.” “All right. Who else?” “Well, that’s it. Those are my influences.”

I would suggest, no matter what kind of music you’re going into, if you like David Sanborn, find out who David Sanborn liked. And then find out who that guy liked until you go back to … . You’re going to end up with one of the guys Kirk has named. You’re going to end up with Gene Ammons. Or you’re going to end up with Hank Crawford. And study them. That will help you find your own voice. It’s so important. Your own voice is like your fingerprint. That’s what’s going to resonate with people.

As Kirk was saying, the music comes from your heart, what you feel and what you think. Not what you think Kirk might play at this stage on this song or what David Sanborn might play. What would you play? What do you feel? And whether it’s pop, jazz or whatever it is, I think studying the history of the music, the fundamentals and the foundation. It is so important to study the foundation of the music. I was with somebody recently and they were listening to Rod Stewart. You know, now he’s putting out this soul book and standards. And they thought Rod Stewart was an original. Well, Rod Stewart found his own voice, but I pulled out a Sam Cook and they were confused. [Jokes to the audience.] Sam Cook was before your time, but if ever you run across a Sam Cook album, you will see. And Rod Stewart talks about that. He said that he had heard Sam Cook, and he went back and studied where Sam Cook came from and he found what he developed as a style.

Now I have some thoughts about hip hop and rap. And this goes back to I admire those young people 20 years ago, 25 years ago when music was taken away from the schools. When they were not learning the basics.

I was in private lessons, but there were kids who were at least in music class, they were learning what a scale is. They were learning what a triad is. They were learning the basic fundamentals. In fact, doo wop guys, they could learn the I, IV, V, I chord and harmonize. And that gave them some feeling about how to develop a melody.

Well, when we took the instruments away from the kids, [those kids] resorted to what was left. What was left? Rhythm, right? And the ability to make up prose, or poetry or poems.

Whalum: And sample Ramsey Lewis records! [Laughs.]

Lewis: And sample! They sampled all of us. You have to admire them for turning to their own resources, what’s available to them, and come up with this music. I dare say there’s some genius in there somewhere.

If some of these kids had the opportunity to study the fundamentals of music, I don’t know. Duke Ellington Jr., maybe? I don’t know. Gershwin Jr.? So, I’m still fighting the good fight in terms of getting instruments back in the school, getting music back in the school. And not just a few schools. Not just the magnet schools, some of the charter schools. I mean like when I was going to school.

I believe in what the Greeks felt. You not only have to educate the brain, but you also have to educate the spirit, the soul. And what feeds the spirit and the soul other than the arts. Music. Art. Dance. And other forms. That’s what feeds the soul. You put that with math and science and you’ve got a whole human being.

Now, we’re here today. There’s another issue that you haven’t brought up. Forgive me …

Alkyer: Our time’s going to wind down, just go for it now!

Lewis: We have to come up with a way to allow these youngsters as they finish high school, as they go into college, and they leave college with their performance degrees, with their education degrees … How do you get to Carnegie Hall? How do you get to Ravinia? How do you get to Orchestra Hall? The joke in the old days was, “Practice, man, practice.” Well, that’s still the truth, but there’s one more thing that we didn’t think about because it was so available to us when we were growing up. Practice in front of folk.

You can practice in your bedroom and in your living room and downstairs in your basement until you’re blue in the face. But that ain’t gonna get you in the door at Carnegie Hall. You’ve gotta learn to play in front of people. And the next issue is, “Yeah, but where?” They don’t have the places like when I was coming up — bars and restaurants and night clubs by the dozens where youngsters could come up and perform their new material and either go home and jump for joy because people went crazy over it or go home and say, “Well, I need to practice some more.”

I think that’s one of the things that we need to approach. And I’ve started some conversations with coffee houses and other retail places throughout the country that might open such a place where youngsters — 16, 17, 18, 20, 21 — can go play.

That’s how you find yourself. You don’t find yourself in your closet, your living room, in the practice room. You take that and you go in front of people. That’s how you find yourself.

At this point, Lewis and Whalum took questions from the audience. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the names of those asking questions, but we got their thoughts.

Question for Ramsey: How long did it take you to write Proclamation Of Hope, which you performed at Ravinia this year.

Lewis: This past June at the Ravinia Festival here in Chicago, we celebrated the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. And I was commissioned to use one evening to present a jazz reflection on his life. It took me over a year to write it. In the middle of that year, it spent five weeks in the hospital and it took me two or three months to recuperate from that. So, you take that out and it would have taken me a year.

I wrote the music, but I think the orchestration of it was very, very important. And it just so happens that the orchestrator and conductor of the evening is here today. His name is Scott Hall. Scott stand up please. [The audience applauds.]

Scott’s over at Columbia College, and I might say that I’m very pleased with what we did and Concord Records wants to record it. And we’re very happy about that.

Question: This question is for Mr. Kirk Whalum. Gene Ammons, my personal favorite of all time. Who do you think is the person who influenced you most?

Whalum: My uncle Peanuts [Hugh “Peanuts” Whalum], who still plays and is featured on a CD. You can go to kirkwhalum.com and get it. It’s called The Gospel According To Jazz, Chapter III, where I feature my 81-year-old, tenor-playing Uncle Peanuts and my 25-year-old tenor-playing nephew Kenneth, who plays with Maxwell right now. So, three generations of folks honking on tenor saxophone. That’s my primary influence.

But this ring I wear was actually given to me. I used to follow up behind this guy named Arnette Cobb. He was on a crutch, so I could keep up pretty good. [Laughs.] But I could never keep up on the saxophone, let’s put it like that. He was a big influence on me once I went to Texas Southern in Houston, HSBCU [Historically Black Colleges & Universities]. Do we have any HSBCUs represented here. [Several hands go up.] God bless you guys. I know Tennessee State is in the house, and I’m grateful. But I’ll say that experience was very important for me, following up behind Arnette. And he eventually played concerts with him, did a couple of recordings with him. And when he passed away, I was in Japan. I had played for him in his ICU [Intensive Care Unit] room, you know, “The Nearness Of You.” [Whalum pauses and is visibly moved for a second.]

After all this time, it still touches me. But he was the guy who really gave me that gift, Ramsey. He said, “You’re playing too many notes. You’re not saying nothing.” He used to say that to me all the time, “You’re playing a lot of notes, but you’re not saying nothing.” Those are hard things to hear, but those are good things to hear, right?

Lewis: Right.

Whalum: But he was also the guy who inspired me to say something that was in my heart. In other words, you know, being a follower of Jesus Christ, I just needed to say what was in my heart. So, that’s how I ended up with these gospel records.

Arnette, would do that same thing. Long story short, when he passed away, I missed it because I was in Japan. I was there two weeks later, and I found his daughter. And I’m hugging her, and she was hugging me. And she grabbed my hand and I felt her messing with my finger. And, she was putting this ring on my finger. [Shows the ring.] Now, that was when he died. So that was almost 20 years ago. I was like, “No, no, no, no, no.” Because I knew where this ring came from. But she was like, “Oh, yes, yes, yes.” And I’m, “No, no, no, no, no.” “Yes, yes, yes.” And we went back and forth.

Again, the idea that we’re supposed to be not just mentored or instructed, but also impacted by someone greater, continually, but especially that intimate impact that a person can have on you is represented for me with that ring.

Alkyer: Do you where that ring everywhere?

Whalum: Yeah, I never take it off.

Question: What advice would you give a high school senior who is getting a chance to go out and play, but due to some of the clubs [rules], you can’t bring a kid all the time in certain situations. What should you do in the meantime until things are established where they could have a place where they could go and play in?

Lewis: You play wherever you can. You play at church. You play at fashion shows. You play wherever you can play. The whole idea is to have two or more people stand in front of you or sit in front of you to bounce your music off of.

So, these are hard times. They’re not the two or three dozen clubs around Chicago that there used to be. So, you have to find where you can play. You have to make your way. I know it’s difficult, but if you’re serious, you’ll find some places.

Alkyer: If I can interject one thing. I know a lot of guys, New York especially, that if they can’t find places to play, they just find a way to create their own scene.

They start to make their own places where, “OK, we’re going to be here every Thursday night. We’re going to play here.” Then, their friends start showing up. Then, it becomes a scene. That kind of underground thing. It could be a garage someplace.

Whalum: Speaking of garages, we happen to be in the middle of a bad recession. In Chicago, there are homeless shelters. There’s old folks homes. There are lots of places. I think the problem is that we want to be featured in such a way that we’re at this “Dazzle Razzle Club” or something.

But like Ramsey was saying, play at the book store. Play at the old folks home. What you’re doing is you’re doing something that not only are you presenting you, but you’re also getting something back. There’s something that you’ll get in that environment where you know you don’t have to be there. You’re not making a bunch of money. But you’re making people happy. There’s something extra that will soak into your music. As Ramsey said, you’ll begin to find yourself by way of giving. It’s like a paradox. I would just add to what he said. Go to the homeless shelter. They don’t pay. You can pretty much guarantee that you can play at the old folks home. Just play soft, you know. [Laughs.]

There’s plenty of places where you can bless people with what you have, and at the same time, something begins to happen. People start saying, “Hey, have you heard so and so, they play over at the homeless shelter on Wednesdays.”

Lewis: And you know what? You’ve just piqued my imagination. Whatever schools you go to, why can’t you approach the school and say, “Why not every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon from four to six, why can’t a group of us get together and start a music thing?” Why not go to your minister and say, “What about Saturday afternoon or whatever, can we use the basement and start a music event?”

Whalum: Or the sanctuary.

Lewis: Or the sanctuary. Whatever. If you really put your mind to it. The whole idea at this point is not to make money. The whole idea, at this point is to play for people, to see what you’re really about.

Whalum: Yes.

Lewis: And these performing arts centers. All these performing arts centers around these United States, they get money from the states. They get money from the federal government, if they have an educational community outreach program. Hello?

Alkyer: Talk to them.

Lewis: You’ve got to talk to them, too!

At this point, the time is up and the discussion comes to a close. Whalum stands, places his soprano saxophone to his lips and plays a little “Wade On The Water,” a parting tribute to Ramsey. Lewis listens and smiles. Cold outside? Yeah, but Lewis and Whalum light a nice fire on this day in Chicago. DB

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December 2023
Pharoah Sanders
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