A New Jazz Age? Jazz Legend Ramsey Lewis On The Great Gatsby Soundtrack, Hip Hop, And The Future Of Jazz

You can't keep something with that much quality, with that much appeal, down. It's just a matter of time.
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When I published my debut novel last month -- Beautiful Fools, The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald -- I suddenly found myself included in a trend. This year has seen a new wave of interest in all things Fitzgerald, thanks in large part to filmmaker Baz Luhrmann's take on The Great Gatsby. Busy at work on Beautiful Fools for the past four years, I understood myself to be mining the tradition of historical fiction, while answering to a monumental era in American literature. In other words, I never saw the trend coming. That's probably true of most trends: they're almost impossible to anticipate; the novels or records or movies that embody them emerge from other sources and deeper traditions, brought together by a strange confluence of factors.

So how widespread is the newly trending "Jazz Age?" Does a renascence of interest in F. Scott Fitzgerald and the era for which he provided the nickname predict a revival in flappers' fashion and a broader embrace of speakeasy culture? And what does all of this mean for that original American music, jazz, so avant-garde in its day that it seemed to many the very source of defiance in the air -- those improvising anthems of rebellion standing against codified forms and strictures as they pulsed the 1920s party against prohibition, puritanism, and obsolete racial and gender codes?

Nearly a hundred years old, jazz is now a deep musical tradition. No one understands that better than Ramsey Lewis, a pioneer in this musical form since the 1950s. Lewis scored major chart hits with funky interpretations of pop songs from "Hang on Sloopy" and "The In Crowd"; he went notoriously electric in the 1970s by collaborating with Earth, Wind, & Fire; and he's collected a shelfful of gold records and Grammys. His passions range from Chopin to Duke Ellington, from gospel to Charlie Parker. So I approached Lewis with a simple question: With the Jazz Age newly trending, with the Jay-Z produced Gatsby soundtrack having climbed as high as #2 on the Billboard charts, is a new age of jazz on the horizon?

So, as the story goes, Jay Z tracked down and persuaded Baz Luhrmann, director of The Great Gatsby, that if he wanted his new movie to speak to today's young people, he needed a soundtrack infused with the spirit of hip-hop. Is today's hip-hop what jazz would have been to young Americans in the 1920s?

Well, jazz is jazz, hip-hop is hip-hop. Both are reflections, extensions of the African-American experience, not exclusively used by African-Americans, of course. But the people who created jazz sent us down a road on which we still continue. The blues was that art form that came from gospel, from the spiritual; it's the non-religious side of the African-American experience, if you will -- and so jazz came from that Saturday night music, expressing all kinds of feelings. Well, hip-hop expresses a lot of feelings, and it has its pros, its poetry, it has its rhythms, and if there's a common denominator it's in the ability of some hip-hop performers to improvise. The improvisation does not come from the forefathers of jazz, such as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Art Tatum -- the inspiration comes from the social experiences of the community.

Jay Z's soundtrack also features jazzy, soulful interpretations of recent pop songs -- Beyoncé and Andre 3000 doing Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black"; or the Bryan Ferry Orchestra doing Roxy Music's 1975 Glam hit "Love is the Drug," a song influenced by jazz legend Jelly Roll Morton. How do these covers compare to what you were doing in the 1960s with the Ramsey Lewis Trio?

Jazz has always -- since Charlie Parker made that album, Charlie Parker with Strings (1950) -- used pop music. That's one thing we've always said as jazz musicians, that we could take "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and improvise on it and put our own inventive harmonies on it; and it's still "Mary Had a Little Lamb," I think, but, it's adventurous.

You yourself scored 1960s hits with interpretations of pop songs such as "Hang on Sloopy" and "The In Crowd," you even did the Beatles' "Day Tripper." What was your experience of listening to the soundtrack for the new Gatsby movie?

Now The Great Gatsby occurs in a certain period of history when there was a certain kind of music, jazz music, at that point in the evolution of the music. So the current Great Gatsby is an interpretation using music of the new century, music of today, and I think that's good. Those people who made the movie want to say, well, here's music from where we stand today that speaks to the script, the acting, the story. Nothing wrong with that. I walked in there thinking they were going to do music from that period, and when I saw that they didn't, it was a pleasant experience.

What's your relation to the origins of jazz, the 1920s jazz F. Scott Fitzgerald would have known?

I did 17 albums before I recorded that album with "The In Crowd" on it [Lewis's version of the song reached #5 on the pop charts in 1965]. During that time I was still expressing early influences from music I heard at home -- I heard Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Count Basie, Thomas A. Dorsey, plenty of gospel music, I heard Bach, Beethoven, Chopin. And in the early 60s we said, well, let's start putting one song on each album that we called a "fun song," a no-brainer, something that's maybe not an extension of Duke Ellington.

So does the true spirit of jazz survive in the fun songs too, the ones that made you famous?

Gospel music was something very precious in my life. So when we started kicking around songs, there was a waitress that listened to "The In Crowd" -- well, the feel of that song was happy, like a church song, and it was happy and danceable, so the music that propelled me into the career I have was an extension of my experience in church, if you will. When it was accepted widely, the way I played "The In Crowd," or the way I played "Wade in the Water," which has that gospel influence, then the record company at that time said, "You know, all this other stuff you're doing, the original pieces, the influence of Chopin, well, that's good stuff. But people are telling us what they like about you, why don't you just do a couple a albums of what people like about you."

And when you did?

There came the Wade in the Water album. So that sort of sent a signal to the marketplace, to radio, that said, "This is Ramsey, Ramsey's that funky piano player," and that's followed me to today -- except to those people who come to see me in person, because I can't help myself, they get to experience the wide variety of music that I like.

In the 1960s you took a gamble -- a little like Bob Dylan plugging in -- and experimented with R &B fusion, collaborating with Earth, Wind, & Fire? How did that come about?

During the late 1960s, Maurice White became the drummer of my trio, who after two or three short years left to form his group called Earth, Wind, & Fire. And one day he called me and said, "Ramsey, I have a song you might like to do, it's going to be a big hit. I'll come to Chicago and we'll help you do it." And he also says, "Oh, oh, there's this other little melody, a good song where people can take solos and jam on it, let's put it down"; and since we didn't have any words for the song, he says, "I'm just gonna say, 'Way-oh, Way-oh,'" and now we're closing down the studio and I said, "Wait, Maurice, what are we going to name this song?" And he said, "Sun Goddess."

And those sessions quickly yielded what became the crossover hit album Sun Goddess (1974), climbing as high as #12 on the pop charts?

We thought "Hot Dawgit" was going to propel that album into something big, but when we put it out as a single, it didn't do it, but the album started selling. And we're saying, well, why is it selling if the single isn't propelling it? In those days we still had record shops, and people were coming in asking for the Sun Goddess LP. And for several years after that I had both pianos on stage, the electric piano and the acoustic piano, and it was a lot of fun.

Why did you revisit that electric music on the 2011 release Taking Another Look?

My agent talked to me and he asked me, "Are you ever going to go back?" I hadn't even thought about it. I called some guys -- electric players -- and we went into the studio, and when everybody showed up they said, "Well, what do we learn, what do we play, what are we going to jam on?" And I said, "The songs on Sun Goddess, give those a listen and we'll jam on those." And it was such fun that I told the studio we're coming back in two weeks. And they said, "You got new songs?" and I said, "No, we're gonna take another look" -- and there it was, and there it is.

When you look back on your career -- you've made sixty-plus records --are there three or four that distill a moment for you or represent peaks? Can you make that judgment?

Nah, nah, no. They're like your kids, you know: this one kind of didn't quite make it, and this one everybody loved for different reasons. And some of them you look back and say, "Gosh if I'd only" -- but you didn't, you know, you didn't feel that way then. But when I'm out and about people mention Mother Nature's Son, and so I listen to those in my head and say, "You know, that's some pretty good stuff." With any album, though, you don't mark it in the sand and say, this was a high point in my life. You can't do that, otherwise you don't grow. You can't hang on to 1970, or 2001, or 2000-whatever -- you just keep looking forward, stay in the moment.

With all that you're doing -- practice time, studio time, performances -- what do you do to wind down? What would people be surprised to find that Ramsey Lewis enjoys in his free time?

I like to have dinner with my wife, that's number one, and then I like to have dinner with my wife and a few friends -- dinner, conversation, and a nice bottle of wine. And also I take busman's holidays in the room where my Steinway is, and go to the piano, reading through Bach fugues, Bach preludes, Chopin, reading through the Beethoven sonatas, or just improvising. Quite often a creative idea will come to me and I'll start writing a song; and that's exhilarating and I grin while I'm writing and my wife will walk into the room and say, "What's wrong with you?", and I say, "Listen to this."

And, today, staying in the moment, what are you working on?

We're preparing to rehearse with Dee Dee Bridgewater; she's coming to town, and we're going to start our tour, and during the tour we're going to do a live album. I've also started writing a work for youth orchestra, a piano quartet, and that'll be performed for my 80th birthday at the Ravinia festival, in 2015.

Is there any danger to jazz in being perceived as old-time music, and what do jazz musicians do if that perception's out there?

Well two things happened to jazz. They took music out of the public school system. And it was in the public schools that kids were introduced to the Ellingtons of the world and the Gershwins of the world, along with classical music, and out of that, some said, "I want to do that." The other thing that happened was when jazz clubs in downtown and inner city areas started closing, so there weren't many places for people to go hear the music. And oh, excuse me, radio as we knew it changed. There used to be famous jazz jockeys; they knew 'em by their names, in New York and Chicago.

Does this summer's renewed interest in "The Jazz Age" give hope for the future of the music itself?

Of course. When you say Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, it's like saying Chopin, Bach, Beethoven. I think that the music itself is still alive and doing well. You say, "Well, why do say it's alive, Ramsey?" Well, at the high school level, I don't know there must be hundreds, maybe a thousand jazz bands, and these kids are excited. At the colleges, the same thing. And the day will come soon when somebody's going to open a club somewhere, and then another club somewhere, and, who knows, there might be 10 or 12 or 15 jazz clubs where groups play across the country like we used to do in the old days. You can't keep something with that much quality, with that much appeal, down. It's just a matter of time.

R. Clifton Spargo is the author of the novel Beautiful Fools, The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald (2013).

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