Ramsey Lewis just needs a few things to cook up a good jazz tune: inspiration, manuscript paper and a good pencil that’s sharpened nicely.
And the renowned Chicago jazz musician knows a thing or two about good songs. He’s been writing them for 65 years and has released 80 albums, including 60 studio and 20 collaborations.
“You just need those things, sit down at a piano and [the music] comes to you,” he said in a recent interview.
Of course, songs didn’t always come so easily. In the early days of his career, Lewis’ wife suggested a simple way for him to develop new tracks when he faced writer’s block.
“When I first started writing, I sat at the piano and I thought I had to come up with something special, special, special,” he said. “My wife said, ‘Listen, you create music every time you sit down and play a concert. Why don’t you turn the tape recorder on and sit, play and improvise, then listen to what you have?’ I did that, and that worked very well. Now, I don’t have to turn the tape recorder on.”
Lewis and his quintet will perform a riveting set of old favorites and new songs at the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa on Oct. 7.
The concert opens the Segerstrom Center for the Arts’ jazz season, which also includes performances by guitarist Lee Ritenour and saxophonist Ernie Watts.
Lewis has won three Grammy awards over his career that has spanned musical styles ranging from pop to R&B. He has collaborated with artists like Nancy Wilson, London’s Philharmonic Orchestra and Dr. Billy Taylor. He also launched a side project called Urban Knights, in which he worked with successful crossover jazz stars like Grover Washington, Jr., Earl Klugh and Dave Koz. He has also syndicated his own radio shows.
Through it all, Lewis considers jazz to still be a significant player in today’s music world.
He believes the genre is “America’s contribution to world culture” and a “joyful celebration of life.”
“Jazz is important to the United States because along with blues, R&B and gospel, it began as an expression of African Americans,” he said. “Now, all those genres are performed by people of other colors, other races as well.”
He hasn’t gotten tired of performing the music. Now in his 80s, the musician still plays around 60 concerts per year.
He said his expectations for the Segerstrom show are for him, his band and the audience to all have fun.
“I expect to play my butt off,” he said. “I have a great band, and we love to play together. I’m sure this love will reach out into the audience, and I hope they’ll get involved emotionally. Usually they do.”
Lewis plays the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall on Oct. 7. Single tickets are $29 and available online at SCFTA.org, at the box office at 600 TOwn Center Drive in Costa Mesa or by calling 714-556-2787.