‘Butt-shakers and toe-tappers’: Ramsey Lewis brought jazz to the people

The piano great tuned in to the hits of his day and played hard bop to a rock backbeat, crossing into the mainstream and becoming one of the most sampled musicians of all time

Renowned jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis dies aged 87

For the first half of the 20th century, jazz musicians would interpret the popular music of the age, with Tin Pan Alley hits, Broadway showtunes, blues songs and Latin dance numbers providing the basis for every jazz musician’s set list. But by the mid-60s, many jazz musicians felt cut adrift by the ascent of rock’n’roll, Motown and the British invasion. Almost uniquely among jazz musicians, Ramsey Lewis – who died this week aged 87 – didn’t see this as a problem. Instead of just revisiting the showtunes of previous decades, his piano trio would play the hits of the day, setting each one to a funky backbeat. It proved enormously successful.

“I always thought it was a shame when jazz stopped being a music you could dance to,” said Lewis. “It’s why we always liked to feature a few butt-shakers and toe-tappers.” In 1965, after a recommendation from a waitress in a Washington DC coffee shop, his trio took a Motown-style Top 20 hit by Dobie Gray called The In Crowd and played it in a DC club called the Bohemian Caverns. The recording of that performance was released as a 7in single and, amazingly for a jazz instrumental, it entered the US Top 5 and sold 1m copies. You can hear the audience whooping, cheering, singing and clapping along. “They were literally dancing in the aisles,” said Lewis. “I love how an audience can completely transform a performance like that.”

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