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Ramsey Lewis: Still in the ‘in’ crowd

Remember a tune called “The ‘In’ Crowd”? Recorded live at the Bohemian Caverns in Washington, D.C., by Ramsey Lewis and his trio at the time, it was (and is) irresistible: upbeat, swinging, punctuated by approval from the audience (“Play that song!”).

“The ‘In’ Crowd” reached #2 on the Billboard pop albums chart in 1965, the height of the British invasion, the same year as “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Eight Days a Week.”

The mop-tops are mostly retired or dead, but Lewis is still out there performing and recording. For those who wonder who’s listening, here’s a brief quote from rapper/composer Guru’s second “Jazzmatazz” album: “Respect the architect … my man, the legend, Ramsey Lewis.”

“That’s nice,” Lewis said by phone last week from Chicago.

On Thursday, the three-time Grammy winner, radio host, TV host (PBS’ “Legends of Jazz”), National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, and tireless ambassador for jazz will bring the blues to Orchestra Hall. He spoke with MinnPost about the blues and his newly discovered passion for composing.

MinnPost: What is the connection between jazz and the blues?

Ramsey Lewis: Without the blues, there would not have been jazz. The blues came from the music that was started by the slaves when they were first brought over to America, and the African-American experience with European culture, harmonies, and music. For a while, it was basically the same music that the slaves sang to praise God on Sunday mornings, and on Saturday nights without reference to God, of course, but with basically the same feeling, the same harmony.

It evolved into the instrumental side of the music. That happened when the slave masters threw away instruments such as the violin, trumpets, and drums, and the slaves would improvise on Saturday nights. From that music came R&B, and out of R&B came rock and roll.

But the blues carries on. The blues still influences American life. This music we call jazz, even if it’s not typical blues harmonies, the blues feeling permeates throughout the music.

MP: You just finished recording a new album.

RL: It’s called “Songs from the Heart: Ramsey Plays Ramsey.” It’s the first album out of the 80 I’ve recorded over my lifetime that is all original. The material spans the last two to three years.

MP: You’re composing now much more than before?

RL: I’ve been composing since my very first album in the middle 1950s, but I would only compose for special occasions, and maybe one or two songs for a new album. Three years ago, I was offered the opportunity to write music for the Joffrey Ballet. That got me started. The following year, I composed a suite of music for jazz trio and string quartet. Then I was commissioned to write a work honoring the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. [Lewis is a native Chicagoan.] What has happened now is that composing has become a major part of my musical being.

MP: How interesting that would happen at this stage of your career.

RL: I didn’t take it seriously until I was challenged to write more than two or three songs. To end up with a suite of eight songs, you have to write 16 or 18. You end up composing almost all the time. Then it becomes a habit.

MP: What is your inspiration when you’re composing?

RL: My wife, Jan, first. She’s my muse. Then life in general. We do a lot of wonderful things together, my wife and I.

MP: Do you listen to anyone in particular?

RL: I have over 10,000 songs on my iPod by hundreds or thousands of artists, so it’s difficult to name. I listen to pop, rock and roll, R&B, gospel, jazz … and blues.

The Ramsey Lewis Trio (with Larry Gray on bass, Leon Joyce Jr. on drums) will perform on Thursday, Aug. 13, 7:30 p.m., Orchestra Hall ($45/$65 VIP). Vocalist Bruce Henry will start the evening by singing blues and jazz; Irvin Mayfield, the orchestra’s artistic director of jazz, will co-host. Lewis will talk with the audience from the stage about the blues and jazz. Tickets online or call 612-371-5656.

Pamela Espeland keeps a Twin Cities live jazz calendar and blogs about jazz at Bebopified. She tweets about jazz on Twitter.

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