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Ramsey Lewis instills a love of music in the next generation

Ramsey Lewis

Ramsey Lewis

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Updated: December 11, 2012 7:23AM



Believe it or not, there will be another Dave Brubeck. The news is old by now that my dear friend and one of the world’s most accomplished musicians died last week. Even through my personal pain, I can see that we have colleges and conservatories delivering us rare and refined talents on a regular basis — more than enough to fill the world’s stages. This prospect excites me. And it excited Dave.

Some of those musicians may be as talented as Brubeck. Maybe even more so. Some may be as pioneering as Brubeck. Maybe they, too, will redefine music for generations to come.

But will they be as appreciated? Will they even be heard?

My great fear is that some of today’s most gifted young artists will still be waiting tables tomorrow. An old axiom calls jazz “America’s classical music.” Unfortunately, one way that this has become a truth is that jazz is finding it increasingly difficult to connect with audiences, especially youthful ones.

While the conservatories keep producing those rarified few whose fast fingers or expansive lungs can transform wood, strings, hammers and keys into glimpses of eternity, our elementary and high schools may be unable to produce audiences that can take that journey with them. People don’t buy what they don’t know. One of the prime functions of music education is not only to provide artists, but also to provide the audiences and advocates who support what they’re doing. For the most part, all it takes is simple exposure to the arts at an early age. But, music education is too often considered a frill and the first fatality under the budget ax.

For more years than many readers have walked this Earth, I have made a living — no, made a life — by making music. I sincerely hope to have touched a few other lives along the way. In addition to my touring, composing and recording, I hosted a radio show that proffered the best of an art form that defined my career. Even a market as large as Chicago could not sustain it.

One of my favorite jobs is serving as the artistic director of jazz at the Ravinia Festival, where I was heavily involved in forming the Reach*Teach*Play education programs, which now serve 75,000 people throughout Chicago. We’ve started student orchestras in elementary schools and created the active and competitive Jazz Scholars ensemble, which identifies and promotes the best high school musicians in the region. Most recently Ravinia opened an interactive music discovery center, called Ravinia Music Makers, at the Kohl Children’s Museum. I attended the opening and watched children find music in everyday items. But they didn’t just find rhythms and melodies. They found joy. More importantly, they found confidence. One little girl even informed me that I was playing the piano wrong.

Ravinia’s President and CEO Welz Kauffman also sits on the board of the nonprofit Ingenuity Incorporated, which is working now with Chicago Public Schools to develop a master plan that ensures that resources for arts education — including those provided by cultural institutions such as Ravinia — are made accessible fairly and equally throughout the city.

This entry-level training is as important as Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute, the summer conservatory, which each year pays for 60 to 70 of the world’s best singers and classical and jazz instrumentalists to not only perform at the festival, but also to train with Ravinia artists from David Baker to James Conlon to Kiri Te Kanawa. Yes, with hope, we’re creating new Brubecks, but we’re also creating new Brubeck fans. Dave would be pleased.

Ramsey Lewis donated his fee for writing this column to Ravinia’s Reach*Teach*Play Education Programs.



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