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Jazz legend Ramsey Lewis won’t slow down

Ramsey Lewis headlines Tivoli Theatre March 1.

Ramsey Lewis headlines the Tivoli Theatre on March 1.

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Ramsey Lewis

♦ March 1

♦ Tivoli Theatre , 5021 Highland Ave ., Downers Grove

♦ Tickets, $40-$50

♦ (630) 942-4000;

Ramsey Lewis may be blowing out 78 candles on his birthday cake this May, but he isn’t slowing down one bit.

“I don’t believe in slowing down,” the Chicago native and jazz icon said. “What I’m doing is enjoying the moment and enjoying playing piano. I would play the piano for free. A day spent at the piano practicing is joyful for me.”

Ramsey is one of the nation’s most successful and popular jazz pianists, will be joined by guitarist Henry Johnson, keyboardist/vocalist Tim Gant, bassist Joshua Ramos and drummer Charles Heath for a performance on March 1 at the Tivoli Theatre in Downers Grove.

Lewis began playing the piano professionally at the age of 15 with the Chicago jazz band, The Cleffs. He later formed the successful Ramsey Lewis Trio with Cleffs’ drummer Isaac “Redd” Holt. Over the years, he has amassed three Grammy Awards, seven gold records, three honorary doctorates and carried the Olympic torch for the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.

For his date at the Tivoli, he will play a mix of electric and acoustic material with his quintet.

“It’s a wonderful family affair … we are as close offstage as we are onstage, and onstage we’re pretty darn close,” he said.

Audiences will hear a lot of originals, but Lewis says he would be remiss if he didn’t play standards like “The In Crowd,” “Wade in the Water,” “Sun Goddess” and a medley of gospel pieces “people always request,” he said.

Lewis has 80 albums under his belt, going back to the mid-1950s.

“In those days, you would put out an album twice a year,” he said. “It wasn’t until the middle ’60s that somebody said, ‘Slow down.’ So those first several years, I got a lot of albums out. Then we started recording at least once a year. And when you do that over 55 years, you get a lot of albums out.”

In addition to maintaining a regular touring schedule — he just got back from a jaunt in Japan — Lewis has an upcoming tour with guitarist and singer John Pizzarelli. The pair is planning to do a tribute to Nat “King” Cole.

“Also, I am putting together a one-man show where I will talk about my life, my ideas, my thoughts, and write some new music to go along with the show,” he said. “There may be some pictures and slides to accompany my one-man show.”

Last fall, he received the prestigious Sword of Loyola at the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. The award recognizes achievements of outstanding leaders for contributions in a field other than medicine.

“To be recognized by the community — especially by a school of [the stature of] Loyola — is very meaningful. It means that some of what you are doing in your life is reaching people in a way that they feel they want to give back,” he said. “And I like that idea because I feel that giving to the community is important. It’s always exciting to be recognized. It’s humbling to me.”

Lewis is as much of a jazz ambassador and educator as he is a performer. He is a lecturer, conducts master’s classes and works with youth in music education programs.

“I feel that reading, writing and arithmetic are great for the brain and it feeds the intellect, but what does one do to feed the soul? I think the arts are wonderful in that regard,” he said. “I try to encourage young people to stay with it.”

Lewis also serves as artistic director of jazz at the popular Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, a post he has held since 1992. He has performed at Ravinia regularly since the mid-1960s.

That role led to his involvement 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,” Lewis wrote in a December 2012 Sun-Times column. “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.”

Annie Alleman is a local free-lance writer.

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