One of the first LPs I ever actually owned was Ramsey Lewis' The In Crowd, bestowed upon me when I was 6 or 7 years old by my grandmother after it caught my eye while she rummaged around her “junk room” looking for something to entertain me with. Something about its cover—the shiny, expensive looking car, the throng of well-dressed concertgoers—made me want to hold that record. I didn't actually listen to it until more than a decade later, of course, when my musical interests were just beginning to cope with jazz.
The In Crowd wasn't like the limited number of other jazz records I'd encountered. It was easier to swallow. There was a funkiness to it, a groove that skipped right along beneath flowery piano lines. Not what they call easy listening exactly, just easy for me to listen to. Thus began a slow, simmering jazz education whence I'll never graduate. To be fair, I hadn't listened to my copy of The In Crowd in a very long time, until it came time to preview a concert by Lewis himself. And listening to it now, I still feel the same magic that gently tickled jazz into my consciousness.
In the years since the '60s, Lewis' musical output has leaned ever closer toward pop and light jazz, but he's still painting masterstrokes at the piano, and is largely responsible for the stylistic expansion of jazz, creating a sort of “bop-pop” which made daunting music palatable even for nonjazz fans. If there truly is an “in crowd” within jazz circles, Lewis is most assuredly its creator.
Ramsey Lewis will appear with legendary vocalist Nancy Wilson at their National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters on Tour concert Sunday, Aug. 29, at UNM's Popejoy Hall at 7 p.m. Tickets range between $25 and $65 and are available through Tickets.com and the UNM Bookstore ($5 Outpost member discount available at bookstore only). Call 268-0044 for more information.