Every city has a pulse. The heart of Chicago culture has a rhythmic pulse beat that hits with every sound imaginable—from the heavy bass of hip-hop to the blaring horns of funk. The cultural trajectory of Chicago is one based in a timeless diversity of black music.
It is this history that has created the work of Professor Guthrie Ramsey. I sat down with him to discuss his most recent endeavor, “The Chicago Project.” This aptly titled look into the sounds of a city has its roots in a course taught by Ramsey entitled, “From Blues to Obama: History, Culture and Power in Black Chicago.” Not only does this include works from his students, but also special events and performances; all capturing the soul of Chicago. Prof. Ramsey himself puts it best, “This project comes out my research of the great Chicago artists like Curtis Mayfield and Ramsey Lewis. What I’m trying to do with this endeavor is contextualize their contributions to the Chicago aesthetic as a whole—musically, politically and otherwise.”
This project will inevitably explore cultural aesthetics overlooked by many and perhaps known to few in such detail. Beyond the scholarly work, the University of Pennsylvania hosted legendary jazz pianist, band leader, and native Chicagoan Dr. Ramsey Lewis as Spring 2010 Artist-in-Residence in association with Center for Africana Studies for a three day event on March 17-19th.
One of the most exciting aspects of the Chicago Project lies in the genius of Dr. Ramsey Lewis. To say that Dr. Lewis is an exemplar of longevity and prolificacy may be an understatement; a testament to his stellar artistic journey. Continuing a career ranging over sixty years, Lewis has built a resume boasting dynamic genre-bending jazz sounds with even more dynamic performances. Beyond that he has worked in both popular radio and television series, broadcasting his musical tastes to audiences around the world. The roots of Dr. Lewis come out of a Chicago tradition, known quite well by Prof. Ramsey.
As a Chicago native himself, Prof. Ramsey referred to the musical landscape of the city as “diverse and wide-ranging.”
“Today, I hear radio stations focusing in on one genre. Growing up in Chicago, I could turn on the radio and hear everything on one station—Jazz, Blues, Gospel, R&B. That’s Chicago.”
There is no better example of this principle than Dr. Lewis. While heralded and typified as a jazz artist, Lewis transcended the single genre boundaries. Beginning a career in the acoustic feel of standard jazz and mixtures of classical sounds, his music of the 1970s saw major appearances by vocalists Maurice and Verdine White of the legendary Chicago Funk band Earth, Wind & Fire. From there, Lewis went on to explore the smooth jazz and R&B styling, while never forget his early jazz roots.
Ramsey Lewis Trio – Hang On Sloopy (1973)
It was within this microcosm that Professor Guthrie Ramsey was nurtured. When I asked him who he listened to as a youth, he paused as wide grin spread across his face. For a second, even I myself forgot the expansive list of great musical acts coming out of the Windy City. After his elongated pause he said, “Honestly, I listened to everyone. Of course, the well-known artists like Ramsey Lewis, Curtis Mayfield, Jerry Butler, Chaka Khan and Earth, Wind & Fire. But there was so much more. I grew up in a time when you could really hear your local artists—Von Freeman, Binky Green. Lonnie Plaxico. I could go on for days…”
Of course, Professor Ramsey is no stranger to the stage himself having performed with the timeless Chicago group, The Chi-Lites. As an artist, the diverse musical landscape has shaped the way in which he models his career. “I look for that mixture when I’m recording an album. I don’t want to confine myself to this specific genre or that specific genre. I just want to do music—in all its forms.”
The Chi-Lites with Eugene Record – Have You Seen Her
One cannot help but get excited when discussing the project with Professor Ramsey. This project is much more than simple academic research for the professor. For him, it is a look into a cities’ history, his city, his history. However, the music of Chicago has become a part of a widespread tradition of amazing music. The taste of Chicago has become a slice of Americana tradition, one which can be enjoyed by all.