Ramsey Lewis Trio benefit concert

From left: Eldee Young, Ramsey Lewis, and Isaac "Redd" Holt — Photo by Michael Coakes

He’s earned three Grammy Awards, seven gold records, and recorded 80 albums since he emerged as a major force in the jazz world 55 years ago. Composer, pianist, and musical legend Ramsey Lewis will bring his extraordinary blend of original compositions and classics to the stage of the Martha’s Vineyard Performing Arts Center (PAC) at the Regional High School this Sunday, August 15, at 7:30 pm.

The concert will benefit two important Island nonprofit organizations: the Friends of Oak Bluffs and the Animal Shelter of Martha’s Vineyard.

If you grew up in the ’60s, you probably tapped your feet or danced to some version of “The In Crowd,” or “Hang on Sloopy,” or “Wade in the Water.” Mr. Lewis’s renditions, selling over one million copies each, secured his reputation as one of his generation’s most successful jazz pianists. Known as “The Great Performer,” he began playing at the age of four and was trained in both classical and gospel music. At 15, he joined a jazz band called The Cleffs, the core of which went on to form The Ramsey Lewis Trio.

Today, Mr. Lewis, along with Larry Gray on bass and Leon Joyce on drums, tours worldwide. Open, he says, to all styles of music, he still has far-reaching tastes. “I have more than 14,000 songs on my iPod,” he says. “All forms — classical, opera, ballet, jazz, R&B, pop. It serves me well to keep an open mind. I don’t have a particular favorite genre or musician. I let it all seep in.”

He maintains his popularity, he says, by staying true to his feelings about his art. Inspired by his wife of 20 years, life, family, friends, and nature, Mr. Lewis credits “staying in the moment” with his ability to connect to audiences of all ages.

With a songbook of 20 to 30 favorite selections, he says he will choose a handful of songs to perform this Sunday night. “I get to the venue about an hour before the concert and select my songs spontaneously. I’ll see how Martha’s Vineyard makes me feel.”

No stranger to the Island, Mr. Ramsey says he visited on several occasions in the past, but not for about 15 years. “It’s a wonderful place, in touch with nature and the water, but it’s the people who make it wonderful. The locals, visitors, everyone comes to live and let live.”

While he says he admires the diversity of the music scene today, Mr. Lewis chuckles as he reminisces about his parents and musical influences of the past. “When I was young, Mom and Dad used to say, ‘They just not writing songs like they used to.’ Now here I am, at 75, and I find myself saying the same thing. As jazz musicians, we used to draw from Broadway, movies, and The Great American Songbook. Today, radio is so fractured and songs today are more about personal statements than melodies or chord structure. God bless the Seventies,” he concludes. “It was the last era of great pop music.”

Mr. Lewis plans to perform some of his own newer compositions Sunday evening, including selections from his latest recording, “Songs from the Heart: Ramsey Plays Ramsey,” his first album of all-original pieces.

According to event promoter Ted Cammann of Island Live Entertainment, tickets for the event range from $50 to $200, with the top tier price including premier seating and a reception with the artists following the show. He is quick to point out the acoustic excellence and comfort of the state-of-the-art, air-conditioned venue.

A major fundraiser for Friends of Oak Bluffs has been several years in the making, says volunteer coordinator Duncan Ross, board member of both Friends and the Edgartown-based Animal Shelter of Martha’s Vineyard. After several other nonprofit groups opted out, Mr. Ross brought the Animal Shelter on board.

“We’re trying to raise money to continue the good works of both organizations,” he explains. “The Animal Shelter is a start-up organization that took over for the MSPCA when it left the Island last year. The Shelter depends on donations to care for its animals. Soon we’ll own the building we operate in and that will require a significant amount of work to keep it up.”

Mr. Ross also pointed out the many accomplishments of the all-volunteer Friends of Oak Bluffs: holiday decorations, flowers in the town’s many parks, new traditional street lights, and all of the town’s benches.

“Both organizations depend on support from the Island,” Mr. Ross says.

He’s hoping that Ramsey Lewis will strike just the right note to fill the PAC’s nearly 800 seats.

Ramsey Lewis Trio, Sunday, August 15, 7:30 pm, Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School’s Performing Arts Center, Oak Bluffs. Tickets are available online at islandliventertainment.com or through either nonprofit organization. General admission tickets can also be purchased at Conroy’s Apothecary in West Tisbury, Our Market, and daRosa’s in Oak Bluffs, Aboveground Records in Edgartown, and Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Vineyard Haven.