By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 7, 2010; E04
Ramsey Lewis has released 80 albums, had five albums that went gold and won three Grammy Awards. But nothing quite prepared the 75-year-old jazz pianist for his most ambitious project: a request to write a piece of music honoring the life of Abraham Lincoln.
The commission came from the Ravinia Festival outside Chicago and was scheduled to premiere last year, during the 200th anniversary celebration of Lincoln's birth. Presented with this momentous task, Lewis spent months learning about Lincoln, reading biographies and visiting museums.
"I absorbed a lot of Lincoln's life, a lot of what made him laugh and think," he said recently from his home in Chicago.
After debuting "Proclamation of Hope" in Chicago last year, Lewis will be at the Kennedy Center on Nov. 14 for the East Coast premiere of his two-hour, eight-movement symphonic poem. The concert will be taped for broadcast on PBS.
Rather than re-create the music of earlier times, Lewis composed musical themes inspired by episodes from Lincoln's life. In his research, he came across an account of how Lincoln witnessed a slave auction and was deeply affected when a family was forced apart.
"Being African American and having ancestors who were slaves conjured up feelings in me," Lewis said. "It touched that string in me, of American folk music, blues and gospel. The music just came. It was almost as if I was writing a soundtrack."
Music has been a lifetime calling for Lewis, who has been playing piano since he was 4. As early as the 1950s, when he began to lead a jazz trio in Chicago, he was writing songs. He made hit records in the 1960s and '70s, scaling the pop charts as a leading exponent of what was called soul jazz.
More recently, Lewis has been stretching himself as a composer and performer. He wrote a full-length piece for the Joffrey Ballet in 2007 and penned a tune for the Turtle Island Quartet. Last year, he released a trio album consisting entirely of his own music.
Lewis's musical collaborator on "Proclamation of Hope" is Chicago musician and composer Scott Hall, who orchestrated the composition and is its conductor.
"I felt like I was on top of the world, conducting that piece," Hall said of last year's premiere of "Proclamation." "This has been the highlight of my career as an arranger."
Hall, director of jazz studies at Columbia College Chicago, selected the nearly two dozen musicians who perform alongside Lewis and his trio. Except for a few soloists from Chicago, most of the musicians at the Kennedy Center will be from Washington.
Lewis and Hall worked together in a distinctly 21st-century manner, e-mailing computer files back and forth. The resulting work sounds unlike anything Lewis's earlier soul-jazz fans could expect.
The bass-line groove, the synthesizers and electric pianos have all disappeared. Instead, "Proclamation" has a regal and spirited feel, as raucous outbursts give way to sensitive, lyrical themes. It's firmly in the jazz tradition, sounding alternately like Duke Ellington mixed with Lalo Schifrin and a New Orleans street parade.
"There was a common denominator," Lewis said. "It was the music of the African Americans."
Lewis had composed almost half of the piece when he fell ill with a serious pancreatic condition that put him in the hospital for five weeks in 2008. He was 73 at the time and had never spent more than day away from the piano since he was a child. When he regained his strength and sat back down at the keyboard, he said, "I was almost afraid to touch it."
But once he called his trio back together and began to perform again, he recaptured the feeling he had when he was 12 and decided that music would be his life.
Fully recovered from his illness, Lewis turned back to his unfinished symphonic poem about Lincoln. In the meantime, another Illinoisan -- Lewis's fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama -- had been elected to the White House.
"I had one piece of music, a lovely melody, and I couldn't find a place for it to go," Lewis said. After the election, he found that it worked perfectly as "Obama's Theme" in the revised final movement.
During the premiere of "Proclamation of Hope" last year in Chicago, the project's visual designer quietly inserted a color photograph of Obama into the montage of images shown above the stage. Lewis did not know the picture would appear until he heard a huge wave of applause coming from the audience.
"Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves from bondage," he said. "Out of planting that seed, it ended up with us having a black president."
Of all the musical permutations in his long career, from chart-topping pop star to soloing with orchestras to hosting TV and radio shows, Lewis says his new composition has given him a sense of satisfaction he hadn't known before.
His recent health problems and Obama's ascension to the White House have made Lewis reflect on how music can fill the empty spaces in our lives.
"All music is folk music," he said. "Music comes from the folks and is meant to move the folks and connect with the folks.
"At 75 years old, I finally categorized my music: It's music for the folks."