Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Q&A with Aaron Cohen


Aaron Cohen, photo by Keith Ammann



Aaron Cohen is the coauthor, with the late jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis (1935-2022), of Lewis's autobiography, Gentleman of Jazz: A Life in Music. Cohen's other books include Move On Up. He teaches humanities courses at City Colleges of Chicago.


Q: How did you end up working with Ramsey Lewis on his autobiography?

A: Ramsey Lewis’ manager Brett Steele called me in the spring of 2021 and asked me if I would be interested in working with Ramsey on his memoir. I believe a few mutual friends mentioned my name to him. Also, my previous book—Move On Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power—went into detail about his 1960s and 1970s colleague, producer/composer Charles Stepney.


Of course, I was honored to be asked since I have admired his music for a very long time (living in the Chicago area for pretty much my whole life, his work is a big part of the city’s musical culture).


So I went over to Ramsey’s condo and met with him and his wife Jan and discussed what I had envisioned for the book: the scope, chapter outline and how we should proceed with a sample chapter to show potential publishers. Since he had similar ideas for the narrative and since we got along well, we decided that we would go forward with this project.


Though I should add that Ramsey was a wonderful man and was a joy to spend time with—smart, kindhearted, and very funny!

Q: What do you think he hoped readers would take away from the book?

A: This is difficult for me to answer because Ramsey is no longer with us and along with trying to imagine his thoughts, I keep thinking about how much I miss him and wish he were here to see this book in print.


Along with Ramsey’s love for Jan, his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, I know that he’d want readers to know how much he loved all music, from the music he played in church as a young man to the jazz musicians he admired to his favorite classical composers.


And I know that he had a strong belief in music education—there were the numerous stories he told me about his own education but also there was his work as a music educator here.


Ramsey also wanted to tell the story of his parents’ journey to Chicago and what they experienced in this city—both the joy and the struggles. I know that he wanted to honor them but also to show how they were a part of the Great Migration and to show what current and future generations should learn from their experience.

Q: Former president Barack Obama called Ramsey Lewis “a man who has touched all of our lives.” What do you think of that description, and how did he touch your life?


A: I don’t know if my words are worthy of being an addendum to the thoughts of former president Barack Obama, but I’ll give it a try.


One of the points that Ramsey kept coming back to in our discussions was that his music always had to touch people on an emotional level—a sense that came from his early years playing in church. In fact, we talked about how we could have possibly titled the book “Reach Out And Touch” if Diana Ross hadn’t already had a record by that name!


So as much as Ramsey’s music went through so many changes—from his takes on jazz/classical combinations, to instrumental jazz crossover pop hits, to fusion, to his expansive compositions in the 21st century—he retained that desire to convey that emotional immediacy.


Along with my deep feelings for Ramsey’s music, there is so much about the way he carried himself that I find so inspiring. He was a popular multimedia celebrity (on TV and radio, as well as the concert stage) but never felt he was above anyone he met.


He worked hard and was incredibly disciplined and dignified, but always came across like he was having fun. And I’m sure when he was playing music and hanging out with his colleagues, he was, indeed, having the time of his life.


Q: How did the two of you work together on the book?


A: For a while, Ramsey and I would meet at his condo and I would interview him for about an hour and a half to two hours. Later, we would have our conversations over Zoom.


One of the joys of working on the book was playing Ramsey some of the records he made in the 1960s and ’70s and watching his reaction to them, as well as getting his comments on them. Many of these were not the big hits (like “In Crowd” or “Sun Goddess”) but were the lesser-known songs that were just as excellent (like “Jade East” from Up Pops Ramsey Lewis and “A Rainy Day In Centerville” from Ramsey Lewis, The Piano Player).


Since he had not been playing these tracks in concert for a while, he hadn’t thought of them—-so his sheer joy at hearing them after so long was just magnificent to see.


As we got to the stage where I started to write the chapters, I would send them to him and he gave me his comments. Seeing his words in writing also helped him remember about long-ago events.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m very excited to be promoting Gentleman of Jazz so that’s what I’m focusing on at the moment, along with teaching humanities courses at City Colleges of Chicago. There are a few book projects I have in mind so I’ll likely spend the summer of 2023 seeing which ones are feasible to work on for the next few years.


Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Thank you for your interest in Ramsey Lewis and in Gentleman of Jazz. I hope that this book illuminates his music and shows the world what a beautiful outlook he had on life. He was always interested in learning while also guiding young talent. His great success came from finding the right collaborators while also open to trying out new ideas. That’s a terrific lesson for all of us.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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