- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 6, 2006

CHICAGO — Ramsey Lewis wrote the tune, he’s played it dozens of times, yet a huge grin still spreads across his face as he sits down at the piano to play a blues-tinged version with Robert Cray and Keb’ Mo’.

On other days, he backs jazz singers Al Jarreau and Kurt Elling, guitarists Pat Metheny and Jim Hall, or — in an episode of his new PBS show featuring winners of the 2006 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters award — Tony Bennett, Chick Corea and the late Ray Barretto.

The artists are guests on “Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis,” a weekly program that begins its run this weekend on public television. It airs locally tonight at 11:30 on WETA-Channel 26.

The show’s creators say it is the first time jazz has been featured on a weekly basis on network television in 40 years. They hope their format will lure not just jazz aficionados, but people who perhaps have found jazz too intimidating to seek out in a club or record store.

“Our intention is to not only attract the hard-core jazz fan, but we’re doing it in such a way that it will also be easy to take for those who are not necessarily steeped in the ways of jazz,” says Mr. Lewis, a Grammy-winning composer and pianist who hosts a syndicated radio program with the same name as the TV show.

Each of the debut season’s 13 episodes begins with Mr. Lewis introducing the show’s theme — everything from “Brazilian Jazz” to “The American Songbook” — followed by a short video segment using archival footage to provide historical perspective.

The guests then join Mr. Lewis for an interview, although with the easygoing, assured pianist, it’s more like a conversation. The artists perform individually, then together, before Mr. Lewis joins them on piano to close out the 30-minute show.

All but one of the shows were recorded in WTTW’s studio in Chicago, Mr. Lewis’ hometown and where he hosts his radio show. There was an audience of about 50 at each show.

While the editing is not as jumpy as something a viewer would see on MTV, there are plenty of quick cuts, close-ups and dissolves, and it’s filmed with numerous high-definition cameras — all elements that executive producer and creator Larry Rosen said he thought important for attracting viewers used to seeing music performances on television.

But those, he points out, often involve lip synching, while on “Legends of Jazz” the performances are all live and feature combinations of artists who in many cases have never performed together before.

As for the show’s format, Mr. Rosen says he was looking for a combination of elements: a mini-version of Ken Burns’ documentaries for the historical segments, the types of intimate, craft-centered discussions held on Bravo’s “Inside the Actors Studio” and one-of-a-kind live performances.

“I think that we have been able to come up with great content in terms of conversation and information,” Mr. Lewis says. “We’re trying not to be a documentary, but have a more powerful conversation, and then an ‘Oh, by the way, will you play?’ sort of thing,” Mr. Lewis said in an interview in his dressing room before taping the episode titled “Roots: The Blues.”

That show’s guests are Mr. Cray and Keb’ Mo’ and its theme is how jazz and blues had similar origins but diverged into two genres, and how the two distinctly American forms of music have influenced each other over the years.

During their interview with Mr. Lewis, Keb’ Mo’ jokes about how his first solo album, an R&B; project, sold “dozens” of copies and relates how he ended up playing blues legend Robert Johnson in a 1997 film. Mr. Cray and Keb’ Mo’ also discuss the relation they see between jazz and the blues.

“In order to play jazz, you have to be able to play the blues,” Mr. Cray tells Mr. Lewis.

“Blues informs you emotionally. Jazz is more intellectual,” Keb’ Mo’ adds.

Mr. Rosen called Mr. Lewis the key to the show’s success because Mr. Lewis’ comfort in front of the camera combined with his knowledge of jazz sets his guests at ease, drawing out entertaining stories and personalities that Mr. Rosen believes will hook viewers.

Mr. Rosen says he’s already planning the series’ second season, although he won’t reveal which artists are on his wish list. He said he believes the show will be a success, even if network television has shied away from jazz in the past few decades.

“I think (jazz) has a mass market appeal — it all depends on how you present it,” he says. “If you choose a narrow format, with someone playing a solo in some abstract way that goes on for 30 minutes, yeah, that’s not ready for prime time.

“But, here, we have a careful balance. None of the songs last more than 3 1/2 minutes. Melodic things are played, not avant-garde,” Mr. Rosen says. “It’s palatable in format yet true to the musical form itself.”

Each of the 13 episodes of “Legends of Jazz With Ramsey Lewis” has a different focus. Here is a look at the themes and guests highlighted:

• The Golden Horns: Trumpet players Clark Terry, Roy Hargrove and Chris Botti.

• The Jazz Singers: Vocalists Al Jarreau and Kurt Elling.

• The Great Guitars: Pat Metheny and Jim Hall.

• Contemporary Jazz: Guitarist Lee Ritenour, keyboardist George Duke and bassist/producer Marcus Miller.

• The Altos: Saxophone players David Sanborn and Phil Woods.

• The Piano Masters: Dave Brubeck and Dr. Billy Taylor.

• Roots: The Blues: Singers and guitarists Robert Cray and Keb’ Mo’.

• The American Songbook: Guitarist/vocalist John Pizzarelli and singer Jane Monheit.

• Latin Jazz: Keyboardist Eddie Palmieri and flute player Dave Valentin.

• The Tenors: Saxophone players Benny Golson, Chris Potter and Marcus Strickland.

• Brazilian Jazz: Guitarist and composer/arranger Oscar Castro-Neves and keyboardist/composer Ivan Lins.

• The Killer B’s: Hammond B3 organ players Joey DeFrancesco and “Dr.” Lonnie Smith.

• NEA Jazz Masters 2006: Singer Tony Bennett, conga player Ray Barretto and Chick Corea, composer, arranger, pianist and bandleader.

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