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Jazz Music is a Labor of Love for Pianist Ralph Lewars

Written by Deborah Gabriel

Acclaimed pianist Ralph Lewars has had a lifelong love affair with his beloved jazz music. In the sitting room of his South London home, a Yamaha piano finished in mahogany wood takes centre stage and is his pride and joy. He firmly believes that his late father is responsible for his love of music. John Barrington Lewars was born in Bunkers Hill, Clarendon in 1912 and met his future wife Lisa in the neighbourhood as a young adult. He arrived in England in 1955 and later sent for his sweetheart and married her in England. His son Ralph was born in 1959. Pianos were always a feature of west-indian homes in England and were usually just a pastime and source of family entertainment. At the age of seven, John Barrington arranged for his son to have private classical piano lessons and wanted the young scholar to take the lessons seriously. However, Ralph admitted that his father’s strictness and insistence on no TV watching initially deterred him from the piano lessons and he learnt to play by ear, rather than by reading music. “My father was a disciplinarian and wanted me to learn to play the piano properly “, Ralph told me during our interview. However, like most seven year olds Ralph just wanted to have fun.

Have fun he did, when as a young man in the early 80’s, he joined a funk band called Pastiche, playing the electric keyboard. His co-band members included pop singer Yaz and Pepsi, who later was part of the successful group Wham, which featured George Michael. He also played gospel music in church. The band was together for about four years.

When the band broke up, Ralph turned his attentions to his academic education, gaining a bachelors degree, master’s degree and postgraduate diploma in science and environmental health. However, his practical decision to take up a managerial post did not deter him from his love of music. Despite dropping out of formal lessons as a child, he began studying jazz at evening classes at the Goldsmiths University and spent three years learning how to play the blues, read music and compose, as well as to master some of the great works of famed musicians such as Giant Steps by John Coltrane. He confides that playing other types of music had been relatively easy, but he had always been intimidated by jazz and held great jazz musicians in awe. It is no surprise then to hear that upon completion of the course which Ralph admits was extremely difficult, he felt a real sense of achievement and fulfillment.

He recalls his first gig which took place the month following completion of his music course at the Tenor Clef Jazz Club in Central London. “When the lights came on and I walked on stage I was so nervous I was shaking. The place was packed. I was so thankful that it went really well and I had a lot of fun”. One of his best friends Julian Joseph is also a jazz pianist who is well respected on the international stage. Ralph fondly refers to him as a personal mentor. “He has been a great motivator to me and has taught me a lot over the years”. Another of his role models is the great Herbie Hancock, who Ralph is fortunate to have met with on several occasions including at the Royal Festival Hall in London in 1981. “I met him backstage and he was a very humble man.” So much so, that he allowed Ralph to pick his tie for the evening. “He was and has always been a real inspiration”, Ralph confides.

A committed jazz musician for the past eleven years, Ralph’s music has taken him all over the world. He has played in France, Italy, Romania, Atlanta & New York in the USA and also played at the Jamaica Grande in Ocho Rios in 1999. “It was a great feeling to be playing in Jamaica” Ralph states. He also reveals that wherever he travels to he brings his sheet music with him and loves to hook up with other musicians. At his home in London, his telephones ring constantly with bookings for various functions. His jazz band plays once a month at the Bulls Head in Barnes, West London. Ralph also holds jams sessions there regularly to encourage up and coming musicians.

Music and fame appears to run in the Lewars family. One of his cousins, Gary is a successful saxophonist and plays regularly with Ralph’s band. Another cousin, Barbara Lewars became the third wife of former Prime Minister Michael Manley in 1966, but sadly died prematurely of cancer in 1968. It is clear that like many other talented musicians, Ralph has a passion for his craft. He admits that when performing, it is as much to indulge his love of music as it is for the pleasure he receives from entertaining his audience.

Ralph proudly reveals that he composed a piece that has proved to be very popular which his daughter Melissa named Beautiful Things. He has been asked to record the tune and also plans to record an album in the future. “Playing jazz is an ongoing learning process, you can never think you have mastered it fully” he tells me. “I just want to keep on playing and to start gigging and recording songs with other well known artists”. It looks as is if Ralph’s love affair with jazz will not fizzle out anytime soon, much to the relief of his dedicated followers.

About the author

Deborah Gabriel

Dr. Deborah Gabriel is a Lecturer in Marketing Communications at Bournemouth University and the Founder and CEO of Black British Academics; a Community Interest Company working to advance race equality in the higher education sector.