By Monica Staton
The first time I saw Josh Ramos play was in 2013 at Webster’s Wine Bar. Ramos was accompanying trumpeter Marquis Hill, together with drummer Makaya McCraven. From the first beat, the band created an undeniable energy that remained constant throughout the set. Rarely have I heard artists perform with such intensity, consistently. Ramos has played with the best and I predict soon, he’ll begin to receive the accolades he deserves.
Ramos grew up in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. He was introduced to gospel, funk, rock, and jazz early on, and these genres continue to inspire him. He’s toured with Ramsey Lewis, Marquis Hill, Makaya McCraven, and countless others.
At the core of his playing is stamina, a strong groove, and adherence to keeping an ensemble coherent and the music visceral.
How was it growing up in Humboldt Park?
My parents are from Humboldt Park, I grew up in Humboldt Park but when I was 10 or 13 or so the neighborhood had become gang infested . . . because my mom and aunts worked for CPS I always had extracurricular activities. I went to Whitney Young High School. After school, I would hang out with my friends from school. I usually would not be hanging around my neighborhood, “the ’hood.”
When did you begin playing the bass?
I started on the upright bass with Irv Kusall, who was a member of my family’s church. Kusall used to play polka music for a variety show, he played slap bass—the show involved singing and theatrics. He passed a few years ago.
Kusall was an architect. He gave me an upright bass that was in disrepair. He put it back together for me, so I started on that. I also had a bass guitar teacher, Marguarito Torres. He was the bass player at my church. He gave me bass lessons at the age of 12.
Did playing the upright bass come naturally?
I don’t know how naturally it came. [Ramos explains the context of his early musical exposure.] My mom is a very in-tune singer and my dad sang. We were a part of a non-denominational church, it wasn’t like a Black church with Southern gospel music. It was a mixed—white and Puerto Rican—and included every nationality. We sang ’80s gospel since they were into that type of music. My parents sang in the church choir, which I enjoyed.
Where else did you study music?
There were a lot of resources in church and in Chicago. I attended Whitney Young at that time, Gallery 37, Merit School of Music. Merit taught classical instrument study and at that time they had a jazz ensemble. I was a part of a concert band at Whitney Young—we’d play “Sir Duke” and stuff.
As a teenager I would fanboy out to Bass Player Magazine. I read about all the great Black funk bass players like Marcus Miller and Bootsy Collins. I liked the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I also played with friends. We played Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Rage Against the Machine. We had a rock band, that all worked in conjunction. A big infrastructure and a little bit of application made it natural for me.
My bass teacher Mark Torres was a fan of all the bass players like Victor Wooten and John Patitucci. That got me interested. My dad loved Latin jazz, we’d also listen to BeBe & CeCe Winans and a gospel musician named Ron Kenoly—he was my introduction to wonderful Black gospel music, along with famous L.A. session musicians like Abraham Laboriel and Paul Jackson Jr. There were none of those kinds of musicians playing in my church. There was a gospel shout at the end of one of those Ron Kenoly videos, I would get really excited by that music. It’s some of my favorite music to this day.
My parents didn’t listen to any secular music. It was all Christian music, which thank God they listened to. I constantly had the opportunity to play and listen to music that I liked. My parents had a good musical ear.
Did you study music in college?
I studied jazz performance under Dr. Ronald Carter at NIU. I don’t think it’s a useful degree. I could have saved a lot of money, moved to DeKalb and hung out with all the students there and had private lessons. My education was useful only because I was able to play with other students, they were really good.
Dan Nimmer was a dorm mate, a composer and pianist who has been a member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and the Wynton Marsalis Quintet for more than a decade. He swings really hard. He really taught me how to play jazz; he got me interested in Oscar Peterson. We’d play trio gigs at steak houses with drummer Donny DeMarco. We played those trio gigs for years.
Greg Ward, he’s probably my best friend, and an incredible sax player, he was my roommate. We’d play together, he’d show me all sorts of stuff, there were really great musicians around. [Guitarist] Dave Miller and I played together in college. All these great musicians around, plus Ron Carter, my instructor, really knew how to visualize how jazz should feel, he’d bust your balls, but he was a loving guy.
You’ve played with Ramsey Lewis as well, does he have a distinct Chicago sound?
Ramsey has a certain feel that's gone. He was the house pianist at the London House, he would open for Oscar Peterson. Ramsey would always play a famous Jimmy Reed song. Reed was a blues musician and songwriter. Blues was club music, it was what people would dance to. They have a different experience, people from Ramsey’s generation, because there’s a different intention when he played. He has different sorts of funk fields when he’s playing his solo cadenzas. You can peer into that world of yesterday and you get it, it clicks, I then understand how the music is supposed to feel. He has an incredible sweetness to his playing. Because he’s so famous in Chicago, I don’t know how much of it he created—that Chicago sound.
Who would you like to work with?
I’d like to play with Nicholas Payton or Chick Corea. I played with Marquis Hill for a while, Makaya McCraven. I like to play with musicians that kick my butt—where the demand is high. Anyone who likes to grove, swing really hard or it’s very sweet. I like to play anything that’s funky, something that evokes a visceral feeling in my body. There’s so much music that I love and I wanna keep improving what I do.
Quarantine Life: How Are You Spending Your Time?
With this quarantine I have a lot of time to practice and no particular thing that I have to prepare for. I’ve always liked to play songs entirely by myself on the bass. There’s a lot of solo stuff I’m playing.
Pros and cons of playing solo: what do you enjoy and not enjoy?
I can’t answer the pros and cons of it, but I do enjoy having beautiful musical experiences by myself—playing something that’s fulfilling and that takes me to that place. The con would be that there's nobody else to interact with to add to my musical statement. Whatever I don’t think of to add to that music is absent. It is nice to play how a classical pianist like Oscar Peterson plays like the intro to a song “Tin Tin Deo.” Very often at a gig they’ll drop off the drums and it’s just me on the bass. You become a stronger player, just by yourself.
The upright bass is a demanding instrument. Is there a physical workout that you commit to?
I’ve been involved in fitness for the last two decades or so. I can do fifteen pull ups, I’m pretty strong, but you have to avoid tightening up on the upright bass. I don’t do a bunch of bicep curls because it will tighten up my hands. I practice at least two hours a day but use a timer, I take breaks, but I make sure that I have at least two hours of accumulated hand-time on the bass. Practice is very much a part of my day-to-day existence.
What is your generation contributing to jazz?
Hopefully a further saturation of all of that. I try to delve in and repeat whatever speaks to me. Chicago’s Black music community—the rhythmic touch captivates me. My sound is influenced by bebop, gospel. My wife is Bulgarian, and I love a lot of the Eastern European music. There’s a common line that goes through all of these genres. Today’s generation is steeped in innovation harmonically, playing faster. With that innovation is a lot of nostalgia. There are incredible players that reach high levels harmonically and technically on their instruments—Thundercat is an incredible bass virtuoso.
Who have you been listening to lately?
A lot of times I will play along with recordings when I practice. I’ve been listening to different versions of the song “More Than Anything,” by Lamar Kendell. I’m listening to a lot to Eddie Palmieri. He is a great pianist. His song “Puerto Rico”—I learned the intro. I like Thelonious Monk a lot, especially his song “Pannonica.”
Early on what advice were you given in terms of how to navigate your career?
I was told by Ron Carter to work on music business planning. He told me you don’t wanna be playing $200 gigs for the rest of your life. I have received the obvious advice from many musicians like to practice and to be professional. Respond to emails quicker.
Last time I saw you playing was with Victor Garcia . . .
I learned a lot from him. He’s a very positive person with an obsession to move forward. Garcia raises the bar for everybody. Whenever I play with him I have this useful fear. You better work on his stuff because he will have it together. His music is very demanding.
Under normal circumstances how many gigs do you have?
If I am busy maybe 5–6 days a week.
Is there a specific place we can keep in touch?