Michéle Ramo walks up to the counter at the Bean & Leaf coffee shop in Royal Oak and orders a triple-shot espresso. In his Italian accent, it sounds like the most natural thing in the world — what would keep most people awake for hours is probably a normal Sunday afternoon beverage for this guy.
When MT walks into the place, Ramo is instantly recognizable from his album cover images, with his big hat and broad Euro-smile. When we say hello, he’s warm-to-glowing. The 49-year-old has a bald head that looks smoother than a baby’s bum, and he wears it well alongside his immaculate facial hair. Like most people in their late 40s, he has a few extra pounds, but he carries them with a typical Mediterranean suave chill. He reeks of cigar smoke, only adding to the allure. He leans back against the walls, covered in standard coffee shop art, and looks at home. Ramo is one cool Italian.
Ramo moved to Michigan from Italy after a short stint in New York City in ’87. He stayed here for 12 years, working with some of the great Michigan jazz players, including Marcus Belgrave, Teddy Harris Jr., and Ralphe Armstrong.
“I’m classically trained and I was in the symphonic orchestra before I came over,” Ramo says. “I always wanted to play jazz, and that’s why I made the move to Detroit. In ’90, I met my wife, Heidi Hepler, a great singer. We worked here until ’99, and then we moved to New York City. We did 12 years there and many European tours, and then we decided to head back home. We’ve been back about two-and-a-half years now.”
He recently put out a live CD, A Cigar & a Scotch: Live at the Jenuwine Cigar Lounge, which is appropriate because the Jenuwine is one of his regular haunts. It’s a great album, capturing Ramo’s blend of trad jazz and world music, but also the thick, smoky atmosphere at the venue.
“I re-created that cigar lounge,” Ramo says. “It was basically a cigar lounge, and I made it a jazz lounge and cigar lounge. They built a stage for me with lights — it’s just incredible. Every Tuesday, I have between a six- and eight-piece band. That’s where we play gypsy jazz, Latin jazz and also traditional jazz. I’ve been there two years. That’s where I develop my music and my ideas.”
Referring to Ramo as a jazz musician isn’t inaccurate, but it really only tells a small part of the story. Here we have a classically trained man who moved to Michigan and then discovered jazz, but only after he had already fallen in love with music from many other nations. “I’m fusing all the styles,” he says. “I’m specializing in choro music, Brazilian music, which goes way back to 1860. There are only a few groups in the United States that play this music. I was on top of the stars in Italy, and I dropped down to the bottom. I started all over again, and I have no regrets. I love every moment.”
Ramo also plays every Sunday night at the Trattoria & Pizzeria da Luigi in Royal Oak, which sees people eating and chatting while he plays. “At the cigar lounge, it’s like a concert,” he says. “People still talk — that’s normal for a human being to talk. But we don’t play background music. At the pizzeria place, it’s a little more background. But still people pay attention a lot. The style we do demands that people listen. People start talking, and then they say, ‘Oh, this is different,’ and they quiet down.”
While there are plenty of people in Michigan playing Brazilian music, Ramo says that there are not too many Brazilians doing so, resulting in a sound that often isn’t quite right. It’s all about the syncopation. “Brazilian music has very particular phrasing,” he says. “It’s based on a lot of syncopation. If you don’t get it syncopated, you may play a Brazilian tune but it’s not playing Brazilian music. It’s like, we come from Europe and we speak English but we still have an accent. We haven’t developed the nuances. It’s not bad, it’s just not the same. We’re talking right, but people can hear that we have an accent. I’m at a point now where I can hear somebody playing a Brazilian tune but they really don’t understand the essence of what it’s about.”
On the surface, Ramo may represent everything that is considered wrong with jazz in Detroit. He’s fast approaching his 50s, he’s very particular about his instruments, and he rarely listens to new music. On the other hand, Ramo is not a jazz purist, he loves to try new things, and he’s full of energy. This isn’t some tired, dad-version of jazz. Ramo’s music is fresh and exciting.
“There is nothing wrong with jazz music,” he says. “There is nothing wrong with anything. The problem is that people have no originality. They always want to sound like somebody else. They hear Miles Davis, and they want to play like Miles Davis. It’s not going to work out very well. Maybe for a short while, but after that people are looking for originality. So whatever you do — folk, country, rock, hip hop — just be yourself. We live in an entertainment business, and you have to reinvent yourself every three weeks, otherwise it gets stale. That’s why you lose your audience. If they don’t see anything happening, it’s not happening. A lot of people complain that there are no jobs. No, there is a lot of jobs. You’ve got to reinvent yourself, be creative, and also use your head as a businessman.”
Ramo is worth listening to. This is a man who has designed his own eight-string guitar (six string fretted and two-string fretless bass at the top). “I’m covering four parts,” he says. “It’s called piano style. There are not many around. It’s a dedication, and it requires a lot of training. You have to understand the music.”
Michéle Ramo plays every Tuesday, Thursday and Friday at the Jenuwine Cigar Lounge, 44791 Schoenherr Rd., Sterling Heights; 586-997-1731. He also plays every Sunday at the Trattoria & Pizzeria da Luigi, 415 S. Washington Ave., Royal Oak; 248-542-4444.