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Jazz That Spans Generations – NYTimes.com

Jazz That Spans Generations – NYTimes.com


Jazz That Spans Generations

Willie Ruff, founding director of the Duke Ellington Fellowship at Yale. CreditChristopher Capozziello for The New York Times 
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Willie Ruff, the French horn player and double bassist, enjoyed a celebrated musical partnership with the pianist Dwike Mitchell that, over more than half a century, took him to stages around the world, from the segregated South to Communist China to Town Hall in Manhattan. It was a long and winding road that ended with Mr. Mitchell’s death in April 2013.

Since then, Mr. Ruff, 83, said, he has been on a hiatus from playing in public. Aside from that, however, he has not slowed down much.

Sitting in his small studio at the Yale School of Music, where as a faculty member he has been a kind of emissary from the jazz world for four decades, Mr. Ruff spoke recently about projects he is pursuing and loose ends he wants to tie up.

On March 6, he hosts the pianist Aaron Diehl at Yale’s Morse Recital Hallas part of the Ellington Jazz Series, which has its roots in a notable gathering of jazz masters organized by Mr. Ruff in 1972. Booking Mr. Diehl for it will, in addition to bringing a new star to the Yale campus, pay homage of sorts to one of Mr. Ruff’s old Army buddies, who happens to be Mr. Diehl’s grandfather.



A 1972 convocation of jazz masters at Yale featured, from left, Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington and Mr. Ruff. Credit Christopher Capozziello for The New York Times 

For Mr. Ruff, nearly all roads lead back to the Army, where, as a post-World War II recruit from Sheffield, Ala., he picked up the French horn, which he learned well enough to be admitted to Yale. After graduating in 1955, he went to California, found work as a musician and developed a jazz history course at U.C.L.A. That course provided something of a model when, in 1971, he presented the idea for the convocation to Yale officials.

“It’s time Yale acknowledged the contribution of African-American music,” he recalled telling the officials, who agreed. What they did not agree to, however, was providing money for the event, which he eventually found in the form of a grant from the grandson of the financier Paul Mellon.

As large photos on the walls of Mr. Ruff’s studio attest, the convocation attracted about 40 leading lights of jazz, among them Duke EllingtonDizzy Gillespie and the bassists Charles Mingus and Slam Stewart, whose weathered bass leaned against a wall of the studio near the photos.

With its deeply researched presentations and personal encounters complementing the musical offerings, the convocation “set a formulation for an exchange of information and probing discussion about issues that relate to the music,” Robert Blocker, dean of the Yale School of Music, said in February.

Ultimately, the event gave rise to the Ellington series, which remains the major jazz offering in the school’s roster of regular concert series. “It established the instrumentality that has allowed me to keep the series going for 42 years,” Mr. Ruff said.

Over the years, Mr. Ruff has known many of the artists he has booked. But the scheduling of Mr. Diehl will lend the proceedings another kind of personal dimension. Mr. Diehl is the grandson of Arthur Baskerville, a trombonist of some renown in Columbus, Ohio, whom Mr. Ruff grew close to as a teenage soldier at Lockbourne Air Force Base (now Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base) near Columbus.

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Rising from the chair in his studio, Mr. Ruff became animated as he pointed to a computer screen on which he had loaded a photo of himself, Mr. Baskerville, Mr. Mitchell and the future drumming giant, Elvin Jones, all standing amid hundreds of African-Americans stationed at Lockbourne.



A photo taken in 1948 at Lockbourne Air Force Base in Ohio included Mr. Ruff, Arthur Baskerville and Dwike Mitchell. The future drumming giant Elvin Jones was also there. Credit Christopher Capozziello for The New York Times 

Long after they had been discharged, Mr. Ruff said, Mr. Baskerville kept him apprised of Mr. Diehl’s musical exploits, which took the budding pianist from his native Columbus to New York, where he attended the Juilliard School and forged ties with musicians like Wynton Marsalis. Mr. Baskerville, now in his 90s and still living in Ohio, will be able to see the March 6 performance as it is streamed online.

Mr. Diehl, 29, acknowledged in February that he had long demurred when his grandfather encouraged him to contact Mr. Ruff.

“It’s not until recent years that I’ve been able to appreciate the value of reaching out to older generations,” he said. “It’s important for me to be proactive and reach out to these people even if it’s somewhat daunting.”

Mr. Diehl said he might show his appreciation on March 6 by playing originals from his new album, “Space, Time, Continuum,” which has generational connections as a theme. He might cover tunes by composers from Columbus, like the trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison and the multi-reedist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, or fashion an arrangement of “St. Louis Blues,” by W. C. Handy, who was raised a mile from Mr. Ruff’s childhood home.

In keeping with the evening’s atmosphere of military reminiscences, Mr. Ruff said he planned to include the march version of “St. Louis Blues” in a 10-minute presentation he will make before Mr. Diehl takes the stage.

The performance is scheduled to feature Mr. Diehl with the other members of his trio, Paul Sikivie on bass and Lawrence Leathers on drums. Mr. Diehl, however, said he was hoping to collaborate with Mr. Ruff, even briefly.

For his part, Mr. Ruff, recalling emails in which Mr. Baskerville had likened the urbane Mr. Diehl to “another Mitchell,” appeared to leave the door open, a little at least, to a joint performance. The issue, perhaps, was one of timing.

“Once you’ve had what I had with old Mitchell, I think I’ve pretty much covered the piano,” he said. But, he added, “If I were looking for another collaborator, I would certainly conspire to do some work with Aaron. We might at some point.”

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