Willie Ruff, Jazz Eminence and Master Storyteller, Tells All at Yale Art Gallery
Willie Ruff, the celebrated French horn player and double bassist, venerable Yale School of Music professor, founder/director of Yale’s prestigious Duke Ellington Fellowship Program, award-winning author, documentarian, historian, linguist, ethnomusicologist, and voracious autodidact, is a man of so many intricate, smoothly running, coolly calibrated cerebral parts that he is, indeed, one of the jazz world’s true Renaissance figures.
One of the greatest gifts of this soft-spoken, unflappably cool gentleman and scholar, who’s originally from Sheffield, Alabama, is his natural-born talent for storytelling. His 1992 memoir, A Call to Assembly, which won the coveted Deems Taylor Award for excellence, is aptly subtitled, The Autobiography of a Musical Storyteller.
Ruff’s smooth storytelling skills enliven any topic of his choosing, whether it be profound social issues or the meaning of the blues. His story lines flow like a fluent, lyrical Lester Young solo. Especially when he’s recounting his picaresque life story, a narrative rooted in his dramatic transformation from dirt-poor, ninth-grade dropout to renowned, globe-trotting jazz missionary, educator and performer.
At Shanghai Conservatory, Ruff, the consummately charming, cosmopolitan master storyteller and lecturer, even dared to try out a joke in Mandarin on the native, Mandarin-speaking audience. Happily, the erudite Yale professor’s quip drew appreciative laughter. Maybe it was because his listeners were so enthralled by this engaging African American academic/musician explaining to them the African roots of American jazz, expressed in fluent Mandarin, no less.
What propels Ruff, aside from his insatiable curiosity about virtually everything, is the sheer joy of doing what he loves to do.
Ruff, who speaks eight languages, will stick to his native tongue and his first linguistic love, English, as he delivers a multimedia talk at 5:30 pm on Thursday, September 4, in the lecture hall at the Yale University Art Gallery at 1111 Chapel Street in New Haven. Illustrated with historic film clips and vintage recorded material, the lecture, which is free, is titled, "A Cinematic Excursion through the American Jazz Century." It’s part of the gallery’s exhibition, "Jazz Lives: The Photographs of Lee Friedlander and Milt Hinton," which closes Sunday, September 7.
A jazz and photography connoisseur’s delight, the Yale photo show features fresh ways to view jazz and its practitioners through its evocative black-and-white images by Friedlander, a highly original, iconic American photographer, and Hinton, a legendary bassist whose open access to jazz greats brings a candid, intimate ambiance to his photo portraits.
What initially sparked the gallery talk was Ruff’s close relationship with Hinton. It goes back many years when Ruff, who was then a young undergrad at Yale, traveled with a woodwind quintet from the New Haven campus to New York City to make a recording accompanied by a jazz trio for Epic Records. "We had worked on the woodwind quintet material on our campus," he said, "and a record deal was made. We had no idea who was going to be in the jazz rhythm section until we arrived at the recording studio. We were elated to discover that it was Milt Hinton on bass, Jo Jones on drums, and Billy Taylor on piano. Later on, I did a lot of recording with Milt as a session player in New York."
To illustrate his recollections of Hinton, Ruff unearthed footage of the great bass player on YouTube, including clips chronicling his famous stint with the Cab Calloway Orchestra, one of the most famous ensembles of the Big Band Era.
Another major theme of the gallery talk, which may include autobiographical elements from Ruff’s hardscrabble youth in Alabama on through his worldwide triumphs with the Mitchell/Ruff Duo, focuses on the centennial of the publication of W.C. Handy’s "St. Louis Blues," a powerfully influential classic in American popular music.
Ruff grew up not far from Handy’s birthplace in rural Alabama. He recalls quite vividly the day that the great American composer, powerhouse publisher, and Harlem Renaissance grandee visited the small, segregated schoolhouse he attended in the 1930s. "Handy came to our school when I was in second grade," Ruff said, "and talked to us, and played his trumpet as we sang. …He told us how difficult his life had been, particularly after he let it be known to his family that he wanted to be a musician."
To illustrate his reflections on Handy, Ruff tracked down a fascinating radio recording on which the songwriter, known as “The Father of the Blues,” recounted a life-shaping incident from his own early, small-town school days when he was warned against the evils of pursuing a musical career. “You can hear Handy on this tape speaking in his own distinctive voice,” Ruff said. Altering his voice to sound like Handy’s, he recited the words heard on the ancient recording:
I couldn’t tell the story of the St. Louis Blues without including the moment when our school teacher down in Florence, Alabama, called the class to order, and instead of beginning our reading lessons, asked each of us what we wanted to be in life.
Some said doctors, lawyers, merchants, and several other trades. When he came to me, I said, "I want to be a musician." He read me a lecture, and told me that music would lead me to the gutter; that musicians are idlers and dissipated characters; and wrote my father a note, which, when my father — who was a preacher — read it, said to me, "Sonny, I would rather follow you to your grave than to see you be a musician."
Reverting to his own speaking voice, Ruff said, “Now, that’s the coldest advice I ever heard!”
During Handy’s visit to Ruff’s schoolhouse more than seven decades ago, the awestruck youngster not only hung on to the old sage’s every word, but, best of all, even got to shake the godlike figure’s hand before he departed. “All of us who were identified as musically inclined,” Ruff said of this early brush with greatness, “were permitted to line up, and shake the hand that wrote the St. Louis Blues. I was never the same boy again. It ruined my life, but I forgive him.”
For his gallery talk, Ruff could riff on the enlightening, liberating impact that both his military service (he enlisted at 14, lying about his age) and his education at Yale (where he went on the GI Bill) had on him. Or he could shift gears and discuss his vital connections with the Ellington Fellows he’s brought to Yale since 1972, a legion of jazz and cultural superheroes ranging from Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington to Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson.
Ruff could chat about running his own jazz club, called The Playback, in New Haven. A fabled piece of the Elm City’s distinguished jazz history, The Playback had a glorious three-year run on Winchester Avenue, bringing in a continuous stream of jazz greats including Stan Getz, Marian McPartland, Slam Stewart, Roy Eldridge (a frequent guest), and a then-young, brilliant pianist named Horace Silver, who Ruff said was also a soulfully-swinging tenor saxophonist.
In retrospect, one of the great historic moments for The Playback occurred when Ruff presented a young, unknown singer named Aretha Franklin. Ruff was asked to give Franklin the gig, as a favor, by the legendary producer John Hammond, a Columbia Records potentate, and discoverer of talents ranging from Count Basie and Billie Holiday to Bruce Springsteen.
Drawn from Ruff’s personal experiences, his anecdotes and reflections on the famous and the obscure spring to life thanks to his pitch-perfect ear for dialogue, irrepressible sense of humor, and novelist’s eye for the telling detail. Plus, there’s the polymath’s ability to put everything in context as when, for example, he explains why he’s so mad about the 17th-century mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler, Gregorian Chants, Igor Stravinsky, Charlie Parker, and the Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo.
Ruff's narrations and explications are presented clearly and gracefully. It doesn’t matter whether he’s explaining what makes a Duke Ellington composition work aesthetically, or on a deeply personal level, discussing the profoundly inspirational influence that the heroic Tuskegee Airmen had on him as a poor, motherless child growing up in the racist Old South of the 1940s, earning a pittance by plowing farmland behind a mule.
One of eight children, Ruff was born on Labor Day, 1931 (an appropriate birth date for a lifelong striver) into crushing poverty in a modest four-room house with no electricity. Not long after Ruff was born, his father skipped out, heading north to Chicago to get a job, leaving Willie’s mother behind to raise the family on the $5.00 a week she earned as a maid. As if this weren’t already too much to bear, Ruff’s mother died when he was only 12.
Despite this Dickensian-like, worst-of-times childhood, it always seems to be the best of times for the upbeat, high-energy Ruff, especially when he’s working on his next project, as with his upcoming lecture at Yale, which has his creative juices flowing. With the talk’s multimedia format — a prototype that Ruff plans to expand on, and tailor for a variety of media and venues, including lecture halls, classrooms, radio, and streaming TV — the musical maven can take his act out on the road, using digital age resources to complement his timeless storytelling gifts.
What propels Ruff, aside from his insatiable curiosity about virtually everything, is the sheer joy of doing what he loves to do. It’s a jubilant feeling of deliverance that he experienced even as young man just beginning his journey, illustrated by a typical diamond-in-the-Ruff anecdote.
“My very first year at Yale there was a little club on Dixwell Avenue called the Monterey,” Ruff recalled, “where some of the Hartford jazz crowd would also come, musicians like drummer Walt Bolden and bassist Joe Calloway. This one night, who walked into the club to perform but the singer Betty Roche. Everybody had turned out, because they knew Betty’s performance of ‘Take the A-Train’ with Duke Ellington. I thought, here I am, at only 19, just five blocks from the Yale campus, playing bass on the bandstand with the great Betty Roche in New Haven, Connecticut. I said to myself, I believe in miracles.” Information: artgallery.yale.edu and (203) 432-0600.
Starting at 11:00 am on Hampton Avenue behind Thorne’s Market, the festival’s major event also features trombonist Steve Davis at 2:45 pm; pianist/vocalist Champian Fulton at 4:15 pm; and the swaggering saxophonist Seamus Blake at 5:45 pm. Information:northamptonjazzfestival.org.
Jazz Fest Touts Tolerance
Joined by such stalwarts as vocalist Antoinette Montague and trumpeter Ricky Alfonso, the noted singer/producer/activist Nicki Mathis presents the admission-freeMany Colors of a WOMAN Jazz Festival at 8:00 pm on Saturday, September 6 at Faith Congregational Church in Hartford.
Along with its advocacy of a world free from sexism and racism, the festival is noted for its diverse, quality musical fare which features, among many assets, trombonists Bill Lowe and Deborah Weisz. Information: (860) 547-0820.
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