Composer Mitch Leigh Endows Chair in Jazz at Yale

Willie Ruff and Mitch Leigh

The Yale School of Music has announced that the Willie Ruff Chair in Jazz has been created at the School of Music through the generosity of the celebrated composer and Yale alumnus Mitch Leigh.

Leigh, who is best known as the Tony Award-winning composer of “Man of La Mancha,” announced that he was endowing a chair in jazz during the School of Music’s annual Convocation on September 7. The Willie Ruff Chair in Jazz honors Leigh’s classmate and friend, who currently serves on the School’s faculty as professor of music and as director of the Duke Ellington Fellowship Program. Leigh said that it gave him pleasure not only to recognize the accomplishments and contributions of Ruff, but to establish a chair in jazz at Yale, a goal he has had for many years. “Willie and I go back a long way—we have a lot in common— and I am proud to be among Willie’s friends and admirers. You’re so lucky to have him here, and now you will have jazz at Yale in Willie’s name, deservedly so, forever. I am very proud to be a participant in that.”

Ruff reflected that “this is confirmation of the fact that the people you meet early in life are often the most influential. Mitch and I worked on recording projects when we were both undergraduates in the early 1950s and we’ve been friends ever since.” Dwike Mitchell, Ruff’s musical partner of over 50 years, also surprised his colleague with a musical tribute on this special occasion.

It is not the first time Leigh’s generosity to the University was revealed at a School of Music Convocation. In 2001, Dean Robert Blocker announced that Mitch Leigh and his wife, Abby, had provided the funds for the renovation of the School’s building at 435 College Street. Now named Abby and Mitch Leigh Hall, the building reopened last fall after a year of renovation. Dean Blocker commented that “the establishment of the Willie Ruff endowed chair is reflective of the ongoing commitment to the School of Music and the heartfelt affection the Leighs have for Willie Ruff.”

Leigh is a modern Renaissance man, excelling in composing, producing, directing and commerce. Pianist Arthur Rubenstein said of Leigh, “He’s the most brilliant composer writing for the musical theater today.” Leigh is the recipient of several distinguished awards, including the Drama Critics Circle Award, the Contemporary Classics Award from the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame for “The Impossible Dream,” and the first of the Yale Arts Awards for Outstanding Achievement in Musical Composition. He has been honored as the only living composer whose work was included in the Metropolitan Opera’s Centennial Celebration. In 1957 he formed Music Makers, Inc., a radio and television commercial production house. With Leigh as its creative director, the agency won every major award within the advertising industry. Leigh produced and directed Yul Brynner’s farewell tour of “The King and I,” for which he received a Tony nomination as Best Director. For the theater, he composed and co-produced “Cry For Us All,” “Sarava,” “Chu Chem” and “Ain’t Broadway Grand.” Born in Brooklyn, Leigh attended the High School of Music and Art and studied with Paul Hindemith at Yale University, where he received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees and where he has returned to lecture. The School awarded Leigh the Alumni Certificate of Merit in 1967.

Ruff is a musician and scholar of wide-ranging interests and influence. A French horn and bass player, he is also an author, lecturer and educator. After graduating from Yale, he joined Lionel Hampton’s band, and soon collaborated with his friend, pianist Dwike Mitchell, to form the Mitchell-Ruff Duo. The duo performed on the bill with major jazz figures, including Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Count Basie in every major nightclub. In 1959, they introduced jazz to the Soviet Union, playing and teaching in Russian conservatories, and in 1981 they did the same in China. On the faculty at the Yale School of Music since 1971, Ruff has also been on the faculty at UCLA, Dartmouth and Duke University. He is the founding director of the Duke Ellington Fellowship program at Yale, and his work in bringing jazz artists to Yale and New Haven public schools earned him the Governor’s Arts Award in 2000. In addition to teaching Yale courses in arranging, ethnomusicology and folklore, Ruff has led many conferences and research projects exploring music’s wide-ranging impact. He has organized an international conference on the neurophysiology of rhythmic perception and created computerized music based on the theories of 17th-century astronomer Johannes Kepler. Ruff’s latest project, congregational line singing, involved a 2005 conference at Yale comparing the traditions practiced in Alabama, Kentucky and the Gaelic-speaking Free Church Presbyterians in the Scottish Highlands. This conference resulted in three television documentaries and a feature story for NPR’s Morning Edition. His line-singing project continued last year with a visit to the Muscogee Creek Nation in Oklahoma, where another outpost of the ancient Scottish service recently came to light. Ruff’s memoir, “A Call to Assembly,” published in 1991 by Viking Press, received the Deems Taylor Award for Excellence in a book on music.