New Haven arts council lauds Yale professor Willie Ruff as a 'musical treasure'

Willie Ruff ’53 Mus.B ., ’54 Mus.M., a professor in the Yale School of Music since 1971, was honored on Dec. 4 by the Arts Council of Greater New Haven with its C. Newton Schenck III Award for lifetime achievement in and contribution to the arts.

Willie Ruff (Photo by Harold Shapiro)

“A master of the bass and French horn, Willie Ruff is a performer, an educator, a writer, a researcher, and a jazz ambassador, inspiring audiences and connecting new generations of performers to history and possibility,” Daisy Abreu of the arts council board told the packed room of well-wishers gathered at the New Haven Lawn Club to celebrate Ruff and other awardees

“After Willie graduated from the Yale School of Music, he joined Lionel Hampton’s band,” Abreu noted. “He soon joined band mate Dwike Mitchell to strike out on their own as the Mitchell-Ruff Duo, sharing stages with the likes of Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Sarah Vaughn. With Mitchell, Willie brought jazz to new audiences around the world, most notably in the Soviet Union in 1959 and China in 1989.”

Since Ruff returned to New Haven to teach at Yale more than 40 years ago, Abreu noted, he has been an active force in the New Haven arts and cultural scene. In 1972 “he created the Duke Ellington Fellowship, which has brought such legendary musicians as Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Paul Robeson, and Marian Anderson to Yale and into New Haven schools, introducing thousands of young people to the heritage of African American music,” Abreu said.

“Willie Ruff is a musical treasure who continues to make an impact in his native Alabama, where he founded the W.C. Handy Festival, in New Haven, and far beyond,” she said.

 “This is a great honor for me to be recognized by this community where I’ve spent most of my life,” Ruff said at the event. “Since I’ve come to New Haven, it’s been my great good fortune to fall under the influences of great teachers like Paul Hindemith and Keith Wilson  …  and many, many others,” he noted, joking, “They all made me the man I am today, but I forgive them for it!”

The award is named for Schenck, a 1944 graduate of Yale College and longtime attorney with Wiggin & Dana. Schenck was instrumental in the development of the Audubon Arts District in New Haven, the Long Wharf Theatre, and other arts organizations in the city.

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