Jazz musician Willie Ruff retires

As a teenager in the army learning the French horn, Willie Ruff ’53M, ’54 M.M. was taught that “music don’t mean a thing unless it tells a story.” Though he will retire this May after 46 years on the School of Music faculty, the 85-year-old Ruff says he has no plans to stop telling stories through his music and teaching.

During his time at Yale, Ruff founded and directed the Duke Ellington Fellowship Program. With his longtime musical collaborator Dwike Mitchell, he brought jazz to international audiences (including China in 1981 and the Soviet Union in 1959). He also collaborated on interdisciplinary projects with Yale faculty members far outside of the musical realm and earned worldwide attention for his speculation that various black and Native American line-singing traditions originated in ancient Scotland.

His many accolades include the Yale School of Music’s highest honor, the Sanford Medal, and his 1991 memoir “A Call to Assembly: The Autobiography of a Musical Storyteller” earned him the Deems Taylor Award.

Just before heading off to Linz, Austria, to see for the first time “The Harmony of the World,” a 1957 opera by his former Yale teacher Paul Hindemith, Ruff spoke with YaleNews about his life and his time at the university. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

When did you first become interested in music?

I grew up in a very special place in Alabama. We lived in a house — my mother and eight children — that had no electricity, so there was no radio or music. But there was always dancing, to silence. The dances made their own rhythm.

When I was about six, there was an older white boy named Mutt McCord who lived across the street from us. He was in high school. But we became fast friends because he was one hell of a drummer, and I couldn’t stand not to be over on his side of the street. He would play Count Basie and Benny Goodman records outside on the porch, and then play the drums in the yard to those records. It looked like heaven. He saw how interested I was and said, “You want to learn how to do this?” So he started teaching me.

When Mutt got drafted during World War II, he gave me his full set of drums.

How did you join the army at age 14?

After my mother died, I lived for a year with my father in Evansville, Illinois. I had an older cousin in Evansville who enlisted in the army at age 17 with his parent’s permission. He came back in the sharpest uniform. He told me “All the things you’re doing here, you can do better in uniform. You’ll get better schooling in the army. You can do better than that little dinky band you play in.” I asked, “How am I going to do it? I’m only 14,” and he said, “For a musician, you sure are dumb. Don’t you know how to write your daddy’s name?”

How did the army further your musical career?

I started to play the French horn in the army, because there were too many drummers in the band. Eventually, at the age of 16, I was stationed at Lockbourne Air Base in Ohio. Lockbourne was the only military facility exclusively for blacks. It was the best place to be for music; some of the best-trained musicians were there.

I got to Lockbourne around Christmas time, so everybody was going home for the holiday. Mitchell wasn’t going home because he had a fuss with his father. So the two of us stuck around, and he knew I played the French horn. One day I picked up the bass, curious about it, and he came in and said, “If you’re serious about that, I can show you how to do it.” I said, “I thought you were a piano player.” “I am,” he said, “but I’ve played with great bass players and I know how it works. You want me to show you?”

So he showed me, and just a few days later we played together on a radio show. We decided it was pretty good. He was a great teacher; he taught me a tremendous amount. So I got to study two instruments seriously in the army.

Willie Ruff
Willie Ruff shows off photographs of the jazz luminaries he invited to the inaugural Duke Ellington Fellowship concert in 1972. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

What inspired you to apply to Yale School of Music?

I didn’t know what I was going to do when I got out of the army, and then I read a magazine interview with [the famed jazz saxophonist] Charlie Parker. Parker was asked what he would do with the next several years of his life if he could do anything he wanted. He said, “That’s easy. I really need more education, and I would get it if I could from one of my favorite musicians of all time, the German cat Paul Hindemith, and he’s teaching composition at Yale. I would go and sit at his feet and learn some music.”

I didn’t know then who Paul Hindemith was. But I thought, “If Charlie Parker wants to sit at Hindemith’s feet, he’s got to be good.” So I applied to Yale School of Music, and showed up for my audition in my sergeant’s suit. I was 17, and by some miracle they let me in. [Editor’s note: The school then offered undergraduate as well as graduate degrees.]

How was your time at the School of Music?

My experience here was the absolute best. There were gin mills and nightclubs on practically every corner of New Haven during that time, as well as parties on campus, so I was playing jazz every weekend. There were 8 or 10 jazz bands just on campus.

What was a highlight of your time as a student?

There was a great, great piano player here named Mel Powell. He came here to study with Hindemith the same year I did. He was much older than me. He had been a prodigy, and Benny Goodman hired him in his band when Powell was 17. One night I was playing in the New Haven Symphony at the Yale Bowl, and Benny Goodman was the guest of the symphony. After intermission, he brings Mel Powell out to play jazz. It was just Mel, a drummer, and Benny. Mel looked over at me in the French horn section and whispered to Benny: “The guy over there playing the French horn plays the bass; let’s call him up and have him play with us.” So Benny called me up. There I was, 18 years old, and playing with Benny Goodman in the Yale Bowl! That got me all the good gigs in town — all the Dixieland work, the bepop, and the swing band, too.

How did you reunite with Dwike Mitchell?

Dwike was a few years older than me, so he got out of the Army before me. But before he got out, we both swore on our mothers that we would one day form a duo.

In 1955, right after I got my master’s from Yale School of Music, I turned on the “Ed Sullivan Show” one night. Lionel Hampton’s band was playing, and they’re raising hell. The camera panned over to the piano player, and there’s Mitchell! So I picked up the telephone and called the “Ed Sullivan Show” — you could do that in those days — to leave a message for Dwike, and they put him on the phone.

I told Dwike I was about to move to Israel, because I was offered a job playing in a symphony orchestra there. He asked me not to go, because we planned to start a duo together. He told me to bring my horn to the Ritz Ballroom in Bridgeport, where Lionel’s band was going to be playing, and said that if Lionel liked it, he might hire me. Lionel did hire me, and we stayed with his band for several months. In that summer of ‘55 we started the Mitchell-Ruff Duo, which lasted until Mitchell’s death four years ago.

What did you most enjoy about teaching at Yale?

I’ve loved the fact that I’ve been allowed to do anything I thought I wanted to do. The best musicians I’ve encountered in my life I met here: Paul Hindemith, Keith Wilson, who auditioned me at the School of Music when he was the band director, and many others.

I first arrived at Yale as a teacher in 1971, five years after the university had given Duke Ellington an honorary doctorate. I went to [then Yale president] Kingman Brewster and proposed we have a special event to honor Ellington and a list of 40 other luminaries of the African American music tradition. Brewster said it was a great idea but that there wasn’t enough money to do it. He asked me if I could raise the money for it. As it turns out, there was a new foundation that came into existence about that time called the Sachem Fund, and it paid for us to have all those great musicians [including Ellington, Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Roland Hayes, and William Warfield] come to campus in 1972 for a momentous, three-day affair. I got Ellington’s approval to use his name for an annual fellowship.

I have had great opportunities here.

You’ve made the passing on and nurturing of your musical heritage with younger generations a mission by bringing Duke Ellington Fellows to New Haven public schools for concerts and workshops. Why was this important to you? 

It’s important because that’s what teachers do. That’s what all my great teachers did. They were examples. [Composer, musician, and “Father of the Blues”] W.C. Handy is from my hometown. He came to my school when I was in second grade. He played his trumpet, and we sang spirituals.

He brought a message that day he visited my school. He told us how important it was to continue our education and hold up our heritage and our culture. He said that it’s not from royalty or from the highborn that music comes, but it is often from those who are the farthest down in society. He told us of our responsibility to treasure and honor our heritage and music. After he finished, all the children who were musically inclined were permitted to shake the hand of the man who wrote “St. Louis Blues.” I was never the same boy again. I had to be a teacher.

Any regrets about your career or time at Yale?

Charlie Parker didn’t ever come to Yale, and that broke my heart.

What’s next for you?

I’m moving back to Alabama, where I’ve long maintained a home.

I’m especially interested and very much indebted to the historical black colleges and universities of the south. Jock Reynolds, the director of our Yale University Art Gallery, was instrumental before he came here in a program called To Conserve a Legacy, which had as its focus the conservation of the African American art in the collections of these southern schools. I’ve got music and documentary material related to these collections. My ambition is to put a complete audio-visual system in my backpack and zoom around to the galleries to talk about the works in their musical and historical context. It’s show time!

What will you miss about being at Yale?

Old friends. I came here and had teachers who later became my colleagues. It’s a stimulating place and a wonderful place to have worked for 46 years. But I’m happy to be going back to the South, because the South is not the same place that I left. I wouldn’t be so attracted to my South if it had not changed.

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