Willie Ruff, In His Own Words
I first heard of Willie Ruff in the mid 1980s when a casual friend gave me a cassette tape of Mr. Ruff playing Gregorian Chant at the Basilica of St. Luke's in Venice. It was not until years later that I ran across his autobiography, “A Call to Assembly.” Ever since then, I've wanted to know more about him. Over the years, I've collected most of his recordings, but have until now never had the opportunity to actually speak with him. I give credit to a snowy day in Connecticut that I finally got the interview I've dreamed about.
Mr. Ruff's reply to my email read: “Mr. Baker, thank you for your inquiry. We are snowed in in Connecticut, so it is a good time for a radio interview. Can you call me today at 4:00 E.S.T?”
I wasted no time sending off a confirmation. The timing couldn't be better. We are in the midst of Black History Month and 2015 is the centenary year of celebration for Billy Strayhorn (born November 29, 1915). In truth, I would have been just as excited to do this interview on Christmas Day, or the Fourth of July. It's that important to me!
Willie Ruff found his musical calling early on, as he was growing up in Sheffield, Alabama. As he describes it, “a white boy lived across the street from me, named Mutt McCord, and he was quite a drummer. He used to set up his equipment on the lawn in front of his house and play along with recordings of Count Basie. That just convinced me there was nothing in the world better than doing what I was hearing from him in his front yard. So when I got to the army, I could play boogie-woogie on the piano and I could read drum music at a rather rudimentary level.”
From this beginning, and despite the death of his mother when Willie was only 13 years old, he went into the military, forging his father's signature on the permission form and further concealing the fact he was only 14 years old. He found himself eventually at Lockbourne Air Base, near Columbus, Ohio. It was here he met a pianist, slightly older than him, who taught him to play double bass. That pianist was Dwike Mitchell, who became his professional partner until Mitchell's death in 2013. The Mitchell-Ruff Duo featured Ruff as both a bass player and a French hornist. I know of no other such ensemble, especially one with the credentials and talent of Mitchell and Ruff.
My interview with Willie Ruff covered his early background, then touched upon the advice he got from his horn teacher, Abe Kniaz, and the conductor Erich Leinsdorf, that as a black man he should not count on getting work as a classical orchestra player. Remember, this was still in the mid-50s, and despite his Masters Degree from Yale University. We then talked about his friendship with both Duke Ellington and Ellington's quiet alter-ego, Billy Strayhorn. In addition to writing songs like “Lush Life” and “Take the A Train,” Strayhorn wrote a four-movement “Suite for Horn and Piano,” over the course of his final days and weeks, for the Mitchell-Ruff Duo.
Then there was Willie Ruff's decision to go to Yale to study with Paul Hindemith. In 1949, he read an interview with Charlie “Bird” Parker in Downbeat magazine. The interviewer asked Bird, if he had his choice of doing anything, what would it be?
Willie was particularly struck with Bird's answer: “There's a musician that I admire, I like all of his recordings, I've even read some of what he has written, and his name is Paul Hindemith; he's teaching composition at Yale, and if I had my wishes, if my dreams could come true, I would go there, sit at his feet, and learn me some music.”
Continued Willie: “It doesn't matter that I had never heard of this cat, I didn't even know how to pronounce his name, but if he's good enough for Charlie Parker to want to come and sit at his feet, that's good enough for me.”
Beginning tonight, February 20th, and continuing for the next two Friday evenings, selections from this 45 minute Willie Ruff interview can be heard on KPAC's Classics a la Carte. The program airs weekly, Fridays, from 7-9 PM. Mr. Ruff's colorful conversation will be illustrated with music by Billy Strayhorn, George Gershwin, and Paul Hindemith, plus Gregorian Chant and Spirituals which Mr. Ruff recorded at St. Luke's basilica, in Venice, in 1984.