Willie Ruff retires having given “conservatory without walls” a home at Yale

By Lucile Bruce

Willie Ruff

Willie Ruff was born in 1931 in Sheffield, Alabama, a rural town on the south side of the Tennessee River. As a child, he showed an aptitude for music and immersed himself in the musical resources of his community. A neighborhood boy shared his drum set with young Willie and they became lifelong friends. The pianist at church became his piano teacher. But the best music he heard was the drumming in the African Pentecostal church half a block from his house. “We would sit on the ground outside the church and listen to the people playing those drums,” Ruff recalled. “It was the most exciting, the most moving music. I heard them in my sleep.”

Across the river from Sheffield stands Florence, the hometown of W.C. Handy, the “Father of the Blues.” Handy visited Ruff ’s elementary school classroom, played for the children, and accompanied their singing. “W.C. Handy was a big presence in my world,” Ruff recounted. “When I saw him on stage in my school, talking about the importance of our musical heritage, I said, ‘I want to do that.’ I think I have.” MORE

Published May 1, 2017
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Dean Robert Blocker Announces YSM Jazz Initiative

blockerI am pleased to announce that an anonymous gift will enable the School of Music to continue and expand its legacy of jazz studies at Yale. This initiative will also strengthen our collaborative efforts with the Yale College Dean’s Office and the Department of Music, as well as the New Haven community.

Professor Thomas C. Duffy has accepted the responsibility of administrative oversight for this initiative. As we announced in April, the Yale Jazz Ensemble, which had to be suspended two years ago due to a lack of qualified players and adequate rehearsal space, will be reconstituted this fall under Tom’s direction. The School of Music has provided modest support for the Yale Jazz Ensemble through the years, though it had until now been an extracurricular undergraduate organization. Going forward, the group will be open to all Yale students. Tom will announce auditions in the near future.

Other aspects of this initiative include an improvisation course that will be taught by Grammy Award-winning jazz saxophonist Wayne Escoffery. Undergraduate jazz combos will be auditioned and coached by professional jazz artists, including Mr. Escoffery. We are currently in conversations with some of these individuals and will announce their names when appointments are finalized. Additionally, distinguished saxophonist Carrie Koffman will teach private lessons in saxophone. These new colleagues will help us build on the School’s rich history of jazz education, which began nearly fifty years ago. MORE

Published July 29, 2016
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[ in the press ]

The Duke, Dizzy & Eubie return to Yale in film, jazz event Friday

Conservatory-vNew Haven Register | By Joe Amarante

Willie Ruff, the music faculty member at Yale who was playing jazz with the greats back when there were dance halls in many towns, is jazzed up about Friday’s event at Morse Recital Hall that will pair a TV documentary with a live performance.

The 7:30 p.m. event, titled “Conservatory Without Walls,” begins with a “lost” video documentary originally created by WTIC-TV in Hartford, later to become WFSB-3. After intermission, 11-year-old drum prodigy Kojo Odu Roney will take the stage with the Antoine Roney Trio: saxophonist Antoine Roney (Kojo’s father), guitarist Billy “Spaceman” Patterson and bassist Rashaan Carter.

“I just learned of the existence of (the documentary),” said Ruff in a phone chat. “Actually, it was two half-hour shows that John Sablon and Brad Davis (had done).”

Ruff, 84, said there was a constellation of jazz stars at the event, which he organized in 1972 and led to the Ellington Jazz Series that includes this event.

“It was Duke Ellington and his whole orchestra, and 39 other people — Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Ray Brown, Slam Stewart, Cootie Williams,” said Ruff. “It was 40 individuals being honored by the university with an Ellington medal. And they stayed on the campus here; actually, the events on campus lasted three days…”

Ruff said the TV station’s crew was bowled over by the talent present.

“They were overwhelmed by all those people assembled. So while Duke’s band or Eubie Blake … was playing on the stage at Woolsey Hall, they had cameras on them and cameras downstairs in the dressing room, where they were interviewing Dizzy Gillespie and Stanley Dance, the (jazz) journalist.”

Ruff and organizers had been forbidden from making a documentary for copyright reasons, but “you can’t copyright the news, so these two TV men working together and separately made a half-hour show and they had so much material left that they made another half-hour show.”

Ruff said the 1972 videotape was discovered by an archivist recently, but there was “hardly anything you could play it on.” So Yale’s Film Study Center sent the material to a California company to digitize it. And folks there were too young to know who was in the film, so Ruff was called in to help out, and he discovered a bit of lost treasure.

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Published May 16, 2016
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[ concerts ]

“Conservatory Without Walls” on May 13 Celebrates Ellington Jazz Series

Conservatory-v

Pictured: Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, and Willie Ruff

The Ellington Jazz Series at the Yale School of Music pays homage to its history on Friday, May 13 with an event titled “Conservatory Without Walls.” The event, which takes place at 7:30pm in Morse Recital Hall, pairs documentary film with an exciting live performance.

The first half of the event presents the film Conservatory Without Walls, a documentary originally created by WTIC Hartford about the eponymous event that Willie Ruff organized at Yale in 1972. That convocation of forty jazz legends directly led to the founding of the Ellington Jazz Series.

The 40-minute video, preserved by the Yale Film Study Center, includes interviews with figures such as Dizzy Gillespie and archival material of Duke Ellington — including clips of Willie Ruff playing bass with Ellington at the piano.

After intermission, eleven-year-old drum prodigy Kojo Odu Roney takes the stage with the Antoine Roney Trio: saxophonist Antoine Roney (Kojo’s father), guitarist Billy “Spaceman” Patterson, and bassist Rashaan Carter.

Willie Ruff, YSM faculty and the artistic director of the Ellington Jazz Series and the curator of this event, sees this evening in two lights: simultaneously portraying the legends of decades past, and introducing a young legend in the making, young drummer Kojo Odu Roney. This will be the last event of the 2015–2016 Ellington Jazz Series.

Tickets to this extraordinary event are only $10, $5 with student ID, and can be purchased from the Yale School of Music box office (470 College Street, New Haven), by phone at 203 432-4158, and online.

WATCH VIDEO OF KOJO

BUY TICKETS

Published May 2, 2016
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