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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Alumnus Jeff Fuller joins YSM Jazz Initiative

Jeff Fuller | Photo by Studio Duda Photography

Jeff Fuller | Photo by Studio Duda Photography

Bassist and composer Jeff Fuller ’67BA ’69MM is joining the Yale School of Music’s recently announced Jazz Initiative as an ensemble coach. He’ll work alongside Grammy Award-winning saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, who will teach a course in improvisation and coach jazz combos.

As a performer, Fuller has worked with such acclaimed jazz artists as Mose Allison, Dizzy Gillespie, “Papa” Jo Jones, Gerry Mulligan, and Clark Terry, among others. He’s a leader of the New Haven-based Brazilian jazz trio Sambeleza, has toured with ensembles led by Paquito D’Rivera and Hilton Ruiz, and has composed and arranged music for the salsa band Irazú, whose recordings have featured Arturo Sandoval and Tata Güines. Fuller has received commissions from the New Haven Symphony Orchestra and Hartford Symphony Orchestra and has had his music recorded by the Haven String Quartet. His first CD of original music, The Call from Within, was released in 2014. His second, Shoreline Blues, came out in May 2016.

Fuller, who studied composition at the Yale School of Music with Bülent Arel, taught composition and jazz theory and conducted jazz ensembles at ACES Educational Center for the Arts for many years. He currently teaches and leads the Premiere Jazz Ensemble at Neighborhood Music School.

Professor Thomas C. Duffy who directs the University’s bands and oversees the YSM Jazz Initiative, said Fuller brings to the program “expertise with combos, big bands, Latin jazz, and traditional jazz” and expertise in Cuban and Brazilian rhythms. Fuller has been “a major figure in the jazz scene since I arrived here in 1982,” Duffy said.

A key component of the Initiative is the Yale Jazz Ensemble, which is being reconstituted after being suspended two years ago. Formerly an extracurricular undergraduate organization, the Yale Jazz Ensemble, under Duffy’s direction, will be open to all Yale students. MORE

Published August 31, 2016
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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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“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

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Published May 2, 2016
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Ellington Series presents Piano Jazz Summit March 4

piano-jazz-hThe Ellington Jazz Series at the Yale School of Music presents the Piano Jazz Summit,  Friday, March 4 at 7:30 pm. The concert features three of the jazz world’s great pianists: Barry Harris, Toshiko Akiyoshi, and Aaron Diehl

The program will feature the pianists playing alone, and together as a trio, as well as speaking about their lives as performers and their relationship to jazz. The audience can also look forward to a special live video projection of the keyboard, offering the a bird’s-eye view of the pianists’ hands. Willie Ruff, artistic director of the Ellington Jazz Series, calls this concert “a rare opportunity to hear three master pianists.”

The concert takes place at Morse Recital Hall in Sprague Hall (470 College Street, New Haven). Tickets start at $20, $10 with student ID. Purchase online, call 203 432-4158, or visit the box office at 470 College Street.
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Published February 19, 2016
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Guilford’s New Duke to jazz it up at New Haven’s Sprague Hall

newdukeNew Haven Register | By Lisa Reisman

NEW HAVEN >> Abstract. Avant garde. Impenetrable.

It’s how a lot of people view jazz. And Guilford musician Brian Torff wants to change that.

Torff is the musical director and arranger for New Duke, an accomplished eight-piece band that infuses the work of legendary composer, bandleader and pianist Duke Ellington into funk, hip-hop, rock, reggae and other contemporary sounds. The ensemble will be performing at Yale’s Morse Recital Hall in Sprague Hall on the evening of Friday, Dec. 4 in a concert presented by the Yale School of Music.

“Duke’s blend of melodies, rhythms, and sonic movements gave audiences a new experience—complex yet accessible jazz that made the heart swing,” said Torff, a bassist whose musical chops have taken him to Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and the Kennedy Center, in a telephone interview. “You can’t replicate his music, but you can build on it in new ways, and that’s what we try to do.” MORE

Published December 3, 2015
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New Duke reinterprets the music of Duke Ellington Dec. 4

newdukeThe Yale School of Music’s Ellington Jazz Series presents the ensemble New Duke on Friday, December 4 at 7:30 pm.

An exciting eight-piece ensemble that brings the music of Duke Ellington alive in a contemporary way, New Duke combines the power of Ellington’s music with the grooves of jazz, hip-hop, and rock.

Compositions and arrangements are written by bassist and musical director Brian Torff. “You can’t re-create Duke’s incredible music,” says Torff, but you can build on it in new ways, just as he always did.”

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Published November 17, 2015
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Javon Jackson and We Four celebrate John Coltrane Oct. 30

Jackson, javonThe Ellington Jazz Series at the Yale School of Music presents saxophonist Javon Jackson with We Four on Friday, October 30 at 7:30 pm.

The concert features Saxophonist Javon Jackson, with drummer Jimmy Cobb, pianist George Cables, and bassist Peter Washington in an original project highlighting the music of saxophonist and composer John Coltrane.

We Four is a multi-generational group of notable New York jazz musicians, all of whom feel a connection to Coltrane. The concert will include some of Coltrane’s most beloved tunes as well as  original material inspired by Coltrane. MORE

Published October 15, 2015
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Christian McBride Trio opens the Yale jazz season Oct. 2

Christian McBride Trio. Photo by Chi Modu

Christian McBride Trio. Photo by Chi Modu

The Ellington Jazz Series at the Yale School of Music presents the four-time Grammy Award-winning bassist Christian McBride with his trio on Friday, October 2 at 7:30 pm.

McBride will play with Christian Sands, piano, and Jerome Jennings, drums. Sands, a native of the Greater New Haven area, is a local favorite.

“It’s a pretty diversified trio,” McBride says. “The real core foundation is hardcore swingin’, blues, and the American songbook.” MORE

Published September 21, 2015
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