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WNPR: Willie Ruff Uses Cinema Skills to Intro Pianist Aaron Diehl’s Trio Set at Yale

Willie RuffWNPR | By Owen McNally

Relaxing in a cozy recliner back home in Columbus, Ohio, the nonagenarian trombonist Arthur Baskerville can, through the miracle of live streaming, sit back on Friday night and watch his brilliant, young grandson, the phenomenal pianist Aaron Diehl, perform with his trio in New Haven, more than 600 miles away, at Yale’s prestigious Ellington Jazz Series.

This mix of high-tech delivery and comfortable domesticity is made possible by the ingenious Willie Ruff, the founder and director of Yale’s Ellington Fellowship program.

An eminent historian, memoirist, ethnomusicologist, linguist, double bassist, and French horn player, Ruff loves to promote and preserve jazz history through his legerdemain with the cinematic and digital material he employs in lectures and talks in Yale classrooms, museums, other college campuses, and varied venues around the country.

In the polymath professor’s latest use of technology, he has woven together a compelling, ten-minute cinematic memoir that opens the concert at 7:30 pm on Friday, March 6, serving as a highly original intro for the program entitled, “The American Jazz Century: The Tuskegee Airmen, Yardbird Parker, and the Blues.”

Featuring a series of vintage stills and clips of live footage, Ruff’s piece unwinds sequentially with illustrated highlights of his life, touching on the influence of everyone from W.C. Handy to Charlie Parker.

Aaron Diehl, piano

It leads right up to the moment when all the archival images fade to black and Diehl, in-the-flesh, and his two sidemen kick into the opening bars of their set. A virtuosic master of the jazz piano tradition, Diehl will be ready to hit at Yale’s Sprague Hall when Ruff’s jazz and history-drenched film finishes its zoom over eight decades of our cultural history.

At one key point, the film focuses on young Ruff’s life-shaping experience in his mid-teens after World War II as a member of the elite corps of musicians who served in the military band in the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, the all-black air force unit, which was stationed at Lockbourne Air Force Base, just outside of Columbus, Ohio. This was in the mid-40s when the US military was racially segregated, still saluting the Jim Crow laws that made African-Americans -- even war heroes -- third-class citizens at best.

Despite the legal sanctions of racism at that time, everything about Lockbourne was first class, Ruff said. Especially its rich, diverse talent pool of the best and the brightest, an inspiring display of brain power that taught the ninth-grade dropout about the value of learning all you can about everything.

Among Ruff’s fellow band members and close friends at Lockbourne were Dwike Mitchell (years later his co-partner pianist in the famous, globetrotting Mitchell/Ruff Duo); drummer Elvin Jones, and a then fiercely playing young trombonist and pianist named Arthur Baskerville, the future grandfather and earliest mentor for pianist Aaron Diehl, the acclaimed headliner for Friday night’s concert.