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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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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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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Voices of American Music concert pays tribute to the Oral History of American Music project on its 40th anniversary

“…The world’s definitive archive of historical material on American music.”
– The New York Times

Vivian Perlis interviews Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein in Copland’s home.

The Yale School of Music presents Voices of American Music, a concert tribute to the legendary Oral History of American Music (OHAM) project at Yale. The concert will take place on Tuesday, April 6 at 8 pm in Sprague Hall (470 College Street, New Haven) as part of the Chamber Music Society at Yale.

The works of some of America’s most important composers will be heard in a rare program that joins music with footage from OHAM’s archives. Founded by Vivian Perlis, one of the foremost historians of American music, OHAM is dedicated to collecting and preserving audio and video memoirs of notable figures in American music. The musicologist H. Wiley Hitchcock called OHAM “an incomparable resource, the most extensive ongoing oral history project in America.”

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Published March 10, 2010
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