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
Share This Comments

[ events ]

Roy Haynes receives Ellington Medal

roy-haynes-ellington-medal

Roy Haynes. Photo by Jaleel Shaw.

Legendary jazz drummer Roy Haynes was awarded the Ellington Medal last Friday, November 8. Willie Ruff, the director of the Ellington Fellowship at Yale, conferred the medal at a concert featuring Haynes and his Fountain of Youth Band.

In 1972, Yale President Kingman Brewster presented the first Ellington Medals to thirty jazz greats, including the Duke himself. That year marked the beginning of a series of extraordinary jazz concerts performed by a virtual Who’s Who of jazz: Eubie Blake, Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, Odetta, Joe Williams, Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Sonny Greer, Jo Jones, Max Roach, Ray Brown, Charlie Mingus, and Dizzy Gillespie, among others.

Ruff said, “It was thrilling to present to him the same Ellington medal that forty years ago was given to Sonny Greer, Papa Jo Jones, Kenney Clarke, and Max Roach: all his heroes and mine.” MORE

Published November 15, 2013
Share This Comments

Lou Donaldson receives Ellington Medal

Lou Donaldson, the legendary saxophonist and recently named NEA Jazz Master, was awarded an Ellington Medal last Friday, October 5. Willie Ruff, the director of the Ellington Fellowship at Yale, conferred the medal during a concert featuring Donaldson and his quartet.

The concert, which took place in Morse Recital Hall, was the second event of the 2012–13 season of the Ellington Jazz Series at Yale. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the concert series.

In 1972, Yale President Kingman Brewster presented the first Ellington Medals to thirty jazz greats, including the Duke himself. That year marked the beginning of a series of extraordinary jazz concerts performed by a virtual Who’s Who of jazz: Eubie Blake, Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, Odetta, Joe Williams, Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Sonny Greer, Jo Jones, Max Roach, Ray Brown, Charlie Mingus, and Dizzy Gillespie, to name just a few.

Since then, the Duke Ellington Fellowship has brought the giants of jazz to Yale’s concert halls and to the city’s public schools. Ellington Medal recipients in recent years have included Frank Wess, the Heath brothers, and James Moody.

The NEA’s biography of Donaldson reads, in part: “When it comes to a jazzy soulful groove, it doesn’t get much groovier than Lou Donaldson. His distinctive blues-drenched alto has been a bopping force in jazz for more than six decades. MORE

Published October 8, 2012
Share This Comments