From looking around at the worn faces in the room and the cordial greetings between audience members and performer, it was clear that School of Music professor Willie Ruff’s Tercentennial lecture on the history of the bass fiddle was an insider’s event.
Uniting the 300-year history of Yale with the history of gospel, blues, jazz and Latin music, Ruff gradually progressed from the podium to the bass fiddle to the French horn in a packed Sterling Memorial Library lecture hall Saturday afternoon.
Ruff entertained the crowd with solo versions of “Amazing Grace” and “Go Down Moses” before playing a duo version of “Malaguena,” a song usually reserved for solo classical performance on the piano. Accompanying Ruff on the piano was jazz pianist Dwike Mitchell, who has formed the group known as “The Duo” with Ruff for over three decades.
While entertaining the crowd’s wishes for one final piece, Ruff summed up the emotions in the room.
“Shoot me while I’m happy,” Ruff said with his eyes closed and his body bouncing to the swinging beat of “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”
The real magic came during Ruff’s solo in “Malaguena.” While blasting notes on the French horn, Ruff approached the piano and let the notes from the horn reverberate in the strings of the piano, creating both harmony and melody through the interaction of the horn and the piano.
For Anita Kawatra ’88, Ruff’s lecture provided an insight into a part of Yale that she felt she had missed out on while she was here as a student.
“I had always associated music at Yale with the Bach Society or the [Yale] Symphony Orchestra,” Kawatra said. “I had never heard jazz at Yale, and I thought it would be interesting to hear someone at Yale talk about it and play it.”
Ruff recently visited Cuba to pay homage to the 24th and 25th Infantry as well as the 10th Cavalry, all of which were composed of African-American soldiers involved in the capture of San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War.
Ruff began the lecture describing the time when W.C. Handy, who is considered the father of the blues, visited his elementary school. Ruff then proceeded to use the open strings of the bass to demonstrate the instrument’s use in the congregations of New England where Abraham Prescott crafted the first bass in America.
In a weekend where big names in popular culture like Garry Trudeau ’70 and George H.W. Bush ’48 were the headliners, Bob Dewar GRD ’77 chose Ruff’s lecture as an alternative to the political and economic sessions.
“[Ruff’s lecture] struck my fancy as something different,” Dewar said.
Throughout the lecture, Ruff’s enthusiasm never waned.
Whether it was an open-string bass performance of “Amazing Grace” with his own vocal accompaniment or the finale of “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” Ruff had the whole audience waiting for his next move.
But perhaps the most endearing aspect of the lecture was Ruff’s self-deprecating humor that flowed in and out of the lecture as smoothly as his bass lines.
“[Mitchell] made me the man I am today, and I forgive him for that,” Ruff joked while talking about Mitchell’s role as his early jazz mentor.