The Whole Drum Truth landed large last Thursday on Cross Campus. The group brought four legendary jazz drummers to Yale for a series of concerts sponsored by Willie Ruff’s Duke Ellington Fellowship and The School of Music. This is the latest presentation from the Duke Ellington Fellowships that most recently sponsored shows by Dave Brubeck, Elvin Jones, and The Yale Jazz Band.

In the tradition of these terrific Yale jazz events, the Whole Drum Truth brought Ben Riley, Albert “Tootie” Heath, Jackie Williams, and Ed Thigpen to Sprague Hall. No strangers to improvisation, they displayed a natural ability to adapt to the Ivy League landscape. Refusing to be boxed in by the percussive, all four drummers played with a strong sense of tone and melody. It was wonderfully strange to hear bass lines and melodic statements singing from the drum sets.

Mr. Ruff, Yale’s official jazz impresario, took a risk to bring this nontraditional four-drummer ensemble to New Haven. In an interview, he spoke emphatically.

“I was sticking my neck out and that’s my responsibility as a teacher. I saw this as a quintessential opportunity to teach rhythm, the most basic part of music, the most basic part of life,” Ruff said.

Mr. Ruff, who paid his way through Yale playing jazz on campus, has spent his life cultivating an audience for jazz at Yale and in New Haven. Forty years of experience with the Ellington Fellowship has given Ruff the confidence to know that The Whole Drum Truth could keep a crowd.

The Whole Drum Truth is made up of four master drummers who learned much from the jazz orishas of lore. These are the drummers that kept the beat for Coltrane, Thelonius and Ella. The band was also joined for an opening number with Mr. Ruff, an alumnus of the Miles Davis Band

Two days before the band was to take the stage at Sprague, they opened with a lunchtime Rosh Hashana set on Cross Campus. The group set up beside Maya Lynn’s fountain, forming a jazz drum circle at the center of Yale. Ruff introduced the band with his French horn, calling it a “shofar.” In his booming tenor, Ruff declared, “Behind me is a very old institution.”

The sound at the center of Yale was superb. Drums bursted gleefully between the stonewalls of Cross Campus. The band played with rare composure, drumming the history of jazz, with its roots reaching to Africa.

They played tunes by Dizzy and Duke, recognizable to few, appreciated by many. Much of the audience was formed from Cross-Campus lunch breakers who, in the tradition of beautiful accidents, “happened” upon the drums. And the drums happened upon them.

To end the set, Jackie Williams took a colossal solo with two mallets in each hand, digging deep and demolishing any fetters to his musical freedom.

Two nights later, Sprague Hall set the stage perfectly for these jazz legends. Morse Recital Hall, newly renovated and still sparkling, was packed for the performance. The full house was a clear mix of New Haven and Yale; old and young, black and white. It was amazing to see such support for four musicians whose names are unfamiliar to most people at Yale.

Therein lies the strength of the Ellington Fellowship. Much of the audience was unfamiliar with these jazz drummers, but they’d heard of Willie Ruff and had faith in the history of jazz at Yale.

This well-cultivated audience was treated to a whirlwind set that induced everything from Salt Peanuts to Nayabingi rhythms. Relishing in the shared spirit of improvisation, Sprague Hall gave The Whole Drum Truth a double standing-encore. At the behest of this democratic uproar, the band rocked the house with a virulent version of Bad to the Bone.

The show at Sprague was followed the next day by an interactive drumming class for New Haven public school students. The Ellington Fellowship is clearly dedicated to bringing jazz to the entire New Haven community.

After all these years, Mr. Ruff is a master at making musicians feel at home in New Haven. When asked if Yale’s reputation causes jazz musicians to be uncomfortable, Ruff responded with a smile, “Yale doesn’t scare anyone except the people who apply.”

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