Yale School of Music professor Willie Ruff ’53 YSM ’54 was presented with the C. Newton Schenck III Award for Lifetime Achievement award at the Arts Council of Greater New Haven Friday.
Arts Council Executive Director Cindy Clair said Ruff’s national prominence as a jazz figure, his lengthy teaching career and his work with the Duke Ellington Fellowship program — an initiative that brings world-renowned jazz musicians to Yale and New Haven Public Schools -— made him an excellent candidate for the award at the Arts Council’s annual Art Awards Luncheon this past weekend.
Ruff, who played the French horn and double bass alongside pianist Dwight Mitchell for more than 50 years, accompanied Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie and other world-famous jazz musicians throughout his roughly 60-year career. But despite rubbing shoulders with the biggest names in jazz and being a leader in the genre, Ruff, who joined the Yale faculty in 1971, remains down-to-earth and high spirited.
“[Teaching], well that’s what I do for fun anyways,” Ruff said with a laugh in an interview with the News. “I don’t know what I’ll do when I grow up.”
Ruff’s music career began in Alabama, where he was raised studying the drums under the guidance of an older boy in his neighborhood. When Ruff’s mentor was drafted for World War II, Ruff was left with the boy’s drum set and a thirst to join the war effort. Ruff lied about his age to enlist in the armed forces, eventually becoming a sergeant at the Lockbourne Air Force Base, which is famous for housing the famed African-American military pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
Ruff hoped to play drums for the military band. But being young and inexperienced, he was passed over for the position.
“I got fired,” Ruff said. “I found out that I could stay in the band if I learned to play an instrument nobody else wanted to play, which was the French horn. So I did.”
Ruff said he chose to come to Yale after the war because he heard that his idol, acclaimed jazz musician Charlie Parker, once mentioned in passing that he would have liked to attend Yale. Ruff said his matriculation at Yale, an honor he shared with a fellow lieutenant from his air base, was a victory for African-Americans.
“We elevated the population of our race by 20 percent,” he said. “If you do the math, you will know how many of us were around [before].”
Ruff’s career took off shortly after. He said he and Mitchell were awarded the opportunity to play with many of the greatest jazz musicians of the day because he and Mitchell were the cheapest act to hire.
Ruff travelled with the Yale Russian Chorus to the Soviet Union in 1959, the height of the Cold War, and learned Mandarin in the 1980s so he could give talks during his jazz tour in China. Ruff has also influenced musicians in the Elm City. Jonny Allen YSM ’14 said he played for Ruff once before, and a compliment Ruff gave him has stayed with him until today. Ruff said his “crowning good fortune” was the establishment of the Duke Ellington Fellowship in 1972. Ruff convinced then-University President Kingman Brewster, to honor the contributions of 40 African-American musicians in a ceremony. Jazz artists Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Marian Anderson and many others came to Yale from across the country for this ceremony. The program, now in its 43rd year, continues to bring successful jazz artists to Yale and New Haven public schools.
Though Yale does not have a performance degree in jazz, Deputy Dean of the School of Music Melvin Chen said his faculty consider jazz a very important part of classical music and music in general.
“There is no doubt that it is the indigenous American music … It is important that [students] get an education on jazz and its importance in American music,” Chen said.
Ruff said much has changed since he was a student at Yale. Though jazz is still around, he said college students no longer know how to dance.
He also said racial dynamics have much improved since the 1950s.
“Nothing today compares to the paucity of minority students on campus when I first arrived,” he said. “Change is among us, it’s really a part of who we are, and the best part is yet to come.”
The Duke Ellington Fellowship program earned Ruff the Connecticut Governor’s Art Award in 2000.