Jazz musician, filmmaker and longtime Yalie Willie Ruff ’53 MUS ’54 returned to campus on Wednesday for the screenings of three short films he made decades ago.
The Yale Film Study Center used 16-mm film prints and digital files from its archive to screen Ruff’s films “Tony Williams in Africa” (1973), “The Soul of St. Simon’s Island, Georgia” (1981/2015) and “The Beginnings of Bebop” (1981).
Ruff retired in May 2017 after 46 years as a professor in the School of Music. During his time at Yale, Ruff founded and directed the Duke Ellington Fellowship Program, which supports the study of Afro-American music. Ruff also collaborated with other Yale faculty members to pursue interdisciplinary projects. With his longtime musical collaborator, pianist Dwike Mitchell, Ruff brought jazz to international audiences, such as those in the Soviet Union and China.
“He’s really a living legend,” said Brian Meacham, the Film Study Center’s archive and special collection manager. “And he’s also had this other career as a filmmaker, which was a really important part of his career as a musician and an educator.”
Ruff filmed “Tony Williams in Africa” on a trip to Senegal with acclaimed jazz drummer Tony Williams. There, Ruff and Williams investigated the history of the talking drum, which was banned by American slaveholders to prevent communication between drummers. Williams, a contemporary jazz drummer, played alongside Indigenous people in a scene of cross-cultural musical exploration. In another scene, Ruff watches the film in a classroom at Yale with New Haven school children. Meacham said that, during his time in New Haven, Ruff was a present member of the local community.
Ethan Dodd ’22, a member of the Yale Undergraduate Jazz Collective who attended the screening, said he particularly enjoyed “Tony Williams in Africa” for its cross-cultural elements.
“The Soul of St. Simon’s Island Georgia” tells a story of African-American singer and educator Bessie Jones. Ruff, along with jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie, documented Jones teaching children at St. Simon’s Island songs and games from the slave era that were passed down through her family.
According to Meacham, Wednesday was the “preservation premiere” of “The Beginnings of Bebop,” which takes the viewer on a guided tour of significant locations in the history of jazz. The preservation work for “The Beginnings of Bebop” lasted from November 2018 to September 2019, and included repairing the film print, matching the soundtrack to the pictures and “cleaning up” the audio.
Ruff shot the film in half a day upon his return to New York City after shooting “The Soul of St. Simon’s Island Georgia.” Led by Dizzy Gillespie, Ruff and his musical partner Dwike Mitchell visited Minton’s Playhouse, Carnegie Hall, the former site of the Savoy Ballroom and Miles Davis’s home.
Ruff said he is “overjoyed” that audiences will be able to see the films again, decades after their creation. According to Ruff, film is a critical part of music education, and he first began filmmaking in order to create teaching material for his music classes.
“If it hadn’t been for film, I wouldn’t have seen all the great orchestras of the world,” Ruff said.
According to Meacham, Ruff donated all of his original film material to the Film Study Center in 2017. Meacham said preserving and screening film prints is “incredibly important” to the Film Study Center, and it aims to screen premieres of newly-preserved films every year in its free public screening series “Treasures from the Yale Film Archive.”
“Sometimes it’s a bit of a mystery to try to reassemble these puzzles ­— but it’s always an interesting challenge,” Meacham said.
Ruff began teaching at Yale in 1971.