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The Autobiography of a Musical Storyteller

by Willie Ruff

Pub Date: July 1st, 1991
ISBN: 0-670-83800-4
Publisher: Viking

 Compellingly well-told life and musical education of a jazz bassist/French-horn player who rose from rural Alabama poverty to being a world traveler, player with great jazz orchestras, and teacher at Yale. As a boy, Ruff lived midway between W.C. Handy's house and Helen Keller's, sang, played the piano and drums, and was inspired by a visit to his school by the great composer of ``St. Louis Blues.'' Ruff's mother taught him early not to let Jim Crow demean him. At 14, he lied about his age and joined the Army for the musical education it assured him on the G.I. Bill. In the Army, he met black career men who were musicians, and one, Pete Lewis, who taught him French horn. Lewis also awakened in him a lifelong love of black soldiers, who fought for this country from its beginnings and about whom Ruff turned up some ennobling but neglected research. Before the Army's desegregation policy was announced, he served at the all-black Lockbourne, Ohio, military post and there got into symphonic music and advanced horn-playing. Later, in 1949, he studied under Paul Hindemith at Yale, but decided against being a classical player and switched to jazz as a career, along with teaching. He played with Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, and Count Basie, and recorded with Miles Davis, who suggested he voice his French horn like a singer. Notably, he toured China, Russia, and Africa, played solo in St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice, and had the gift of a complex horn piece written for him by Duke Ellington's composer/arranger Billy Strayhorn in his last year. Ruff displays an affecting sense of mission in passing along his own education, and a lovely ear for jive talk. (Sixteen pages of b&w photographs--not seen.)