Born in Alabama in 1931, Willie Ruff joined the Army at the age of fourteen, and received valuable musical training there. It was also in the Army that he met the brilliant pianist Dwike Mitchell (1930–2013), who would become his most important musical collaborator. Following his discharge, Ruff attended Yale, where he studied with Keith Wilson and Paul Hindemith and played in the New Haven Symphony. He received his Bachelor of Music degree in 1953, and his Master’s in 1954. He went on to perform with Lionel Hampton and a host of other leading jazz musicians, but he is best known as half of the Mitchell-Ruff Duo, which won acclaim throughout the United States and around the world. Among their many concert tours, two of the most notable were their path-breaking trips to the Soviet Union in 1959 and to China in 1981.