Soldier and Student
of Willie Ruff at age 16
Oakland Army Base, 1947
Willie Ruff was born on September 1, 1931 in Sheffield, Alabama; he grew up in Alabama, Mississippi, Michigan, and Indiana. It was the time of Jim Crow, the Great Depression, and World War II, so his childhood was not easy. His mother died when he was thirteen. But despite the manifold challenges he faced, young Willie showed an early aptitude music, initially as a drummer. His interest in music was inspired in part by W.C. Handy, who came from a town near Sheffield and had already achieved renown as the “Father of the Blues.” (To this day, Ruff retains strong ties to his birthplace. He returns to Alabama during most of his vacations.)
When Ruff was only fourteen, he joined the U.S. Army, because it offered opportunities that were not available to him anywhere else. Obviously he was not old enough, but he managed to evade the regulations, thanks to a sympathetic officer. It was in the Army that he learned to play the horn. A band director, Frank Ruffin, gave him his first lessons, and he eventually went on to study with Abe Kniaz of the Columbus Philharmonic, while stationed at the Lockbourne Army Air Force Base. At Lockbourne he also met his future collaborator, the pianist Dwike Mitchell, who got him started as a bass player.
Ruff also enjoyed photography; this photo of the young soldier is a self-portrait.
Members of the Yale Band
While Ruff was in the Army, he earned his high school equivalency diploma. After completing his military service, he wanted to continue his musical education. He considered several conservatories, but chose to apply to Yale at the recommendation of his teacher, Abe Kniaz, who was friends with Alvin Etler, the director of the Yale Band. Moreover, he had read an interview with Charlie Parker in which Parker admired Paul Hindemith and expressed an interest in studying with him. Ruff decided to do just that. Ruff’s sisters lived in New Haven, so it was familiar terrain.
At Yale, Ruff studied with Hindemith, Keith Wilson, and others. Even though he was enrolled in the School of Music (which still offered an undergraduate degree at that time), he made a point of also taking courses in other subjects, such as biology, physics, chemistry, economics, and accounting. He wanted to have a well-rounded education, in case his musical career did not pan out. Meanwhile, he performed in a variety of classical and jazz ensembles, on and off campus. In the photograph displayed here (an enlargement cropped from a much larger photo), he is seen with Yale Band.
“Benny Goodman Gives Abbreviated Concert Because of Showers”
New Haven Register
August 3, 1950
When Ruff was a student, the Yale Symphony Orchestra and the Yale Philharmonia did not yet exist, so he played horn in the New Haven Symphony Orchestra. In the summer of 1950, the NHSO collaborated with Benny Goodman and his trio in an outdoor concert.
Goodman’s pianist was Mel Powell. Powell had made his fame playing in Goodman’s band in the early 1940s. After serving in the Army and working in Hollywood for a short time, Powell enrolled at Yale, where he studied with Paul Hindemith and became friends with Ruff. So when Goodman visited New Haven, he naturally joined forces with his old collaborator Powell, who recommended Ruff to him. The audience must have been startled to see the young musician emerge from the horn section, pick up a bass, and play with Goodman and Powell, but the performance was a great success, and Ruff was singled out for praise in the New Haven Register. It was an important turning point in his career.
The Gilmore Music Library holds the papers of both Goodman and Powell.