Ruff the Impresario
Duke Ellington Fellowship
(“The Conservatory without Walls”)
Ruff received his Bachelor’s degree from Yale in 1953, and his Master’s in 1954. He hoped for a horn job in a major American orchestra, but none of them wanted to hire a black musician. Finally he won an audition for the Israel Philharmonic, but before he had a chance to move to Tel Aviv, he saw his old friend Dwike Mitchell on the Ed Sullivan Show, called him, and soon had an invitation to join Lionel Hampton’s band.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Ruff performed regularly—with Mitchell, with Hampton, and a wide variety of other musicians. He also became an impresario, as the owner of the Playback, a New Haven nightclub that hired many notable musicians (including an as-yet little known teenager named Aretha Franklin).
In 1971 he was appointed to the faculty of the Yale School of Music. The new professor did not restrict his activities to the classroom and the concert stage; he soon managed to establish an endowed program named after Duke Ellington. Under its auspices, Ruff brought a dazzling array of great performers to New Haven, including Ellington himself, Eubie Blake, Mary Lou Williams, Willie (the Lion) Smith, Slam Stewart, Charles Mingus, Benny Carter, and Odetta. Kingman Brewster, President of Yale, awarded medals to thirty of them. Famous jazz musicians performed and taught not only at Yale, but also in the New Haven public schools.
International Conference on Line Singing
April 19–20, 2007
“Line Singing” is a venerable type of church music in which each line of a psalm is intoned by one singer, and then sung in elaborated form by the congregation. Ruff discovered that the same technique is still practiced in a remarkably diverse group of churches, including black, white, and Native American churches in the United States as well as churches in Scotland. He organized international conferences in 2005 and 2007, which brought together church members and scholars from around the world. Ruff and Gretchen Berland (a professor at Yale Medical School, and a horn player herself) produced a documentary film on the subject entitled A Conjoining of Ancient Song.