Willie Ruff

Willie Ruff
Born (1931-09-01) September 1, 1931
Genres Jazz
Occupation(s) Musician
Instruments French horn, double bass

Willie Ruff (born September 1, 1931) is an American jazz musician, specializing in the French horn and double bass.

Personal life

He was born in Sheffield, Alabama.

Ruff attended the Yale School of Music as an undergraduate (Bachelor of Music, 1953) and graduate student (Master of Music, 1954).[1]

Professional career


Ruff played in the Mitchell-Ruff Duo with pianist Dwike Mitchell for over 50 years. Mitchell and Ruff first met in 1947, when they were teenaged[2] servicemen stationed at the former Lockbourne Air Force Base in Ohio; Mitchell recruited Ruff to play bass with his unit band for an Air Force radio program.[2] Mitchell and Ruff later played in Lionel Hampton's band but left in 1955 to form their own group.[2] Together as the Mitchell-Ruff Duo, they played as "second act" to artists such as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Dizzy Gillespie.[2] From 1955 to 2011,[3] the duo regularly performed and lectured in the United States, Asia, Africa, and Europe. The Mitchell-Ruff Duo was the first jazz band to play in the Soviet Union (1959) and in China (1981).[4] Mitchell died in 2013.[3]

In 1967, Ruff was chosen by John Hammond to be the bass player for the recording sessions of Songs of Leonard Cohen. During those sessions, he and Cohen laid down the bed tracks for most of the songs on the album.

He is one of the founders of the W. C. Handy Music Festival in Florence, Alabama.[5] The first festival was held in 1982.[6]


Ruff has been a faculty member at the Yale School of Music since 1971, teaching music history, ethnomusicology, and arranging.[7] Ruff's classes at Yale, often with partner Dwike Mitchell, were free-flowing jam sessions: roller-coaster rides through the colors of American Improvisational Music. The duo could play in the style of most notable jazz artists and related styles. They had a large repertoire.

He is founding Director of the Duke Ellington Fellowship Program at Yale, a community-based organization sponsoring artists mentoring and performing with Yale students and young musicians from the New Haven Public School System. The program was founded in 1972[8] as a "Conservatory Without Walls"[8] to "'capture the essence and spirit' of the tradition of African-American music".[8] By its 30th anniversary in 2002, the program had reached an estimated 180,000 students in New Haven schools.[9]

In 1976-1977, he held a visiting appointment at Duke University, where he oversaw the jazz program and directed the Duke Jazz Ensemble.

Ruff has also been on faculty at UCLA and Dartmouth.[4]


He is a 1994 inductee of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame.[10]

Ruff received the Connecticut Governor's Arts Award in 2000 for his work with the Duke Ellington Fellowship Program.[4]

Ruff was awarded with the Sanford Medal in May 2013. The Sanford Medal is the highest honor from Yale University's School of Music.[1]


Ruff is known for uncovering links between traditional black gospel music and unaccompanied psalm singing. Ruff's theory is that the Scottish Presbyterian practice of lining out – in which a precentor read or chanted a line of the psalm, which was then sung by the congregation – led to the call and response form of black gospel music.[11] Ruff co-created the documentary "A Conjoining of Ancient Song", which focuses on a rapidly vanishing form of congregational singing that is shared by Scottish, African American, and Native American music.[12] It received its world premiere screening at Yale in 2013.[13] Ruff's work in this area is also a subject of Sterlin Harjo's 2014 documentary film, This May Be the Last Time.[14]

He has written about classical composer Paul Hindemith, who was one of his teachers at Yale, and about his professional experiences with jazz composers Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.[7]

In 1992, Ruff published his memoir, titled A Call to Assembly: The Autobiography of a Musical Storyteller. The autobiography was hailed as "an unmitigated delight"[15] and was awarded the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award.[1]


With the Mitchell-Ruff Duo

As sideman

With Clifford Coulter

With Miles Davis

With Gil Evans

With Benny Golson

With Bobby Hutcherson

With Milt Jackson

With Lalo Schifrin

With Jimmy Smith

With Sonny Stitt

With Leonard Cohen



  1. 1 2 3 "Willie Ruff receives Sanford Medal". Yale School of Music, Yale University. May 24, 2013.
  2. 1 2 3 4 "The Mitchell Ruff Duo — "enduring magic"". Willie Ruff. May 5, 2012.
  3. 1 2 Vitello, Paul (April 18, 2013). "Dwike Mitchell, Zealous Jazz Pianist, Dies at 83". The New York Times.
  4. 1 2 3 "Musicology and Theory: Willie Ruff". Faculty. Yale School of Music, Yale University. Retrieved February 27, 2015.
  5. "History - William Christopher Handy (1873-1958) "Father of the Blues"". The Official site of the W.C. Handy Music Festival. Music Preservation Society.
  6. "FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)". The Official site of the W.C. Handy Music Festival. Music Preservation Society.
  7. 1 2 "Willie Ruff: Horn, Bass, Author, member of the Mitchell Ruff Duo". Willie Ruff. May 5, 2012.
  8. 1 2 3 "In Focus: Duke Ellington Fellowship". Yale Bulletin & Calendar. Yale University. 31 (7). October 18, 2002.
  9. Stollwerk, Alissa (October 28, 2002). "Duke Ellington Fellowship celebrates 30 years with jazz". Yale Daily News.
  10. "Inductees". Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. November 6, 2014.
  11. McCutcheon, Chuck (21 April 2007). "Indian, Black Gospel and Scottish Singing Form an Unusual Musical Bridge". Washington Post. Retrieved 14 December 2013.
  12. "Special documentary to be shown". Stillwater NewsPress. 24 March 2007. Retrieved 24 July 2012.
  13. "A Conjoining of Ancient Song: A World Premiere Screening" (Press release). Yale School of Music, Yale University. April 20, 2013.
  14. Shannon, Susan (November 17, 2014). "Muscogee Creek Hymns Influenced By Congregational Line Singing?". KGOU. Retrieved 2015-10-09.
  15. Nolan, Tom (August 25, 1991). "A Diamond in the Ruff : A CALL TO ASSEMBLY: The Autobiography of a Musical Storyteller By Willie Ruff ; (Viking: $24.95; 432 pp.)". Los Angeles Times.
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