Willie Ruff (born September 1, 1931) is an American jazz musician, specializing in the French horn and double bass.
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).
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 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. Mitchell and Ruff later played in Lionel Hampton's band but left in 1955 to form their own group. Together as the Mitchell-Ruff Duo, they played as "second act" to artists such as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Dizzy Gillespie. From 1955 to 2011, 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). Mitchell died in 2013.
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. The first festival was held in 1982.
Ruff has been a faculty member at the Yale School of Music since 1971, teaching music history, ethnomusicology, and arranging. 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 as a "Conservatory Without Walls" to "'capture the essence and spirit' of the tradition of African-American music". By its 30th anniversary in 2002, the program had reached an estimated 180,000 students in New Haven schools.
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.
He is a 1994 inductee of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame.
Ruff received the Connecticut Governor's Arts Award in 2000 for his work with the Duke Ellington Fellowship Program.
Ruff was awarded with the Sanford Medal in May 2013. The Sanford Medal is the highest honor from Yale University's School of Music.
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. 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. It received its world premiere screening at Yale in 2013. Ruff's work in this area is also a subject of Sterlin Harjo's 2014 documentary film, This May Be the Last Time.
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.
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" and was awarded the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award.
With the Mitchell-Ruff Duo
- The Mitchell-Ruff Duo: Campus Concert (Epic, 1956)
- The Mitchell-Ruff Duo: Jazz Mission to Moscow (Roulette Records, 1959)
- The Mitchell-Ruff Duo: The Sound of Music by Rodgers and Hammerstein (Roulette, 1960)
- The Mitchell-Ruff Duo plus Strings & Brass (Roulette, 1960)
- The Mitchell-Ruff Duo Jazz for Juniors (Roulette, 1960)
- Mitchell and Ruff: Brazilian Trip (Epic Records, 1967)
- Dizzy Gillespie and the Mitchell Ruff Duo in Concert (Mainstream, 1971)
- The Mitchell-Ruff Duo: Strayhorn: A Mitchell-Ruff Interpretation (Mainstream, 1972; 50th anniversary reissue, Kepler Label, CD MR-2421)
- Virtuoso Elegance in Jazz - The Mitchell Ruff Duo (Kepler Label, M-R 1234, c. 1984)
- Dizzy Gillespie and the Mitchell-Ruff Duo: Enduring Magic (Blackhawk Records, 1986)
- 20 Special Fingers - Les McCann and The Mitchell-Ruff Trio (32 Records, 1999)
- Breaking the Silence - The Mitchell-Ruff Duo (Kepler Label, CD 2380, 2000
With Clifford Coulter
- Do It Now! (Impulse!, 1971)
With Miles Davis
- Miles Ahead (Columbia, 1957)
- Porgy and Bess (Columbia, 1958)
- Miles Davis & Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings (Columbia/Legacy, 1996)
With Gil Evans
- Gil Evans & Ten (Prestige, 1957)
With Benny Golson
- Take a Number from 1 to 10 (Argo, 1961)
With Bobby Hutcherson
- Head On (Blue Note, 1971)
With Milt Jackson
- Big Bags (Riverside, 1962)
- For Someone I Love (Riverside, 1963)
With Lalo Schifrin
- Once a Thief and Other Themes (Verve, 1965)
With Jimmy Smith
- Hoochie Coochie Man (1966)
With Sonny Stitt
- Sonny Stitt & the Top Brass (Atlantic, 1962)
With Leonard Cohen
- Songs of Leonard Cohen (Columbia, 1967)
- French horn: recorded c. 1982, published on Gregorian chant, plain chant, and spirituals recorded in Saint Mark's Cathedral, Venice (Kepler Label, 2003)