I THOUGHT I HEARD RUBY BRAFF SAY

In 1971, when I read in The New Yorker that cornetist Ruby Braff was going to play a week at the Half Note in New York City, this was exciting news. I had first heard his playing on one of the famous Vanguard recordings, The Vic Dickenson Showcase. On “Everybody Loves My Baby” and “Old-Fashioned Love,” he had added remarkable deep indigo shadings to the ensembles, his solos mixing melodic embellishment, passionate surs and moans.

Soon after, the legendary jazz broadcaster Ed Beach devoted four hours to Ruby on WRVR-FM, and I began to search out his records. In the Fifties, Ruby had been in the studios with the best players: Lee Wiley, Coleman Hawkins, Dave McKenna, Lawrence Brown, PeeWee Russell, Benny Morton, Jo Jones, Walter Page . . . and he was featured as a member of George Wein’s Newport All-Stars.

What Wein has done for jazz in the last half-century and more with the Newport Jazz Festival and its incarnations is beyond dispute. But he is in the odd position of being simultaneously an impresario and a musician of limited gifts who saw it as his right to play in the bands he sponsored and hired. The pleasure he takes in playing is visible, but no one ever wished a Wein solo longer, no one ever delighted in the subtlety of his accompaniment. But he got gigs, he loved Ruby. Ruby derided him in interviews and no doubt in person but accepted the gigs.

Shortly before the Half Note gig, I had just bought Wein’s newest record — “George Wein and the Newport All-Stars” on Atlantic, featuring Ruby, Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow, Red Norvo, Larry Ridley, and Don Lamond. And Wein, of course. The players were superb soloists but there was little ensemble unity. One of the high points, I thought, was Ruby’s lovely solo on “My Melancholy Baby.”

Full of anticipation. I went to the Half Note with two friends, Stu Zimny and Rob Rothberg, both of whom were equally excited about seeing Ruby. Being bold, Stu had driven us from our suburban familiarities to the unknown reaches of West Greenwich Village (the Half Note was on the corner of Spring and Hudson Streets, no longer uncharted territory); Rob, an amateur trumpet player, had brought a rare record — Ruby with Ellis Larkins — for Ruby to autograph.

We came into the club, which was typically small and dark, with a raised stage at one end of the room, under it the bar. Ruby was standing nearby. He wore a blazer and tie. I had expected him to be diminutive, and he was, with a cigarette in one hand. We approached him.

I was meeting one of my idols, someone I had spent hours listening to. I had Braff solos by heart and could call them to memory. I was nervous and eager. Being a respectful nineteen-year old, I called Ruby “Mr. Braff,” told him that I loved his playing and had been collecting his records. He may have smiled. What I do remember most clearly is this exchange:

Me: “I especially like the solo you played on ‘My Melancholy Baby’ on the new Newport All-Stars record.”

Ruby: “That shit?”

Me: Embarrassed silence. When I replay this scene in my mind, I say something elegant, perhaps, “Well, I liked it,” but I don’t know if courage deserted me. The music Ruby played that night (and I illicitly recorded) is another story, but that was my first introduction to him in person.

2 responses to “I THOUGHT I HEARD RUBY BRAFF SAY

  1. The first time I met Ruby I made the same mistake – I complemented him on some recordings he made when he was young and he said it was crap. Then he explained that he felt he didn’t know how to make records until much later in his life.
    I still love all of Ruby’s early recordings but I think the ones he made later in his life are worlds better (starting around 1970 and going on until his last CD.)
    It’s hard to say when the change came because he recorded so infrequently in the late 60s.
    I think it must have been hard for Ruby to do what he wanted in the Newport Group – especially the later editions with Venuti and Red Norvo.

  2. There were only a dozen or so musicians around whom Ruby felt comfortable, and even that seems to have varied greatly depending on his mood at the moment — early on he loved Sam Margolis, Buzzy Drootin, Vic, Pee Wee, Walter Page, Nat Pierce, and later on the young titans Scott Hamilton and Howard Alden, all sensitive players who could swing, play a ballad, understand Lester, Louis, and Judy Garland. When Ruby was at ease (as with Ellis Larkins or alongside Buck Clayton), his work was thrillingly intense and intimate; when he felt unhappy, it could seem acrid. Unfortunately he often was paired with musicians who — on paper — would have seemed to share his musical viewpoint, but didn’t . . . and some of the Newport groups have him working hard to stay afloat. I am sure he felt about his early recordings the way we do about our high school term papers: yes, they were praised at time time, but they’re rather embarrassing now.

    Long live lyrical jazz!

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