“GRATEFULLY YOURS, RUBY BRAFF”

The stories of Ruby Braff’s anger are based on fact: he seemed to enjoy being assertively irascible — not pretending to be a charming curmudgeon.  And he also apparently took special perverse pleasure in verbally abusing those in a position to help him.  “Idiot,” “asshole,” “and “moron” were favorite vocabulary words.

But Ruby was capable of gentleness and sweetness that he has never been credited for.  Those qualities weren’t restricted to the sounds that came out of his cornet.

In 1971, when I was nineteen, some friends and I went to hear Ruby for the first time.  He was playing at the Half Note, a jazz club that stood at the corner of Spring and Hudson Streets in New York City.  (Now that corner is a parking lot.)

I brought my cassette recorder (an archivist in the making, I think now) and recorded an evening of Ruby and a rhythm section: I recall drummer Dottie Dodgion, pianist Don Friedman, possibly bassist Victor Sproles.  Late in the evening, Ruby’s Boston pal, reedman Sam Margolis, sat in — bringing his own brand of Louis, Lester, and Bud Freeman to the proceedings.

At the end of the night, I told Ruby that if he would like, I would be happy to send copies of the tapes.  He agreed, wrote down his address, and the very brief Braff-Steinman correspondence began.

(Thanks to Braff scholar Tom Hustad, author of the soon-to-be-published discography of Ruby, BORN TO PLAY [from Scarecrow Press], for taking such good care of these letters for the last ten years.  The water stains are mine or Ruby’s, not his.)

Here is the first letter, written with that Flair pen we were all so fond of then:

Even faced with technical difficulties, Ruby hardly sounds bad-mannered or abrasive.

I can’t recall exactly what I had written that prompted Ruby’s gentle, amused response.  Perhaps I might have talked of the great pleasure it was to hear him play, and lamented that the world wasn’t aware of his beautiful music.  But, reading this letter forty years later, I am touched by his consoling phrases, “I suspect you suffer from having a brain, and having a heart.  Don’t be alarmed.  There are many people on the planet who are the same way.  You’re not alone.  It’s fun.”

Emboldened by his empathy, I sent Ruby cassettes of what he had played — and didn’t hear back for some time.  But when I did, it was still a pleasure.

I smile at Ruby’s reaction to his own playing — off-speed and drowned out by the piano.  I didn’t quite understand it then, but erasing my tapes to make space for Fats Waller seems appropriate.

I think that his closing phrase had become “Affectionately Yours,” words to treasure.  For the archivists in the audience, here are the envelopes.  Neither Ruby nor I live where we did in 1971, but every scrap of such sweetness is worth preserving.

On the darkest day, I can remind myself that once, for however brief a time, Ruby Braff thought of me with gratitude, empathy, and affection.  Those aren’t bad memories to have.

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13 responses to ““GRATEFULLY YOURS, RUBY BRAFF”

  1. This post warmed my heart.

  2. I can’t put it any better than Mr. Teachout, Michael, but I must say it as well. (Remember when we went to Ruby’s apartment? I’m trying to recall the details . . .)

  3. He graciously entertained a host of college boys he hardly knew — I recall bringing LOUIS UNDER THE STARS (which he loved), a Dutch lp reissue of JAZZ ULTIMATE (which had a different take of INDIANA, which I gave him at his request), and a Pathe collection of Bill Coleman 1936-38 (which he didn’t really want to hear). The refreshments were illegal cigarettes and water (or perhaps ginger ale) and he gave each of us a copy of his new Chiaroscuro record — it might have been the Braff-Barnes Quartet at the New School, which probably dates this evening visit to Riverdale as 1974. More I don’t remember, but you probably recall things I’ve left out. A small apartment with a spinet and records, not much else.

  4. Joop van der Leij

    I forgot on which (record of Barry Harris ??), but in liner notes once was written:
    “When you don’t love this I advice you to consult either a brain- or a heart physician”

    Joop van der Leij
    The Netherlands.

  5. Wow… Truly fanstastic. How many people can say that their work made Ruby Braff want to practice?

  6. Ross Firestone

    Lovely piece, Michael. From my few encounters with him I could see that Ruby really was full of surprises. At a recording session for Arbors the day after 9/11 someone suggested that it might be appropriate to record some blues. “Nah,” he answered. “The blues is the dullest tune ever written.” Then pretty much from out of nowhere he asked, “Do you know who made the best record of ‘Basin Street Blues’?” “Was it Louis Armstrong?” I asked him. “Jack Teagarden?” “Nah”, he shot back. “It was Miles Davis.” As I say, he was full of surprises. Keep us the great work. .

  7. Michael,

    One evening my friend Bob Daniels and I went to see Ruby with Howard Alden and Jack Lesberg at Gulliver’s in Lincoln Park. When we arrived, Marlene and Billy VerPlanck were there, and invited us to join them. After a set of sublime music, Ruby came over to our table to say hello to the VerPlancks. He sat down, and we soon discovered that Ruby was an Anglophile as was Bob. Well during the rest of the break, and after each subsequent break, Ruby and Bob were exchanging opinions about Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, the British Museum, British films and other subjects related to England. He was personable, and I do not recall hearing a swear word uttered by him the whole time. He was having a good time, and was charming, polite and knowledgeable about things British, sort of a Bud Freeman without an affected accent.

    Joe

  8. A wonderful piece exposing the flip side of Ruby Braff-a side many people don’t think ever existed!

  9. Michael, that was a lovely article!
    I only met Ruby one time–introduced by the late Frank Powers. It was a busy intermission for Ruby, and lots of people wanted to talk with him but he gave me his undivided attention and was as friendly and courteous as any musician I have ever met.
    His recordings are genuine treasures.

  10. Thanks for sharing this! Yes, Ruby did have a warm and humble side.

  11. These aren’t the stories that get told, but both you and I (and I hope many others) knew this first-hand.

  12. Pingback: A LETTER FROM RUBY TO JACK, APRIL [3?], 1987 | JAZZ LIVES

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