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.