THIS JUST IN (Sept. 8, 2012): BORN TO PLAY is available at a special discount price. I feel honored — this is the first official JAZZ LIVES promotional code!
JAZZ LIVES SPECIAL PRICE: Available directly from the publisher with 25% discount ($71.25 + $5.00 shipping): https://rowman.com/ISBN/9780810882645 and enter special Jazz Lives promotion code in shopping cart: 7M12BTPRB
I’ve been waiting for this book for a long time, and it’s even better than I anticipated. It is the latest volume in the Scarecrow Press “Studies in Jazz” series, nearly 750 pages of information about the late cornetist.
Its author, Thomas P. Hustad, knew Ruby, spoke with him, and had Ruby’s full cooperation and enthusiastic advocacy. Although the book isn’t a biography, nearly every page offers a deeper understanding of Ruby, musician and personality, and the contexts within which he operated.
Ruby would have been a challenging subject for a typical biography. For one thing, although jazz musicians seem to lead unusual lives (nocturnal rather than diurnal hours, for one thing) they take their work with the utmost seriousness, and their daily responsibilities are not much different from ours. A diary of what Ruby, for instance, accomplished when the horn was not up to his lips, might not be particularly revealing. And Ruby’s strong, often volatile personality might have led a book astray into the darker realms of pathobiography: a chronological unfolding of the many times Ruby said exactly what was on his mind with devastating results would grow wearying quickly, and would leave even the most sympathetic reader with a sour impression.
No, Ruby wanted to be remembered for his music, and Tom honored that request. So there is no psychoanalysis here, in an attempt to explore why Ruby could be so mercurial — generous and sweet-natured to some, vocal in defense of his friends, furious at injustice, fiercely angry without much apparent provocation otherwise. True, the reader who peruses this book for tales of inexplicably bad behavior will find some, but BORN TO PLAY offers so much more.
Its purpose is to celebrate and document Ruby’s playing and recording over more than half a century. What a body of recordings he left us! From the earliest Boston broadcasts in 1949 to his final August 2002 appearance in Scotland with Scott Hamilton (happily available on an Arbors Records 2-CD set), Ruby played alongside the greatest names in jazz history.
Without looking at the book, I think of Pee Wee Russell, Vic Dickenson, Jo Jones, Nat Pierce, Dave McKenna, Freddie Green, Milt Hinton, Walter Page, Buck Clayton, Buddy Tate, Dick Hafer, Scott Hamilton, Jon-Erik Kellso, Scott Robinson, Dick Hyman, Teddi King, Lee Wiley, Ellis Larkins, Mel Powell, Oscar Pettiford, George Wein, George Barnes, Michael Moore, Ralph Sutton, Kenny Davern, Bobby Hackett, Jack Teagarden, Howard Alden, Frank Tate, Jack Lesberg, John Bunch, Sir Charles Thompson, Trummy Young, Bob Wilber, Woody Herman, Benny Goodman, Dan Barrett, Tony Bennett, Coleman Hawkins, Lawrence Brown, Ernie Caceres, Bob Brookmeyer, Benny Morton, Roy Eldridge, Jimmy Rushing, Urbie Green.
BORN TO PLAY is more than a straightforward discographical listing of Ruby’s issued recordings (although even there I found surprises: Ruby’s sessions with the Weavers, a final unissued Vanguard session, work with Larry Adler, Lenny Solomon, and others). From his earliest appearances, listeners noticed that Mr. Braff was something special. Jazz critics made much of him as an “anachronism,” someone whose style came out of Louis Armstrong rather than Miles Davis, but such assessments missed the point.
Ruby was one of the great romantics and improvising dramatists: he could take the most familiar melody and find new lyricism in it, singing it out as if he had become Fred Astaire or Judy Garland or Chaplin in CITY LIGHTS rather than “a saloon entertainer with a bit of tin in his hand.” Ruby’s playing touches some hidden impulses in us — our need to express emotions without holding back — but his wasn’t the “barbaric yawp,” but quiet intensity with many surprises on the way.
His admirers (among whom I count myself) paid tribute to their hero by recording his performances whenever possible — the chronicle of private recordings begins in 1949 and continues to the end. Those private recordings are more than tantalizing: Ruby’s encounters with Louis, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Gerry Mulligan, Pepper Adams, Buddy Rich, Danny Moss, Sidney Catlett, Benny Carter . . .as well as his day-to-day gigs with musicians both famous and little-known across the globe.
One of the surprises in this book is that Ruby worked so often: before he became known for his singular approach to melodic improvisation, he was a diligently gigging musician. (In print, Ruby sometimes complained about his inability to find congenial work: these listings suggest that aside from some early stretches where it was difficult to get gigs, he was well-employed.)
BORN TO PLAY also contains rare and unseen photographs, and the text is interspersed with entertaining stories: Nat Pierce and the sardine cans, Benny Goodman and the staircase, and more.
What this book reminds us of is the masterful work of an artist performing at the highest level in many contexts for an amazing length of time . . . all the more remarkable when you recall that Ruby suffered from emphysema as early as 1980. Without turning his saga into a formulaic one of the heroic artist suffering through disabling illnesses, Hustad subtly suggests that we should admire Ruby much more for his devotion to his art than stand back in horrified wonder at his temper tantrums. And Tom is right.
Ruby emerges as a man in love with his art, someone so devoted to it that the title of the book becomes more and more apt as a reader continues. I have only read it intermittently, but find it both entrancing and distracting. Much of this is due to Tom Hustad: a tireless researcher (still finding new information after the book’s publication), a fine clear writer, and someone Ruby trusted . . . so the book floats along on a subtle friendship between subject and chronicler. And Tom was there at a number of sessions, providing valuable first-hand narratives that enlighten and delight — especially telling are his stories of relationships between Ruby and his champions: John Hammond, George Wein, Hank O’Neal, Tony Bennett, Mat and Rachel Domber, and others.
And the little details that make a book even better are all in place: a loving introduction by one of Ruby’s long-time friends, Dan Morgenstern; a cover picture showing Ruby and Louis (the photographer another great friend of the music, Duncan Schiedt) . . . and orange was Ruby’s favorite color — one he associated with the aural experience of hearing Louis for the first time, his sound blazing out of the radio speaker. The layout is easy on the eye, all in nicely readable type.
In the interests of full disclosure (as the lawyers and politicians say) I should point out that I admire Ruby’s playing immensely, met him in 1971, spoke with him a number of times, saw him at close range, and contributed information about some private sessions that I recorded to this book.
BORN TO PLAY is a fascinating document, invaluable not only for those who regarded Ruby as one of the marvels of jazz — it is also a chronicle of one man’s fierce determination to create beauty in a world that sometimes seemed oblivious to it. Many large-scale works of scholarship are thorough but cold, and the reader feels the chill. Others have adulation intrude on the purpose of the work. Tom Hustad’s book is an ideal mixture of scholarship, diligence, and warm affection: its qualities in an admirable balance. I think the only way this book could have been improved would have been for Ruby to continue on past 2002 and the book to follow him.
Click here to purchase a copy.
And here’s something to beguile you as you click — the Braff-Barnes Quartet of 1974 (Ruby, George Barnes, Wayne Wright, Michael Moore) sauntering through LIZA:
May your happiness increase.