Tag Archives: BORN TO PLAY

A LETTER FROM RUBY TO JACK, APRIL [3?], 1987

A small surprise from eBay, where surprises flourish: here‘s the link.  The seller’s price is $175 and $12 shipping, The latter substantially more than the original postage.

Ruby Braff, at home on Cape Cod, c. 1995. Photograph by George Borgman.

It’s a letter from Ruby Braff, who left us in 2003, to Jack Bradley, his friend and sometime manager, and of course close friend of Louis Armstrong.

Louis and Jack.

The letter isn’t dated, but the envelope is postmarked April 4, 1987:

Dear Jack (Fuckey),

I’m looking forward & backward to our gig. As we draw closer I’ll get the name of everything—oh, by the way, you’ve got plenty time now to get cash for me that nite, if possible.

You know I’m down in Zinno’s every nite, all our cats are so happy I’m there that it’s like 1941. Everybody’s in to see me. Buck Clayton, Morey, everybody. Packed!!!

Bad news—I’m depressed we lost Buddy Rich tonite. I played anyway. What a drag!

Every nite is Cafe Society for me! Unbelievable. Wild!!

Anyway ding ding you 2.

Later

love

Ruby.

Written in pencil on Braff’s letterhead. Folding creases, some light smudging, overall fine with original envelope. 8.5 x 11 inches (21.5 x 28 cm).

and . . .

and . . . .

A few annotations.  Buddy Rich died on April 2, 1987.  “Ding ding!” was Vic Dickenson’s all-purpose salutation, celebration, toast.  Buck Clayton should need no annotation.  “Morey” cannot be drummer Morey Feld, who died in 1971.

As to “Fuckey,” one interprets as one wishes.

Here, because I can —  life is not all about objects for sale — is what remains of the Braff-Steinman correspondence, two 1971 letters from Ruby to me.  Although Ruby was subject to unpredictable outbursts of rage (I witnessed one) his letters are gentle, touching, kind, and I did nothing special to evoke this kindness.

And an appropriate song — Ruby in duet with Dick Hyman in that same 1987:

We were lucky — and beyond — to have Ruby with us for fifty years.  And his music has no expiration date.

Should you want to know more — more than you ever thought you could know — about Ruby and his times, this book is a delightful and wise mountain of information and stories, Thomas Hustad’s BORN TO PLAY.

May your happiness increase!

RUBY BRAFF and MARIAN McPARTLAND PLAY, TALK, and LAUGH (1991)

RUBY portrait

Thanks to National Public Radio, here is a rebroadcast of Marian McPartland’s PIANO JAZZ featuring the one, the only Ruby Braff, in a mellow mood, here.

MARIAN McPARTLAND

There’s delicious music — both players in exquisite form — THOU SWELL, THESE FOOLISH THINGS, THIS YEAR’S KISSES (with Ruby at the piano), THIS IS ALL I ASK, BLUE AND SENTIMENTAL (a piano duet), SINGIN’ THE BLUES (Marian, solo), BY MYSELF, AS TIME GOES BY, LOVE IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER, and an extra bit of holiday laginappe, WHITE CHRISTMAS, as well as commentary on Vic Dickenson and Buster Bailey, the “Laws of Comping,” Mel Powell, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, the Boston jazz scene in the Fifties, George Barnes, Frank Tate, Dave McKenna, a CD that never emerged, the Braff-Hyman GIRL CRAZY, Tony Bennett, the value of caring and having standards, Benny Goodman, Herschel Evans, picking songs and making records, Maurice Chevalier, Bix Beiderbecke, and more.

The authority on all things Braff, Tom Hustad, thinks that the program was recorded in fall 1991 — as he notes in his invaluable book, BORN TO PLAY: THE RUBY BRAFF DISCOGRAPHY AND DIRECTORY OF PERFORMANCES.  Hear the music; buy the book; remember Ruby and Marian and the music they made always.

May your happiness increase!

PENTHOUSE SERENADES, CONTINUED (January 1968)

A few days ago, thanks to my friend Superheidi, I posted this about film documentation of a famous gathering — with music.  Thanks to the Ruby Braff scholar Thomas P. Hustad (whose book BORN TO PLAY has everything we’d ever want to know about Ruby’s musical life), here’s the invitation:

BG 1968 invite

Here is Tom’s usual meticulous history of the event:

January brought an exciting opportunity. . . . a party held in the Penthouse of Benny Goodman’s apartment in New York to commemorate the 30th Anniversary of the famous Goodman Carnegie Hall Concert. Ruby reports that January 16 was “freezing cold.” Benny Goodman phoned him and asked if he wanted to stop by and play. Ruby asked who would be there, and was told that it would be Jess Stacy, Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton, and a few other guys. Ruby’s impression was that it was just an informal gathering for fun; however, when he arrived the doorman directed him to the Penthouse. When he left the elevator, Ruby saw many people present and then decided that Goodman had invited him informally in order to avoid paying for his appearance. Ruby repeated much of this story in a radio interview March 2, 1991, with Rob Bamberger.

A copy of the engraved invitation to the party is available, directing people to the Roof Garden at 200 East 66th Street for cocktails and a buffet dinner from 6 p.m. This location is one floor above Goodman’s apartment. There is a photo by John McDonough showing Benny Goodman with Ruby Braff from this occasion. Also visible are George Avakian and John S. Wilson.

January 16, 1968, New York taped by D. Russell Connor and broadcast on WNEW, January 27, 8:05–10 p.m.

Benny Goodman (cl), Ruby Braff (tp), Lionel Hampton (vib), Jess Stacy (p), George Simon (cymbal while Krupa’s drums were being set up)

Unknown blues (warm-up)

Sweet Lorraine

Add Gene Krupa midway through “I Want to Be Happy” after the pedal was attached to his bass drum.

I Want to Be Happy

If I Had You

Avalon

Someday Sweetheart

Rosetta

Body and Soul (trio only: Goodman, Stacy, Krupa)

I Would Do Anything for You

Don’t Be That Way

Stompin’ at the Savoy

NOTE: An audio recording of these tunes is available but remains unissued. A video recording of “Avalon” also exists as filmed by CBS on this occasion.

The invitation and text above appear courtesy of Thomas P. Hustad, from BORN TO PLAY: THE RUBY BRAFF DISCOGRAPHY AND DIRECTORY OF PERFORMANCES, published by Scarecrow Press 2012.  And here is my review of Tom’s book — soon to be a collector’s item, as only a few copies remain for sale.

I wonder who picks up the phone at 1.212.TE-8-5280 these days.

May your happiness increase!

BORN TO PLAY: THE RUBY BRAFF DISCOGRAPHY and DIRECTORY OF PERFORMANCES

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.

IT’S ON SALE! “RUBY BRAFF: BORN TO PLAY: THE RUBY BRAFF DISCOGRAPHY AND DIRECTORY OF PERFORMANCES” by Thomas P. Hustad

Pssssssssssssst!  It’s on sale now at Amazon — $64.77 (to pre-order) instead of its $95 list price.  Check it here.

I don’t pretend to be objective about Tom Hustad’s book.  I’ve known him — through email, tape-trading, and telephone — for about a decade, and he loves Ruby as much as anyone, is ferociously accurate without being pedantic . . . and he can write.  What’s more, he had the benefit of long conversations with Ruby and long interchanges with people who had taped him, photographed him, corresponded with him . . . including myself.  So I am very much looking forward to BORN  TO PLAY and expect it to not only live up to but surpass my expectations.

Your birthday is coming soon, isn’t it?

May your happiness increase.

“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.

“JUST DO SOMETING BEAUTIFUL”: NEW MUSIC from RUBY BRAFF

Although the singular cornetist Ruby Braff has been gone since 2003, his music lives on.

It seems particularly alive on the previously unissued 1998 New York sessions that have just been released on Arbors ARCD 19426 as OUR LOVE IS HERE TO STAY.

Four extended tracks (LINGER AWHILE, ALL MY LIFE, DAY IN, DAY OUT, and I’M COMIN’ VIRGINIA) feature Ruby with Chuck Wilson (alto and clarinet), Howard Alden, Jon Wheatley (guitars), Marshall Wood (bass), Jim Gwin (drums).  I KNOW THAT YOU KNOW adds Scott Robinson (tenor) to this; ‘DEED I DO, CLEAR WATER (Ruby’s composition on LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME CHANGES), a medley of WHAT IS THERE TO SAY and OUR LOVE IS HERE TO STAY, and a medium-slow DARKTOWN STRUTTERS’ BALL add Jon-Erik Kellso (trumpet) as well.

Ruby’s playing is superb, free from some of the irritable-sounding harmonic “adventurousness” he embarked on when he felt restless.  Here he is among dear friends from Boston and New York, and his  comfort is tangible.

Although Ruby never played a phrase that didn’t have Louis standing in back of it, the atmosphere here is so thoroughly Basie-inflected that I was always waiting for a piano chorus.  Long, loping lines at swinging tempos, gently intense melodic embellishment . . . a celebration of swing, with riffs blossoming behind soloists, Ruby shaping performances as only he could.

Only those who saw Ruby in person or on video will understand that he was perhaps the finest on-the-spot arranger — a three-dimensional instantaneous musical architest — that most of us will ever know.

The rhythm section is a model of generous, seamless subtlety — and the soloists float over it.  Ruby is both passionate and amused (you hear his playfulness in the neat quotes and riffs; you hear his soul in his melodic lines).  Scott Robinson’s tenor is based in Lester but with Scott’s inimitable sideways manner of perceiving the world; Chuck Wilson’s lemony sound suggests Pete Brown and Lester on clarinet, and then there’s Kellso.

Ruby is one of his heroes but Jon-Erik is always his own man, his sound shifting from deep and pretty to growly in an Eldridge mode.  Ruby didn’t like sharing the stage with other trumpeters and often did it under duress, but when he did (with Roy on a wonderful RCA session, EASY NOW) he sounded exquisite.  Both Ruby and Jon-Erik sound as if they are thriving on the propinquity, the emotional teamwork.

These sessions have the freedom and inventiveness of Ruby’s best work, and the CD is a rare gift (made even better by attentive, loving notes from Ruby’s bio-discographer Tom Hustad, whose BORN TO PLAY is scheduled to be published this year.

My title comes from something Ruby said at the second session: it could have been his life’s motto.

You’ll want this CD.