|Born||September 1, 1931|
|Instruments||French horn, double bass|
He was born in Sheffield, Alabama.
Ruff played in the Mitchell-Ruff Duo with pianist Dwike Mitchell for over 50 years. Mitchell and Ruff first met in 1947, when they were teenaged servicemen stationed at the former Lockbourne Air Force Base in Ohio; Mitchell recruited Ruff to play bass with his unit band for an Air Force radio program. Mitchell and Ruff later played in Lionel Hampton's band but left in 1955 to form their own group. Together as the Mitchell-Ruff Duo, they played as "second act" to artists such as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Dizzy Gillespie. From 1955 to 2011, the duo regularly performed and lectured in the United States, Asia, Africa, and Europe. The Mitchell-Ruff Duo was the first jazz band to play in the Soviet Union (1959) and in China (1981). Mitchell died in 2013.
Ruff was chosen by John Hammond to be the bass player for the recording sessions of Songs of Leonard Cohen, an album first released in 1967. During those sessions, he and Cohen laid down the bed tracks for most of the songs on the album.
He is one of the founders of the W. C. Handy Music Festival in Florence, Alabama. The first festival was held in 1982.
Ruff was a faculty member at the Yale School of Music from 1971 until his retirement in 2017, teaching music history, ethnomusicology, and arranging. Ruff's classes at Yale, often with partner Dwike Mitchell, were free-flowing jam sessions: roller-coaster rides through the colors of American Improvisational Music. The duo could play in the style of most notable jazz artists and related styles. They had a large repertoire.
He is founding Director of the Duke Ellington Fellowship Program at Yale, a community-based organization sponsoring artists mentoring and performing with Yale students and young musicians from the New Haven Public School System. The program was founded in 1972 as a "Conservatory Without Walls" to "'capture the essence and spirit' of the tradition of African-American music". By its 30th anniversary in 2002, the program had reached an estimated 180,000 students in New Haven schools.
He is a 1994 inductee of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame.
Ruff was awarded with the Sanford Medal in May 2013. The Sanford Medal is the highest honor from Yale University's School of Music.
Ruff is known for uncovering links between traditional black gospel music and unaccompanied psalm singing. Ruff's theory is that the Scottish Presbyterian practice of lining out – in which a precentor read or chanted a line of the psalm, which was then sung by the congregation – led to the call and response form of black gospel music. Ruff co-created the documentary "A Conjoining of Ancient Song", which focuses on a rapidly vanishing form of congregational singing that is shared by Scottish, African American, and Native American music. It received its world premiere screening at Yale in 2013. Ruff's work in this area is also a subject of Sterlin Harjo's 2014 documentary film, This May Be the Last Time.
In 1992, Ruff published his memoir, titled A Call to Assembly: The Autobiography of a Musical Storyteller. The autobiography was hailed as "an unmitigated delight" and was awarded the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award.
With the Mitchell-Ruff Duo
- The Mitchell-Ruff Duo: Campus Concert (Epic, 1956)
- The Mitchell-Ruff Duo: Jazz Mission to Moscow (Roulette Records, 1959)
- The Mitchell-Ruff Duo: The Sound of Music by Rodgers and Hammerstein (Roulette, 1960)
- The Mitchell-Ruff Duo plus Strings & Brass (Roulette, 1960)
- The Mitchell-Ruff Duo Jazz for Juniors (Roulette, 1960)
- Mitchell and Ruff: Brazilian Trip (Epic Records, 1967)
- Dizzy Gillespie and the Mitchell Ruff Duo in Concert (Mainstream, 1971)
- The Mitchell-Ruff Duo: Strayhorn: A Mitchell-Ruff Interpretation (Mainstream, 1972; 50th anniversary reissue, Kepler Label, CD MR-2421)
- Virtuoso Elegance in Jazz - The Mitchell Ruff Duo (Kepler Label, M-R 1234, c. 1984)
- Dizzy Gillespie and the Mitchell-Ruff Duo: Enduring Magic (Blackhawk Records, 1986)
- 20 Special Fingers - Les McCann and The Mitchell-Ruff Trio (32 Records, 1999)
- Breaking the Silence - The Mitchell-Ruff Duo (Kepler Label, CD 2380, 2000
With Clifford Coulter
- Do It Now! (Impulse!, 1971)
With Miles Davis
- Miles Ahead (Columbia, 1957)
- Porgy and Bess (Columbia, 1958)
- Miles Davis & Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings (Columbia/Legacy, 1996)
With Gil Evans
- Gil Evans & Ten (Prestige, 1957)
With Benny Golson
- Take a Number from 1 to 10 (Argo, 1961)
With Bobby Hutcherson
- Head On (Blue Note, 1971)
With Milt Jackson
With Quincy Jones
- Quincy Plays for Pussycats (Mercury, 1959-65 )
With Lalo Schifrin
- Once a Thief and Other Themes (Verve, 1965)
With Jimmy Smith
- Hoochie Coochie Man (1966)
With Sonny Stitt
- Sonny Stitt & the Top Brass (Atlantic, 1962)
With Leonard Cohen
- Songs of Leonard Cohen (Columbia, 1967)
- French horn: recorded c. 1982, published on Gregorian chant, plain chant, and spirituals recorded in Saint Mark's Cathedral, Venice (Kepler Label, 2003)
- "Willie Ruff receives Sanford Medal". Yale School of Music, Yale University. May 24, 2013.
- "The Mitchell Ruff Duo — "enduring magic"". Willie Ruff. May 5, 2012.
- Vitello, Paul (April 18, 2013). "Dwike Mitchell, Zealous Jazz Pianist, Dies at 83". The New York Times.
- "Musicology and Theory: Willie Ruff". Faculty. Yale School of Music, Yale University. Retrieved February 27, 2015.
- "History - William Christopher Handy (1873-1958) "Father of the Blues"". The Official site of the W.C. Handy Music Festival. Music Preservation Society.
- "FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)". The Official site of the W.C. Handy Music Festival. Music Preservation Society.
- Gonzales, Susan (May 1, 2017). "Jazz musician Willie Ruff retires, but it's 'show time' for him in the South". Yale News.
- "Willie Ruff: Horn, Bass, Author, member of the Mitchell Ruff Duo". Willie Ruff. May 5, 2012.
- "In Focus: Duke Ellington Fellowship". Yale Bulletin & Calendar. Yale University. 31 (7). October 18, 2002.
- Stollwerk, Alissa (October 28, 2002). "Duke Ellington Fellowship celebrates 30 years with jazz". Yale Daily News.
- "Inductees". Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. November 6, 2014.
- McCutcheon, Chuck (21 April 2007). "Indian, Black Gospel and Scottish Singing Form an Unusual Musical Bridge". Washington Post. Retrieved 14 December 2013.
- "Special documentary to be shown". Stillwater NewsPress. 24 March 2007. Retrieved 24 July 2012.
- "A Conjoining of Ancient Song: A World Premiere Screening" (Press release). Yale School of Music, Yale University. April 20, 2013.
- Shannon, Susan (November 17, 2014). "Muscogee Creek Hymns Influenced By Congregational Line Singing?". KGOU. Retrieved 2015-10-09.
- Nolan, Tom (August 25, 1991). "A Diamond in the Ruff : A CALL TO ASSEMBLY: The Autobiography of a Musical Storyteller By Willie Ruff ; (Viking: $24.95; 432 pp.)". Los Angeles Times.