Willie Ruff (born September 1, 1931 in Sheffield, Alabama) is the hornist and bassist of the Mitchell-Ruff Duo (with pianist Dwike Mitchell) and one of the founders of the W. C. Handy Music Festival. He was born in Florence, Alabama. The duo regularly performs and lectures all over the United States, Asia, Africa and Europe. Ruff attended the Yale School of Music as an undergraduate and graduate student, and has been a faculty member there since 1971, teaching music history, ethnomusicology, and arranging. In 1967, he was chosen by John Hammond to be the bass player for the recording sessions of Songs of Leonard Cohen, during which he, alone with Cohen, laid down the bed tracks for most of the songs on the album. In 1976-1977, he held a visiting appointment at Duke University, where he oversaw the jazz program and directed the Duke Jazz Ensemble. He is a 1994 inductee of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame.
Ruff 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.
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 vast repertoire; taking in the full sweep of the genre. Classes were always packed; among the most popular offerings in Yale's inch thick book. A generation of Yale students was inspired to love this music.
In 1992, Ruff's memoir, titled "A Call to Assembly," was awarded the Deems Taylor ASCAP award. He has written profusely about Paul Hindemith, one of his teachers at Yale, and on his professional experiences with the American jazz composers, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.
The Mitchell-Ruff Duo was formed in 1955 when Mitchell and Ruff left Lionel Hampton's band to form their own group. Mitchell and Ruff first met in 1947, when they were servicemen stationed at Lockbourne Air Force Base, near Columbus, Ohio. Mitchell, a 17-year-old pianist with the unit band, needed a bass player for an Air Force radio show, and he saw what he thought was a likely candidate in Ruff.
In 2007, Ruff co-created the documentary “The Conjoining of Ancient Song”, which focuses on a rapidly vanishing form of congregational singing.
- 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)
- Willie Ruff (solo French horn): Gregorian chant, plain chant, and spirituals recorded in Saint Mark's Cathedral, Venice (Kepler Label, c. 1982)
- 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)
- Breaking the Silence - The Mitchell-Ruff Duo - Kepler Label - CD 2380, 2000
- Les McCann - The Mitchell Ruff Trio - 20 Special Fingers
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 Lalo Schifrin
- Once a Thief and Other Themes (Verve, 1965)
With Sonny Stitt
- Sonny Stitt & the Top Brass (Atlantic, 1962)
With Leonard Cohen
- Songs of Leonard Cohen (Columbia, 1967)
- "Special documentary to be shown" 24 March 2007 Stillwater NewsPress. Retrieved 24 July 2012
- Willie Ruff website
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