The Ellington Fellowship at 50
In 2022, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Ellington Fellowship, which has brought world-class jazz musicians to Yale and New Haven since 1972. The Ellington Fellowship is a brainchild of Willie Ruff, the legendary horn player, bass player, teacher, author, and impresario. A Yale alumnus (B.M. ’53, M.M. ’54), Ruff joined the faculty of the Yale School of Music in 1971. He saw that the university needed to recognize the importance of the African-American jazz tradition, and he had the imagination, connections, charisma, and fund-raising prowess to make it happen on a grand scale.
In 1972, Ruff brought a galaxy of jazz stars to Yale for the Ellington Fellowship, also known as the Conservatory Without Walls. The long list of honorees included Duke Ellington himself, as well as Eubie Blake, Dizzy Gillespie, Cootie Williams, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Mary Lou Williams, Charles Mingus, Jo Jones, Max Roach, and many others. Kingman Brewster (President of Yale) and Philip Nelson (Dean of the School of Music) presented medals to the musicians at the concert in Woolsey Hall.
Fifty years later, the Ellington Fellowship continues to bring renowned jazz musicians to Yale each year. Ruff retired from Yale in 2017 and moved back to his home state of Alabama, but we’re delighted that he is able to return to campus for this celebration.
The Ellington Fellowship is more than just concerts and awards; many of the musicians have worked with children in the New Haven public schools. The number of students who have benefited from this program over the years is estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands.
Curated by Richard Boursy, Research Archivist