Library celebrates Willie Ruff ’53 and the Conservatory without Walls

  • Bald man wearing blue shirt and dark blue zippered vest sits looking to side, black and white photograph of jazz musicians and Duke Ellington sit in front of him, and photograph of man when younger holding acoustic bass is behind him on wall, next to another photo showing a man playing a trumpet
    Willie Ruff (photo by Michael Marsland)
  • Black and white photo of man in seersucker striped jacket at piano with back to camera, beyond him smiling bald man sits behind a  drum set with three drums and two cymbals
    Duke Ellington and drummer Jo Jones, Woolsey Hall, 1972 (photo courtesy Yale University Art Gallery)
October 11, 2022

Jazz musician Willie Ruff, founding director of the Duke Ellington Fellowship Program at Yale, returns to campus on Oct. 14 to celebrate the program’s 50th anniversary. Through the Ellington program, dubbed the Conservatory without Walls, renowned musicians mentored and performed with young people at Yale and throughout New Haven. As Yale News reported in 2002, since the program’s inception in 1972, Duke Ellington Fellows had by then worked with an estimated 180,000 New Haven public school students.

Yale University established an endowment fund for the fellowship—named for jazz legend Duke Ellington—to expand the study of African American music. At the inaugural ceremony in Woolsey Hall on Oct. 7, 1972, University President Kingman Brewster presented Ellington with an honorary medallion. “Duke,” Brewster said, “I am here simply to say, it is your university.” Among the fifty other recipients of the Duke Ellington Fellows medal that day were jazz greats Mary Lou Williams, Eubie Blake, Jo Jones, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Max Roach, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, and Willie Ruff.

Ruff, a French horn and acoustic bass player, received both his undergraduate (1953) and graduate (1954) degrees from Yale School of Music and was on the school’s faculty from 1971 to 2017. Ruff is also a documentary filmmaker. In his 2017 interview with the Film Archive’s Managing Archivist Brian Meacham, Ruff spoke about his interest in film as a way to explore music and ethnographic studies. By the time he moved to Los Angeles, he said, his appetite for film was “whetted.” He enrolled in the University of Southern California (USC) film school, which he described as “a sea of rich possibilities.” Before teaching music at Yale, Ruff taught film at USC. His dual interests led to the creation of Tony Williams in Africa (1973); The Soul of St. Simon’s Island, Georgia (1981); Shanghai Blues (1981); and The Beginnings of Bebop (1981), which Ruff donated to the Film Archive.

The Film Archive, Yale School of Music, and the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library—with support from Paul L. Joskow, MPhil ’70, PhD ’72, and from the Richard Warren Jr. ’59 Fund for the Preservation and Promotion of Music—are collaborating to host the semester-long program “Celebrating Willie Ruff and the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Ellington at Yale Series.” The celebration will launch on Oct. 14 with these events:

  • At 4 p.m., Gilmore Music Library hosted an opening reception of the exhibit The Ellington Fellowship at 50. Among the items on display will be photographs of many of the performers in the 1972 concert (including Milt Hinton’s photo of Ellington and Jo Jones rehearsing in Woolsey Hall), sketches for Ellington’s composition “The Golden Broom and the Green Apple,” typed drafts of Ellington’s memoir Music Is My Mistress, and an autographed copy of Ruff’s autobiography, A Call to Assembly: The Autobiography of a Musical Storyteller. As part of the exhibit, a video loop will play excerpts from an interview with Ruff (courtesy of the library’s Oral History of American Music) and excerpts from the Connecticut television program “What’s Happening,” featuring the concert and musicians.
  • At 7 p.m. the Yale Film Archive screened two complete episodes of the 1972 program “What’s Happening.” These programs contain footage from the concert at Woolsey Hall and interviews with Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie, and other Ellington Fellows. Ruff appears playing acoustic bass in the montage and elsewhere. Afterward, the Film Archive will present the preservation premiere, on 16mm film, of Ruff’s 1973 film Tony Williams in Africa, featuring jazz drummer Williams playing with Senegalese drummers and their “talking drums.” A Q&A session with Ruff will follow.
  • Ruff will return to Yale on Sunday, April 2, 2023, for the culminating event of this celebration: a concert performance of Epitaph, the magnum opus by the virtuoso musician and Ellington fellow Charles Mingus, in honor of Mingus’s centennial (one year later, due to COVID-19 delays). Epitaph’s jazz orchestra of 35 musicians reflects the musical force of the fellowship’s 1972 founding event.

Ruff’s film The Beginnings of Bebop, his memoir A Call to Assembly, and other materials are available through the library. Read more about the Treasures from the Yale Film Archive screening of Conservatory without Walls: Jazz at Yale and Beyond.

—Deborah Cannarella