A Call to Assembly
Reviewed by Eugene Current-Garcia
Vol. 14, No. 4, 1992, pp. 33-34
The Autobiography of a Musical Storyteller (Willie Ruff, New York: Viking, 1991. xvi, 385 pages, Black and White Photographs).
“You see, baby,” he said as he took up a Hickory House napkin and flicked a grain of shrimp fried rice from his mustache, “bread cast upon the water comes back buttered on both sides.”
Duke Ellington’s suave voice softly prepares us to savor the many delights awaiting readers of this absorbing narrative. The opening scene, displaying a memorable dinner party at a New York “jazz emporium” in 1967, sets an appropriate tone for the life story told in the book; for the Prologue, like a tangy apertif, whets the appetite for each of the five ensuing parts that present a skillfully organized symphonic arrangement of forty-four chapters and an Epilogue.
The Prologue also introduces four of the major characters whose intertwined roles provide most of the action and speech that move the story forward. Besides Duke, the Maestro, the other members of the dinner party at the Hickory House were Billy Strayhorn, Ellington’s well beloved composer/arranger of jazz music and song, and two younger musicians: Dwike Mitchell, a pianist, and his partner on the French horn and bass viol, Willie Ruff, the narrator.
From there on the Prologue focuses on the significance and fascinating development of Strayhorn’s duo Suite for Piano and Horn, to finally the climactic performance of the Suite by Dwike and Willie at a dazzling memorial concert in Lincoln Center, dedicated to Strayhorn shortly after his death in 1968. As a participant in the gigantic event, which had been organized and stage-managed personally by Ellington himself, Ruff sums up the excitement it aroused at the time. Now, “remembering it as if I had just stepped out of Strayhorn’s apartment or slipped into the wings at Lincoln Center, with Ellington’s voice shivering me in the heart,” he recognizes the core of the experience as a rite of passage, “a transition for a still young artist who had come from what seemed like nowhere, had arrived somewhere, and was going he knew not where.” Thus, in retrospect he concludes, the vision of his life’s path was revealed:
“The one thing I do know about that magical evening—about the totality of that experience with those creators and ambassadors of the music that was born and bred nowhere else but in America—is that it seemed to me a calling: a “call to assembly” was the phrase they used when I was a young army private. I knew I was on notice, and I had to heed the call.”
Implicit in these introductory words are several of the rhetorical elements that give durable substance and cumulative appeal to every segment of the ensuing life story: namely, serious thematic emphasis and striking, repetitive imagery.
Throughout the book Ruff builds up a massive structure of specific concrete details—names and dates, person, places, things, actions, recapturing in chapter after chapter the definitive sensations that enriched his mind and heart from early childhood to ripened maturity. The first dozen chapters of Part One—HOME—for example, recall the pride and joy he felt as a tiny toddler, singing W.C. Handy’s “St Louis Blues” for candy handouts in the neighborhood grocery stores of Sheffield, his birthplace in the northwest corner of Alabama; and of being taught at age four by an elderly surrogate “Daddy Long” to memorize poems, songs, and stories in books, because “book learning,” the old man assured him, was … the onliest thing white folks can’t take away from you’.” With equal fervor he recalls the excitement shared by his entire family while listening to makeshift radio broadcasts of Joe Louis’s championship bouts with Max Schmelling and Billy Conn, as well as other white challengers in the 1930s.
Having learned to read well enough by five to enter the Baptist Bottom School, he was enchanted with everything offered there for instruction, especially a visit by the famed “father of the blues,” Handy himself, who demonstrated with trumpet and passionate words for the second graders “those qualities that our sacred music shares with the blues and jazz.”
As a pre-adolescent he was equally eager to learn from his step-father, Will Pruitt, about the past and faraway places—Biblical tales of ancient warriors and later ones from America’s Revolutionary and Civil Wars; to learn the varied intricacies involved in performing suc-
cessfully on drums, piano, and horns, as well as the skills needed to converse intelligibly in sign language. Before reaching twelve he had learned how to make money. From witnessing the maneuvers of Tuskegee’s black fighter pilots and those of their proud Air Base marching band his musical horizon further expanded while his desire to emulate them soared. But above all during the war years, he learned from both parents how to face life courageously, with dignity, resolution, and inconspicuous pride; so that not long after his mother’s death in 1945, Willie had also learned how to talk himself into the Army as a full-fledged enlistee at fourteen years of age.
Told in Part Two, Ruff’s career in the Army from 1946 to 1949 also contributed richly to his insatiable appetite for increased knowledge and technical virtuosity. While shifting from boot camp at Fort McClellan to other installations at San Francisco, Cheyenne, and ultimately, the all-black Air Force base at Lockbourne, Ohio, he acquired further expertise and sophistication. Among the most helpful were his two bandmasters at Lockbourne, but there were also such younger friends as Abe Kniaz, French hornist with the Columbus Symphony, and the brilliant young pianist, Ivory (Dwike) Mitchell, who would before long team up with Ruff professionally. Together, these men and others had ably prepared him to challenge, at seventeen, the rigors of Yale University’s School of Music with ample high school credits in the liberal arts acquired in his military training programs.
Between his entry as a freshman in 1949 and the acquisition of a master’s degree from the School of Music in 1954 at age twenty-three, several significant events had combined to produce a major transformation in his life. He had gained professional status with part-time performances in New Haven’s black entertainment jazz parlors and in the town’s symphony orchestra. He had also begun serious study of classical music under the spirited supervision of Paul Hindemith himself. An eye-opening experience, indeed, since Hindemith’s passion for the Venetian church music of the 1500s, he declared, “set up reverberations in my memory of W.C. Handy’s message to the children at my Alabama schoolhouse way back in 1937,” though he would need many more years to recognize the connection. By this time, too, his friend Abe Kniaz was firmly ensconced as French hornist in the National Symphony Orchestra at Washington, D.C., though bitterly chagrinned to have to confess that segregation would as yet prevent Ruff from securing a similar coveted position there. This was perhaps the foremost lesson that Ruff had long ago learned from his elders—how to confront the status quo realistically, without abandoning self-esteem.
Parts Four and Five, often spiced with humor and salty dialogue, carry us far afield in a whirl of the activities that have filled the last thirty years of his life. Among the more zestful of these experiences were Ruff’s audition with Conductor Eric Leinsdorf in New York and his chance reunion there with Dwike Mitchell, which resulted in their subsequent teamwork as members of Lionel Hampton’s hot jazz band at the Apollo and on their westward road trip to Las Vegas. This junketing in turn led to the successful launching at last of their Duo along with Count Basie and his famous band at the Birdland back in New York. Yet these were but a few of the gratifying adventures the two men shared later in the 1960s, as they toured the nation on their own, performing and recording their special blend of jazz, spirituals, and classical music at colleges and concert halls throughout the Middle West the West Coast, and even the Deep South.
Beginning also in 1958, word was getting round that the Duo’s brand of music might be enthusiastically welcomed by young Russian jazz buffs in Moscow. Before long, Dwike and Willie were on their way with the Yale Chorus, destined to enjoy an avid response in half a dozen Russian cities from Leningrad to Yalta, a success, Ruff notes, that “worked out beyond our wildest dream.”
Within a few years they were on their way again, to the San Remo Jazz Festival on the Italian Riviera, to other concerts in Sicily, later still in the mid-1960s to Brazil, then to the Central African Republic in 1972, and to Shanghai in 1981. Ruff’s enjoyment in each of these exotic settings was stimulated and enhanced not only by the wholehearted response accorded his music, but also by the discovery that his efforts to learn to speak the vernacular of his hosts, whether foreign or American, helped to create a genuinely mutual conviviality. By striving to talk to people in their own idiom, he was taken into their hearts as well; and they entered into his. Abundant evidence of this achievement appears in the concluding four chapters of his book, especially the forty-fourth, titled “Playing on Holy Ground.”
Literate Americans everywhere, whether devotees of jazz or not, should hearken joyfully to this “call to assembly”; but Alabamians in particular should be mighty proud of its author for writing it.
Eugene Current-Garcia was the first Phi Kappa Phi National Scholar named in 1974. He is Professor Emeritus of English at Auburn University and founding editor of the Southern Humanities Review. This review is reprinted with permission from Forum, the journal of Phi Kappa Phi.