Ruby Braff: Bold, Brash, Brass
A conversation with cornetist Ruby Braff is actually an endless series of verbal choruses as syncopated as his playing. The loquacious Lilliputian’s gift for improvisation is so deeply ingrained that his ideas tend to overlap, each competing frantically to make a point, and often resulting in unfinished thoughts and sentences that tend to evaporate in the ozone.
For example, when Braff is asked about his hobbies:
“Well there’s not much to do here on Cape Cod in the winter. Turn on the radio or phonograph and I play with Ella and Frank or Zoot. I play with the best musicians. I jump on the treadmill or use one-pound dumbbells to keep in shape. I’m not trying to be Charles Atlas. What good would it do to tear telephone books in half? Also every day, even in the winter, I jump in the water, grab a shark or whale and drag it up the street. Everyone laughs at me and says, ‘Oh he’s bringing home another shark’.”
The fact that Braff’s playing is infinitely clearer or “well-sculpted” (to use one of his favorite phrases) segues to one of his favorite theories: the law of opposites. From his home in Dennis, Mass., on Cape Cod, Braff expounds on his hypothesis. “Everything in life, and especially music, has to have opposites in order to be successful. There’s highs, there’s lows; there’s complicated, there’s simple. You try to play a jazz solo and someone puts all 10 fingers down on the keyboard and plays block chords. He’s an idiot. He’s destroying you—he’s wiping you out. In fact, you’re wiping each other out. Opposites.
“But if the comping is like Basie, he allows you to do everything. In fact, Basie invented the rhythm section. He’d play a few well-chosen notes not to get in the way of Freddie Green’s guitar. Walter Page could play his 4/4, and of course Jo Jones was free to do what he did best. But because Basie allowed his rhythm section to be airborne, he allowed the band to be airborne. Opposites made all that possible.
“Everything in music comes under the law of opposites. An orchestra, just by its sheer weight, cannot be airborne. Hence you have soloists. More opposites. Without opposites you cannot have drama; without drama you cannot have music. Look at Ellington. He was another genius at comping. He was a little more provocative, but he knew about space and time.”
When Braff finally took a 16th rest, I jumped in with, “What’s the opposite of Ruby Braff?”
“The opposite of Braff? Al Hirt! How’s that for a quick answer? He played everything I never wanted to play. If I could talk to him I’d say, ‘I don’t care how much money you made with your records; next to you, I’m Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter, Albert Einstein and Aristotle.’”
I must admit I never heard the last two bands, but by now I had heard enough about Ruby Braff to realize here was a genuine, self-taught character from an earlier millennium on his way to becoming the anomaly he is today.
Born Reuben Braff in Boston on March 16, 1927, the first thing Ruby played was not his cornet but his radio. “I was never a good student. I did so poorly in school because every night I’d stay up till about 5 a.m. listening to all those big band broadcasts. I was hooked; the music was great. But I was so dead the next morning, the teacher would say, “What do they grow in Brazil?,’ and I’d say, ‘Art Tatum.’ So of course I got the worst marks in the world.”
He kept insisting that his folks buy him a tenor sax so he could learn how to play it by himself. For reasons unknown, Braff’s father bought him a trumpet and Ruby had to compromise: “I took it to school and once a week a man came around and for 25 cents gave lessons. He taught me the fingering, but nothing else. By the time I was nine I was playing at local parties.” Before his bar mitzvah, Braff began playing in local dives like the Silver Dollar and Izzy Ort’s in a section of downtown Boston that later earned the unofficial sobriquet “The War Zone.”
As Braff lovingly recalls, “They paid me $1.50 a night, but I earned plenty of tips because I could play requests. I worked around three nights a week, and I loved it. For me the smell of stale tobacco and cheap whiskey was my Chanel No 5.” Dan Morgenstern once wrote of Braff and one of his War Zone gigs: “Between sets, the boss made him stand at the bar behind two sailors to hide him from the authorities…but this came to an end and he was fired when [a licensing inspector] determined Ruby was not a midget but a minor.”
Braff’s no longer a minor, but in stature, when he stands erect, he is exactly five feet. But there is the other kind of stature, so important in this business. Very few have scaled the heights that Braff has. He became aware of those heights in his early teens when he and a few hip buddies would spend weekends in the Apple.
“Three or four of us would share a room at the St. James Hotel for $5, and we’d begin at Nick’s in the Village, then go to Midtown, then of course the Street—you know 52nd, to hear people like Ben Webster, Billie Holiday—then it was off to Harlem and Minton’s. By 6 a.m. we were still at it, going to Nola’s to hear the big bands rehearse. Finally back to the room and go to sleep by 9 a.m. It was heaven. For me, coming back to Boston, I’d sooner go to the gas ovens than back to school.”
Braff continued to bloom in Boston. In 1949 he joined clarinetist Edmond Hall’s band at the Savoy, which included trombonist Vic Dickenson and pianist Ken Kersey. The first set each night was broadcast and recorded; Nat Hentoff was the announcer. (It was released by Savoy under the name Ed Hall All-Stars.) George Wein opened Storyville the following year and provided Braff another important outlet that led to a very long association with Pee Wee Russell. Another break, in 1952, led to another fruitful association: Braff appeared in a seminar produced by Wein at Brandeis University, in Waltham, where he impressed John Hammond. That begat Braff’s breakthrough recording in 1953,The Vic Dickenson Septet, for Vanguard. Wein reentered the picture in 1954, when he began his Newport Jazz Festival, and featured Braff for the first of many famous appearances.
At this point one could expect the rest-is-history cliché. While that’s accurate enough, Braff’s subsequent history is saturated with his law of opposites: high and low points, gigs and between-gigs, acceptance and controversy. It’s been a fascinating romp for the little giant who can drop names with the same ease that Artie Shaw dropped wives. In fact, Braff dropped potential wives with the same ease. “I’d go with someone for about five years, and then begin a new relationship for another five years. I never had any desire to get married. I like my freedom too much.”
Nat Hentoff recently described Braff as “the most stubbornly independent person I’ve ever known.” Hentoff’s comment was part of his Wall Street Journal coverage of last spring’s elaborate jazz party thrown by Mat and Rachel Domber in Clearwater, Fla., for Braff’s 74th birthday.
Mat Domber owns Arbors records and is Braff’s biggest booster. As George Wein told me, “Ruby has to have someone who believes in him.” Too bad Domber didn’t enter the picture about four decades earlier. Expanding on that theme, Braff laments, “Too bad Norman Granz didn’t enter the picture then. He was so supportive of all his musicians and did such wonderful things for them.”
When bop-oriented jazz musicians were trying to compete with the rock generation, Braff had to take a lot of undeserved flack from colleagues who criticized him for not changing with the postmodern, musically polyglotenous times, and there were many dry periods in Braff’s career when critics and colleagues put him down for not planting new roots in the muddy avant-garden of jazz.
Braff underscores a valid irony that many closed minds fail to accept or understand: Braff incorporated influences of all kinds into his playing. “In my playing you hear everything and everybody—Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Pee Wee Russell, Ray Nance, Fred Astaire—oh yeah, dancers are some of the greatest ‘drummers’ in the business. Anyone who is worth anything went to the same university: the University of Armstrong. It’s a college from which you never get a diploma. You just don’t graduate; you go back to ‘the professor’ every so often, turn his albums on and say, ‘Oh yeah, I get it. I understand now.’
“The same with Duke. I idolized him almost as much as Louis. I would talk to him as often as I could and try to learn from him. Oh, but he was slippery. Let me give you a typical exchange:
‘Duke, how did you voice that thing in “Chelsea Bridge?” How did you get that color?’
‘Is that a magenta tie? That’s so stylish.’
‘Seriously, did you have a wordless voice doubling the muted trumpet?’
‘You must tell me where you got those sunglasses. I love those frames.’
“I could never pin him down. More often than not I’d find myself complaining about certain gigs. He’d ask how it went and I’d kvetch about the piano player, the drummer, the room, the pay. This went on for a long period until one night, as he was leaving the dressing room, he turned and said, ‘Oh Ruby, wait a second. I have two words for you.’ And I thought to myself, I’ve gone too far. He’s gonna say, ‘Fuck you!’ Instead he firmly said, ‘Fix it!’ He left and I wondered for the longest time and it finally came to me. He fixed things when they weren’t going his way, and so help me I’ve spent the rest of my life fixing things so I could do the best I could musically.”
He tried to fix a situation promoter John Hammond got him into, but to no avail. “I got a part in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Pipe Dream, with Helen Traubel, as the trumpet-playing Pancho, but I had to play the same thing every night for a year. I had a run-of-the-play contract. The first time I played something, I didn’t know Rodgers had written it down and insisted I play the same thing for every performance. It had been choreographed and the dancers complained when I tried to improvise. The only good thing to come out of that experience was hanging with John Steinbeck and going to jazz joints after the show each night. [Pipe Dream was based on Steinbeck’s book Sweet Thursday.] And I didn’t like the lack of respect that Rodgers showed to Traubel and Steinbeck.”
Braff’s only other “acting” gig took place on TV’s Alcoa Hour, a drama called The Magic Horn. “I died at the very opening. I had a heart attack, fell down a flight of stairs and didn’t have to remember any lines. Sal Mineo played a trumpeter and I recorded all his music. My only regret was that I never got an Emmy nomination.”
There have been many insights about Braff’s playing, and as flattering as most of them have been, he tends to put them down. He rejects Whitney Balliett’s assessment: “A well-stirred mixture of Armstrong and Berigan.” He pooh-poohs Warren Vaché’s panegyric: “As far as I’m concerned, the best trumpeter walking now is Ruby Braff.”
Braff has also rejected many a musical association, which, along with his infamous temper and the whims of popular taste, has made him fade in and out of the greater jazz world’s field of vision. He formed a close relationship with Tony Bennett, but Braff’s not comfortable with the role of a gap-filling instrumentalist behind a vocalist. “Besides, you’re limited by the changes written by the arranger.” Braff recorded some fascinating organ duets with Dick Hyman, some of them in European cathedrals with legendary reverberation, “But frankly I’d rather swing behind Jimmy Smith on B-3.” He co-led a memorable quartet with George Barnes, but it came apart because, as George Wein explained in clinical detail, “They were both crazy.” He played with Benny Goodman, and as much as he worshipped Goodman’s ability to swing, his quest for perfection and his rehearsal ethic, Braff had to quit.
“The pressure was terrific. You couldn’t talk to [Benny]. His mind was always somewhere else. I have this memory of Benny staring, like he was looking right through you.”
Are you referring to Goodman’s infamous “ray?”
“Oh that thing—that was just bullshit. If you didn’t look like a clarinet he didn’t see you. He was usually thinking about fingering.”
Clarinetist Kenny Davern summed up Braff’s mixed emotions about the music business with the observation, “Ruby burns his bridges before he gets to them.”
Whatever thought process is involved, Braff remains a fascinating musical mélange: a pint-sized pastiche whose music parameters are defined by two of his early albums, Hustlin’ and Bustlin’ and The Adoration of Melody. He’s one of jazzdom’s most swinging, lyrical, poetic pixies. At the same time he’s frustrated, cynical, bitter, yet wildly funny.
Being in constant pain goes a long way toward explaining part of Braff’s character. He recites his medical litany and it includes emphysema, asthma, osteoporosis and four osteo-related fractures in his back. “You wonder why I play so well in the lower range? That’s where I live. I can’t get above the top line in the staff. I seldom stray above F. Sometimes I think about those long trumpets—you know, the tally-ho hunting horns—and I picture myself falling flat on my face from the weight.”
But you got to give him credit: Braff’s still looking ahead. Just before press time he was booked into the Jazz Bakery in Culver City, near L.A., with Roger Kellaway (“The bread should be good.” Ba-dum-bum!). “And thanks to Mat Domber, I have recording plans. In fact, he came up with recorded material I didn’t even know existed. There are now 11 of my albums on Arbors,” including the new Music for the Still of the Night.
Tom Hustad, a professor of marketing at Indiana University, knows all about Braff and his records. Based on his research into various formats and labels, original releases and reissues, even bootlegs, discographer Hustad estimates, “Ruby has appeared on over 200 recordings.”
Based on that treasure trove of recordings, and Braff’s awareness of his near-iconic status, it comes as no surprise that Ruby is getting more selective—OK, crankier—about gigs. He quoted (or maybe embellished) a recent conversation with an agent.
“‘Ruby, we’d like you to play with…’”
“No, no, no…you haven’t earned the right to tell me who I play with. Just tell me what, when, where and how much, and I’ll tell you who I’m gonna play with.”
“’But we have a small budget.’”
“Then get a smaller person.”
They don’t come much smaller than Ruby Braff, but when you listen to that self-described low register (“I don’t play cornet; I play wood, a very low clarinet. I play a stringed instrument; I’m playing cello.”) and the ability to execute precisely what he conceives, perhaps they don’t come any bigger.
“Anything by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ben Webster, Benny Goodman. Any songs by Gershwin, Porter, Kern, Rodgers, Berlin. We are so lucky to have these geniuses. No other country on earth had so much beautiful music being written or played at the same time.”
“I play a Benge cornet, mainly because it’s lightweight. I look good in that cornet because I’m so small and I’m still shrinking. The mouthpiece is English: a Wick #5—so wide you could drive a truck through it.”
Originally published in October 2001