CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Mark Ruffin: The Storied Intersection of Jazz, Baseball, and Race

Jazz radio host and author of new historical fiction book talks about his creative process and his life in jazz

Mark Ruffin
Author and radio host Mark Ruffin

This year marks the 40th year of Mark Ruffin’s career as a jazz broadcaster and writer. Since 2007, Ruffin has been the program director of the Real Jazz channel for Sirius XM, as well as an on-air host. He’s also produced several albums, including recordings by René Marie, Giacomo Gates, and George Freeman. His debut book Bebop Fairy Tales: An Historical Fiction Trilogy on Jazz, Intolerance and Baseball is a collection of three novellas that combine the themes in the subtitle. Ruffin spoke with JazzTimes about his long and winding career, and about his evolution as a writer.

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JazzTimes: You grew up in Chicago. How did you get into jazz? Was it just in the family?

Mark Ruffin: My father had a record store. I am the fifth of six and the second youngest. It was osmosis, man. There was music all around me all the time and back then it was hard to put music in a box, so Miles would come on next to Frank Sinatra next to the Temptations or Motown stuff. My first memory is about my mom being robbed by a guy and a woman come to look at merchandise. He put a gun at my mom’s chest, I was underneath the gun while on the turntable was a 45 single of Miles Davis’ “If I Were a Bell.” As long as that kept coming back, I knew I’d be okay. It’s an amazing memory I have. My brothers and sisters, we learned to read from all those records that kept coming in from people like Smokey Robinson and Curtis Mayfield. Eventually I learned to read through learning lyrics from Smokey. And I learned jazz—my mothers’ brothers were all into jazz, it was just there all the time. I don’t remember Miles not being in my life.

What about as far as writing? Did you study that in school?  Were you on the school paper, that kind of thing?

Smokey Robinson taught me how to turn a phrase. That’s why I thank him personally in the book. I thought I would either be Smokey Robinson or Don Kissinger [Chicago Cubs shortstop]. Eventually as I grew, in high school I remember writing music reviews. The one I remember most is for the War album, Why Can’t We Be Friends? Then in college, not only was I on the radio but I was the editor of the Black student newspaper for two years, Uhuru-Sasa. It was a militant time. It was a school gig too, so I was actually getting paid to run the newspaper.

I can see you in your dashiki now. Where did you go to college?

Southern Illinois University. I was a music major and with a lot of English classes. I was a bassist. Then I saw Stanley Clarke with Return to Forever’s Where Have I Known You Before tour. Stanley did a line that made me drop the bass. You know, some people are inspired by Wes or Bird, but I saw Stanley and I was not inspired [to continue with the bass]. I changed my major. Fortunately, Southern Illinois was a broadcasting school and I kept taking English classes. At one point, they tried to make me change my major to English. I didn’t finish, though. There was one class that really got me, Oral Interpretations I and II. The second year, he gave us a bunch of topics like life, death, and a lot of different circumstances, and you had to pick two people who you could recite all year. I chose Gil Scott-Heron and Richard Pryor.

I was scattered all over the place mostly, with regular television and English classes. One summer, I ran out of money and was kind of spent, my sister got me a job at the post office. I felt, at the post office, that I was selling my soul and I went and got a First Class license [as a radio engineer]. I studied for it while I was at the post office and I was volunteering on radio stations like WDCB. I started an interview show with the purpose of taking those interviews and breaking into journalism too. I had this show called “Jazz Talk,” and I went to the Illinois Entertainer. I wrote a piece on Ramsey Lewis and the editor Guy Arnston said, “Dude, you have a voice.” He was the first editor to say that to me.

His first assignment to me was Chick Corea and Gary Burton, around 1982. And from there, I’ve been so blessed and so lucky in these 40 years. I was with Illinois Entertainer and the associate editor, Dan Kening, had just found out that Chicago magazine was changing a lot of cultural editors and they needed a jazz editor. I’m two years into my career, and this guy gets me a gig at Chicago magazine. Suddenly, you know how everyone wants to break into what we do? And write all those queries and stuff? Suddenly, I didn’t have to write queries. Suddenly, I have people coming to me because I was the jazz editor.

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You’re the man in that seat, the one who gets to say no or yes.

Not only that, I would call editors and they would just assume I knew what I was talking about. And I started freelancing like crazy—DownBeat mostly. I was a stringer sometimes from 1987 to 1997, or so. Back when newspapers had a jazz writer and a stringer. Chicago magazine just afforded me so much.

How did you break into radio?

You had to have a First Class FCC license, especially in a union place, to operate almost any equipment. A First Class license was better than a degree in getting a job in broadcasting. And that’s what happened to me: I got my license and I went to every radio station in town. I was volunteering at a station called WRRG and at WDCB. At WRRG there was a guy name Steve Cushing, he owns a syndicated radio show to this day called “Blues Before Sunrise.” I was at this small station, and he was the guy who relieved me every week on our volunteer station. I walked into WBEZ one day with my First Class license and said I wanted a job as an engineer and the chief engineer, Tony Franco, said, “We don’t have any positions open.” I was walking out the door and in came Steve Cushing, this guy who relieved me at WRRG, and he said, “Ruffin, what are you doing here?” I said, “I’m trying to get a job.” He said, “So you got it, right?” “No, he told me there was nothing available.” He walked me right back to the very same guy, Tony Franco, and said, “This is the guy you want to hire.” And that is how I got my first job. I was an engineer.

I was at WBEZ for a couple months and I was still at WDCB volunteering. I had two shifts and that interview show. Howard Mandel was the president of the Jazz Institute of Chicago and he was just starting a radio show at WBEZ called “Radio Chicago.” He had heard my interview show and he asked me if I wanted to work on this show. That was my first paid, on-air gig for the Jazz Institute of Chicago. With all those interview shows I did, I tried to sell articles. That’s how I got into different publications—like DownBeat. I would call national newspapers and say, “I’m the jazz editor of Chicago magazine,” and they would talk to me. I found that music freelance is one of the greatest gigs in the world if you can pull it off. Especially when I started traveling.

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It’s not always a great gig economically.

But the rock people get paid. Especially back then, they were getting paid. But, yes, it’s hard. I was fortunate in all my years of writing, I always had a radio job. And that helped me sustain myself. I wasn’t making money in either field a lot but, together, it was a living. I have this line: I worked at four jazz stations in one city in 20 years, which can’t even be done anymore. I was at WBEZ first, then WDCB during 1981-1985, then WBEB-AM, which was a daytime jazz station on the south side of Chicago, from 1985 until 1988. Then I was at WNUA [a smooth jazz station] from 1988 until 1996 and at WBEZ from 1996 until 2000. Twenty years in radio, and I was unemployed for just one week throughout that whole 20 years—from April 1 to April 7 in 1988. Other than that, I was so very lucky.

The ’90s is when I fell in love with screenwriting. That changed the trajectory of a lot of things. I spent two years trying to teach myself that. There’s a guy named Syd Field who’s the “how to” guy in screenwriting, and I studied him and a guy named William Goldman, one of the best Hollywood screenwriters ever.

He’s famous for that one book, Adventures in the Screen Trade.

Right, I read it three times, and there’s Adventures in the Screen Trade 2. I studied it and then I was in this amazing screenwriter group that was made up of writers from different publications. Our leader was this guy named Ted Shen, who was a columnist for the Chicago Reader. But we had so many writers, we always had once a month a screenplay we could tear into. Once I decided that, all these jazz stories just invaded my head. My first screenplay was called Cash for Your Trash, and it was a story about Fats Waller being kidnapped by Al Capone. Fats was just low-hanging fruit if you want to tell jazz stories.

I’m fascinated by so many jazz stories, so many invaded my head. I kept writing about history, and I was working for Ramsey Lewis in the ’90s [as producer of his radio show] and Terence Blanchard was being interviewed. I told Terence about my aspirations, and he actually got me in contact with Spike Lee. I sent Spike the screenplay and I have the letter somewhere in which he says it was good, but you don’t send period pieces to Black independent companies. My second and third screenplays were also historical ones, but my group told me to get rid of history, eschew it, and to concentrate on something from my life.

Through a fluke I put that screenplay into the Sundance competition and I was a semifinalist. I went to a party in L.A. with my friend Malcolm-Jamal Warner, who had told me to come to L.A. I had a Robert Redford “See an Agent Free” card. When I got there, I kept focusing on that history thing and a guy said, “You know Brokeback Mountain? It came from a book of short stories. Maybe you should write a book of short stories.” And it just hit me, right there. It took me 17 years.

How do you think your long career in radio has informed your writing?

In a few ways. Especially when I got into producing radio, which is a totally different thing to just sitting in there and playing music. When you produce an NPR public radio-like piece, you have to set it up like an article. You’ve got to have the quotes together, you’ve got to have the lead in, make it make sense. And I started with that show “Jazz Talk” on WDCB with the whole idea of trying to do that.

They weren’t just straight Q&A interviews?

The final product was me writing scripts around pieces, never talking more than five or seven minutes, making sure that it was 50-60% music as well as talking. But, no, never straight interviews.

Interviewing is not as easy as people think. Anybody can do it, but few can do it well.

Two people who really helped me as far as interviewing—one is Chick Corea, and the other is a woman named Linda Prince. When I started WBEZ, DJs couldn’t play their own records. Neil Tesser was on, as well as Dick Buckley, Larry Smith, and Linda Prince. Linda could talk. She’d put her head down, have a Heineken in her hands, and just talk for five minutes and then play the song. She’d have guests, and one of the guests was Sonny Stitt. She asked one of those five-minute questions, and she looked up and Sonny looked at her and said, “What the fuck does that mean?” He got up, took the microphone off, and I remember thinking, “Okay, get to the point. Don’t ask long questions.”

Sometimes you can learn as much from what other people do wrong.  

That’s right. I got to interview Chick so many times through my life, but earlier in my career I was interviewing him for that [first] article in Illinois Entertainer. And Chick says, “You make me say things I don’t say to people.” And he asked if I would come out to Mad Hatter, sit with him for two days, and interview him. I could do what I want with the tape, he could do what he wants with the tape. I said, “Of course, yes, yes.” When I first talked to him, I knew everything about Chick Corea. This time, I had to prepare, knowing I’d be talking to him for a couple of hours. When I got there, I pulled out all my questions and he said, “What’s that?” I said, “It’s my questions,” and he took my questions from me and said, “We didn’t have this. We talk.” And from that point on, I never sat with a lot of questions. I always had points or highlights. And both of those experiences put me on the road to becoming a better interviewer.

Mark Ruffin interviewing Melody Gardot during Blue Note at Sea ’20 (photo: Lee Mergner)

Who are some of the people doing interviews over the years whom you admire or appreciate?

There’s Studs Terkel. He was the first person I really noticed, and I got a chance to work with him early on. I remember he told me, “You picked a good profession, son. You write, and no one can take that away from you. You can do it till you die.” He was fascinating. The NPR people, like Cokie Roberts—I loved her interviewing style. And of course, Dick Cavett. Later in life, Terry Gross had me. I think her interview with George Clinton was amazing. I’ve just heard her interview some folks and she gets so much out of them. One of my writing, broadcast, and interview heroes is Neil Tesser. He hates for me to say it, but I was in high school when I used to hear him pontificate.

He has such a classic radio voice too. And of course he’s a talented writer.

His taste was so eclectic. I remember at WBEZ, he played Meredith Monk next to Gil Scott-Heron’s “Winter in America.” And then justified it in the back sell! He used to have a column in the Chicago Reader. I’ve always admired him. When I got to WBEZ in 1980, I couldn’t wait to meet Neil Tesser. So many people told me, “He’s an asshole! What do you want to meet him for?” But we hit it off right from the start. We got so tight, we were arguing about stuff and we used to do it in public, so people thought we didn’t like each other. But if you go toe to toe with him, it’s a lot of fun. And that’s how our radio show [Listen Here!, which ran from 2005 to 2007] started—a guy came to me and said, “Man, you and Neil should sit down and talk.”

Why did you structure the book as three short stories?

Once I decided to write the screenplays, I had all these jazz stories. There’s just a treasure trove of stories in the jazz world. I developed a number of stories—I actually have six bebop fairytales in different forms. One is about a 23rd-century relative of Von Freeman who’s in a colony on Mars and he discovers Von. The other one—have you ever heard the saying, “If you keep a good idea to yourself long enough, somebody else will get it”? I had another great story about Josephine Baker in WWII called “She Was a War Hero.” She was a decorated French war hero, and I have these stories about her conning the Nazis with her tigers, and now there’s a new book about Josephine Baker in WWII [Sherry Jones’ Josephine Baker’s Last Dance].

I have a story called “Confirmation,” and it starts with Charlie Parker, Michael Jackson, and Dinah Washington walking into a bar. A weird Twilight Zone story. I started it when Michael was alive, and it was Dinah and Bird trying to convince him to get off drugs because it was going to kill him. Dinah was the bad cop and Bird was the good cop. Bird said, “You know, had I lived, I could’ve saved the world from Kenny G!” This was the first time when characters started talking to me. I had read the biographies on Dinah and I could hear her voice in my head. There’s one part of the story that I love where I came up with this line about Dinah going to Michael and proclaiming that it was her who hooked them [Michael and Quincy Jones] up. That was a part of the story I really liked.

When I decided to do the book I had these stories and had to decide to concentrate on three of them. I found two of them had a baseball angle, and the most complete one was the first one, “The Saturday Night Fish Fry.” All of them are about integration.

Baseball and jazz really afforded you the opportunity to explore race.

Definitely. Look how baseball and jazz helped us get through racism, or at least start the conversation. When it comes to jazz and baseball, that’s a no-brainer. There are so many people who are historians of both. But the way I was raised has influenced me and informed me of the ways that I would like the world to be. I would like for us all to get along. I think intolerance is stupid.

The issue of race continues to be a pervasive problem in our country.

Ed Cherry [jazz guitarist] stated on social media that Trumpers can’t be jazz fans. I was like, “Dude, are you crazy?” WDCB was at the College of DuPage, in DuPage County, one of the most conservative counties of this country still. I learned early on that jazz does not discriminate politically. I’ve had right-wing governors call me at Sirius XM, and back at WDCB the most hardcore right-wing people [would call in]. At WDCB, I had freedom and I could play whatever I wanted—AACM, fusion, whatever. And no matter what I played, politically it drew both crowds. I think in our bubble, we want the world to be harmonious, the principles of jazz teach us a lot about the world. But listeners? They’re not artists, they’re different.

Cover of Bebop Fairy Tales by Mark Ruffin

Why did you choose Philadelphia as a location for the third story?

First of all, I’m a huge fan of American history, especially war history. My rocket scientist son, his minor at the Air Force Academy was American war history or something like that, but he got that from me. When he was young, I read him Winston Churchill. History has always been something that’s fascinated me. Jazz history is amazing. Also in my life, when I got into sports, for some reason certain areas turned me on. In sports, since I was a kid, I knew sports in the Bay Area scene, like I used to live there or something. Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit music scenes always fascinated me. My very best friend in college, Billy Walden, is from Philly, whose cousin was a Delfonic [R&B and soul group from Philadelphia], and he told me all these stories. I know sports history and, being a suffering Cubs fan, it hit me about the 1964 Phillies.

You don’t need to remind me, a lifelong Phillies fan. I had World Series tickets before they collapsed during the last 12 games of the season.

I blame it all on David Halberstam. I never understood the ’50s until I read his book The Fifties. His first book I read was called The Children, about the civil rights movement. What a great fucking book. Then he wrote October 1964, so I had all that in my head and I thought about Lee Morgan and the history of the sidewinder. When I found out that the Chrysler corporation had used a sidewinder in 1965, the very next year, the story just started taking shape. After Halberstam, I started reading books and articles on the collapse of the Phillies in 1964. I started thinking about [Phillies star and 1964 National League Rookie of the Year] Richie Allen and [Phillies right fielder] Johnny Callison, who was a bad motherfucker. What if there was a Black kid who liked Richie Allen and a white kid who liked Johnny Callison and somehow they ran into each other in Philly during the time Lee Morgan was doing “Sidewinder”?

The deeper I got into it, the story took on a life of its own. I’m doing research, and it was the weekend that the Phillies were about to lose first place. At a game on September 27, 1964, the Phillies were playing the Milwaukee Braves at Connie Mack Stadium in Philly at the same time that the Eagles were playing the Cleveland Browns at Franklin Field. At the football game, so many people had radios listening to the baseball game that when things happened at the baseball game, people on the field didn’t know what was going on, which I kind of duplicated in that story. Walter Beach was on that Browns team, and Walter Beach is such an outstanding human being and great character, who I’ve gotten to know from my friendship with his wife Gail Boyd [longtime jazz manager and attorney]. And the fact that he was part of that economic summit that Jim Brown was trying to put together [the Cleveland Summit of 1967], and he’s in that famous picture with Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar [as well as Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, and several other distinguished Black athletes], I thought, “Man, that’s really cool.” So then I look at the stats and it was one of his best games ever! I was like, “Oh my god, I’ve got to work Walter Beach in this.” And that answered the question of people from Cleveland, “Why is there a Cleveland Browns football team in this?”  

What was your greatest challenge in writing the book?

Time. Getting the time to write it. My life was full. Now that I’m done, the desire to write a screenplay is strong. Many of my stories are in my head. I developed this way of going to sleep by projecting this movie in my head. I’ve come up with a lot of stories that way. I knew a lot of the stories, but I had to take the time to get them down and craft them. I wrote four screenplays in seven years, but it took me 17 years to write this book. Life got in the way.

Why did you decide to self-publish this book?

I had this plan, from the time that guy told me about Brokeback Mountain. I thought if I got a job with national attention, then I could have a publisher come to me. Everything happened except getting down to write the book. Just when I was ready to go to a publisher, I developed a [promotional] plan that included appearances at jazz festivals. My son went to Harvard and one of his classes was a movie class. And he had to be with a CEO of a movie company every week or so. And for his job for the last semester, he worked for CAA [Creative Artists Agency, a high-profile talent agency originally founded by Michael Ovitz]. I thought, “The tides have turned. Let me call my kid.” I call him and he’s in Bob Iger’s office. He said that his professor, Henry McGee, wanted to help me get an agent. I think he really wanted to figure out where my kid was going with his career. We spent 45 minutes going over every aspect of my kid’s life and then he took some time with me. I told him my plan for promoting the book. He took out a piece of paper and said, “Here was a lead I was going to give you for Simon & Schuster.” And he tore it up in front of me. He said, “You should do this yourself. If you go to them, they’re going to ask how they can set up a tour. You’ve set that up already. They’ll ask how they can get you on the radio. You’re already on the radio. You can do this yourself.” And he showed me how Amazon enabled self-publishing. You know, this is our art, this our culture. And we want to put it out there.

What writers do you admire as a reader and fellow writer?

Octavia Butler. About 20 years ago back when I was freelancing, I spent the whole summer reading Octavia Butler. Her imagination freed me. Same with Erik Larson, who wrote Devil in the White City. The things you can do mixing history and storytelling. He has a vivid way of writing and colliding small details. As a kid, Mark Twain turned me on. And Charles Dickens opened my head with Great Expectations. And William Goldman, who I mentioned before. And Gil Scott-Heron. I read his first two novels before Winter in America came out. By the time his third record came out, I was so enamored with him. I heard him first on Harry Abraham’s radio show from Rochester [on WHAM-AM] with Pieces of a Man when I was a kid. I went back to “Whitey on the Moon” and Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, when I found out about The Vulture and The Nigger Factory. His two books showed me that I could have a voice and I could say something too.

What is your creative process as a writer?

Back in my freelance days, I tried to write every day. Now, I write a lot of stuff out in my mind. It was my next idea [for a book] that spurred me to finish this one. An idea came to me fully formed based on something that happened to me. Every night in that movie in my mind, I would play it until I got more and more. Then it just started eating me up. I was about to start writing it, when Valerie [Mark’s wife] said, “No, no, you’ve been working on this other thing all weekend and you should finish the one you started.” I wouldn’t listen to her. One day I told René Marie about both stories—the one that was eating me up and the one that’s in this book. She said, “Listen, Mark, those stories are incredible, but if you don’t finish the first book, this other one won’t have the same richness and fullness, because you won’t know what it’s like to finish something. You need to finish this one so you understand the process.” I realized she was right. But before I did that, I wrote an outline and that outline was more than 30 pages. I like writing outlines.