The Mitchell Ruff Duo
— "enduring magic"
The Mitchell-Ruff Duo was officially formed in 1955 when the pianist Dwike Mitchell and the bassist and French horn player Willie Ruff left Lionel Hampton's band to strike out on their own. But its real origins go back even earlier - to 1947, when they were servicemen stationed at Lockbourne Air Force Base, near Columbus, Ohio. Mitchell, a 17-year-old pianist with the unit band, needed a bass player for an Air Force radio show, and he saw a likely candidate in the newly arrived Ruff, who at that time only played the French Horn. "He was just a kid, 16 years old," Mitchell recalls, "with a lot of hair, fire-engine red, practically down to his eyebrows. But he had all this energy, and he was eager to learn. So I taught him. Every time he made a mistake I said, 'You got to stand in the corner,' and he hated that, and he'd scream and holler - he had the loudest scream you ever heard. But he never made the same mistake again."
Ruff has been a fast learner ever since, with no visible loss of energy, and the friendship that was formed in 1947 between two small-town Southern boys - Mitchell is from Florida, Ruff from Alabama - has deepened over the years into the warmest collaboration, one that has taken them to the top of their profession and to many corners of the world. It was the Mitchell Ruff Duo that introduced jazz to the Soviet Union, in 1959, playing and teaching at conservatories in Leningrad, Moscow, Kiev, Yalta, Sochi and Riga; and it was the Mitchell-Ruff Duo that brought jazz to China, in 1981, playing and teaching at conservatories in Shanghai and Peking. Before the first trip Ruff taught himself Russian, his seventh language, and before the second trip he learned Chinese, thereby enabling himself to explain to his listeners, in their own language, the roots and lineage of American jazz, with Mitchell demonstrating on the piano. Teaching and learning have been strong currents in the lives of both men.
Only once, after the military service, did they go their separate ways and lose touch. Mitchell studied at the conservatory in Philadelphia for two years and then joined the band of Lionel Hampton, who had heard him playing in an air force band and told him he wanted him to be his pianist. Thus Hampton became the first in a long line of legendary jazzmen - a line that was to include Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie and Miles Davis - who became devout admirers of Mitchell's awesome technique, his stunning harmonies and his boundless range. He is a pianist who can do it all. Relatively unknown to the public, he is a giant to his peers.
Ruff, meanwhile, went to the Yale School of Music, choosing it because he wanted to study with one of its faculty stars, the composer Paul Hindemith. Upon receiving his master's degree in 1954 he tried to get a position with an American symphony orchestra, but found that black musicians were not yet welcome in those ranks. Instead he accepted a job as first French Horn with the Tel Aviv Symphony. Not long before he was to leave he happened to watch "The Ed Sullivan Show" and saw on his TV screen not only Lionel Hampton's band but - to his surprise - Mitchell at the piano. Ruff, invited to join Hampton's band, jumped at the chance to be reunited with Mitchell and never did get to Israel. He has made up for his lack of travel in recent years as a part-time film maker. Film is an important teaching tool to him - he is a professor of music and Afro-American Studies at Yale - and he has visited the pygmies of the Central African Republic, the master drummers of Bali, the tribesmen of Senegal and various other remote societies to make films about their drum music and language.
When the Mitchell-Ruff Duo was formed in 1955 it had the advantage, Ruff recalls, of being the least expensive group in jazz, and it was therefore booked as the second act with the best and most expensive bands of the day - Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie - in Birdland, the Embers, the Village Vanguard, Basin Street East and other leading nightclubs. They were all riding the crest of one of the most popular eras of jazz - an era that would soon end with the advent of rock and the dominance of television.
What made it an unusually rich period for Mitchell and Ruff was that the older musicians, after playing their set, would stick around and tell the two younger men what they were doing wrong and what they could do better. "We learned everything from those men," Ruff recalls. "They were our mentors." This experience, coupled with the same kind of generosity that they had found among the older musicians who were stationed at the air force base, nourished a teaching bent in Mitchell and Ruff that shaped their own lives careers. In the late 1950's they toured widely for a group called Young Audiences, playing and demonstrating jazz for students in elementary schools and high schools, and since the mid-1960's their main format has been - and still is - the college concert. They give 60 or 70 a year on college campuses, where they are great favorites.
Ruff is a man on the move, constantly generating new projects to supplement an academic and artistic life that is already full. He is a curator, for instance, of the Duke Ellington Fellowships, a program that he created at Yale which brings the giants of black American music to New Haven throughout the year to teach at Yale and in the city's predominantly black public schools: singers like Odetta and Bessie Jones, arrangers like Benny Carter, tap dancers like Honi Coles and instrumentalists like Charlie Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie.
Mitchell, meanwhile, stays in his New York apartment, occasionally teaching but mostly practicing the piano from morning to night, gladly leaving the details to a partner who obviously thrives on them, waiting for Ruff to call and let him know where they are going to play next. As he has learned, it could be Seattle or Senegal. "If it sounds all right to me," he says, "I just tell him, 'O.K., Ruff, let's go'."
To inquire about booking the Mitchell Ruff Duo for a concert or educational program, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.