Willie Ruff, a world renowned jazz musician who played with greats and taught at Yale, dies at 92

Willie Ruff

Noted jazz musician and educator Willie Ruff, known for playing with luminaries including Miles Davis and Leonard Cohen, has died at the age of 92.

Born near Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Ruff would go on to teach music at Yale University for nearly 50 years. Though he would eventually get a graduate degree and begin his stint on the faculty in 1971, when Ruff began as an undergrad it was his first time in a racially unified classroom.

“I was born in the segregated South,” Ruff said in 2011. “For the first time I was in a classroom with white people.”

Ruff came not to study jazz specifically, but music. He’d read that Charlie Parker wanted to come to Yale and study under famed composer and teacher Paul Hindemith, and thought that what was good enough for Charlie Parker was good enough for him.

Ruff enrolled under the G.I. Bill and studied with Hindemith who, at the time, was working on an opera about astronomer Johannes Kepler called “Music of the Spheres.” Tom Duffy, professor and former acting dean of Yale’s School of Music, said Hindemith had a profound influence on Ruff, including teaching him the correct fingerings for the French horn.

“He was self taught, made up his own fingerings and could still play well, but with the right fingerings he became a virtuoso,” Duffy said.

When Ruff came to Yale in the 1950s, Jazz wasn’t yet a course of study one could follow in music school, but Ruff listened to his share after moving to Connecticut.

“There was a club on every street corner in New Haven,” Ruff said. “It was common for people to work their way through Yale playing jazz.”

Soon after taking up a professorship, Ruff organized what would become one of the most iconic concerts in New Haven’s history. Ruff had played with many jazz greats, including Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington, so he brought them all to Yale in 1972.

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