In Memoriam: Willie Ruff, 1931-2023

Willie Ruff, professor emeritus of music at the Yale School of Music died of December 24 in Killen, Alabama. He was 92 years old.

Professor Ruff grew up in Sheffield, Alabama, and joined the Army at 14, forging his father’s signature on the necessary documents to enlist. It was in the service that Ruff, who had started his musical life as a drummer and pianist, developed as a horn player and double bassist. It was also in the Army that Ruff met pianist Dwike Mitchell, with whom Ruff would later play in Lionel Hampton’s band before the two formed a duo and, over five decades, brought jazz to new audiences around the world.

Professor Ruff held bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from Yale University. He joined the faculty at Yale in 1971 and taught there until his retirement in 2017. Professor Ruff established the Duke Ellington Fellowship, a program at Yale that introduced thousands of schoolchildren in New Haven to performances by the most iconic jazz artists of our time. Between 1972 and 2002, the Duke Ellington Fellows had worked with an estimated 180,000 New Haven public school students.

He was the author of the memoir, A Call to Assembly: The Autobiography of a Musical Storyteller (Viking Books, 1991).

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