Ruby Braff reigned supreme on the cornet for more than 50 years, beginning his career in the bebop era and experiencing his most active period from the 1970s onward. He was noted for his warm musical tone, a bizarre sense of humor, and a mercurial temper. “I like to entertain people,” he told Gordon Spencer in the World and I. “I want to make people happy.” He embellished his live programs with fictitious monologues about his ongoing relationship with the Queen of England and the phone calls he received from Scotland Yard to help solve cases. Braff was also noted for his abrasive disposition, a personality trait that occasionally hurt him professionally. He remained committed to Dixieland and swing, and watched his chosen style move from popular in the 1940s to out-of-date in the 1950s and 1960s to back in vogue during the 1970s.
Braff was born to Russian immigrants on March 16, 1927, in Boston, Massachusetts. At eight he wanted to play the saxophone, but his parents, feeling he was too small for the hefty instrument, bought him a cornet instead. He later attributed his use of the lower register to an attempt to make his cornet sound like a saxophone. He first heard Louis Armstrong on the radio when he was ten, and remained enthralled with the master’s method for the remainder of his life. “All of us studied with Louis,” Jon Thurber quoted the cornetist in the Los Angeles Times,“and none of us ever graduated.” Primarily self-taught, Braff learned to play by repeating what he heard on the radio. “For the rest of his life,” noted the Daily Telegraph, “he believed that this was the best way to learn.” Braff’s dislike of formal learning also applied to his studies at school—he later stated that music had saved him from a lifetime of menial labor.
Braff began to play professionally in the 1940s, despite his parents’ objections. His first important job was in 1949, playing Boston’s Savory Café with clarinetist Edmond Hall; he later worked with clarinetist Pee Wee Russell and trombonist Vic Dickerson. He left Boston for New York in 1953, then the jazz capital of the world. He lived meagerly upon his arrival, surviving for a short time on cans of sardines his parents sent him, and fighting an uphill battle for recognition. “Braff played in a more traditional mode,” wrote Thurber, “embracing the style, if not quite the sound, of Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke.” In 1954 Braff came into prominence partly due to his performance at the first Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island.
Due to his penchant for older jazz styles, Braff worked very little during the late 1950s and early 1960s. He toured Europe in 1961, and played occasionally with the Newport All-Stars, led by George Wein, during the 1960s. He also had the misfortune of offending one of the most powerful booking agents, Joe Glaser. When Glaser called to book the cornet player—but not his band that included Jack Teagarden and Earl Hines—for a tour of England, Braff exchanged insults and hung up. Unsure whether he had pressed his point forcefully enough, he called Glaser back and reportedly shouted into the receiver, “You don’t deserve to know guys like Teagarden and Hines…,” and hung up again. “The tender lyricism of Braff’s music,” noted the Daily Telegraph, “contrasted oddly with a combative and cantankerous nature.”
Braff experienced a renaissance in the 1970s, first working two years for Tony Bennett, and then forming a quartet with guitarist George Barnes. The quartet recorded five albums for Concord Jazz in two years, and helped to secure Braff’s reputation as a key player on the contemporary Dixieland and swing revival scene. The quartet’s success, however, was shortlived. “It had years of life left in it when Braff had a corrosive falling-out with Barnes in 1975,” wrote Steve Voce in the Independent When asked by a fan why he didn’t record another album with Barnes, Braff apparently retorted, “Why don’t you make a f***ing album with George Barnes?”
Braff released a series of memorable albums for Concord during the 1980s, including A Sailboat in the Moonlight in 1986 and Music from My Fair Lady: With an Extra Bit of Luck in 1989. During the 1990s Braff continued to tour and record, releasing a number of well-received albums for Arbors Records, including Live at the Regattabar In 1993 and Ruby Braff Remembers Louis Armstrong: Being with You in 1996. Although he occasionally composed songs, he relied heavily on standards, believing in the durability of these classics. “Braff’s musical habitat was the classic American song,” wrote the Daily Telegraph,“on which he elaborated with elegance and passion.”
Born Reuben Braff on March 16, 1927, in Boston, MA; died on February 9, 2003, in North Chatham, MA.
Played with clarinetist Edmond Hall, 1949; performed at Newport Jazz Festival, 1954; led sessions at Vanguard Records, 1950s; performed with George Wein’s Newport All-Stars, 1960s; joined Tony Bennett, early 1970s; formed quartet with guitarist George Barnes, mid-1970s; recorded a series of albums including A Sailboat in the Moonlight (1986) for Concord Jazz, 1970s-1980s; recorded a series of albums for Arbors Records, including Ruby Braff Remembers Louis Armstrong: Being with You(1996), 1990s.
Addresses: Record company—Arbors Records, 2189 Cleveland St., Suite 225, Clearwater, FL 33765, phone: (727) 466-0571, website: http://www.arborsrecords.com
Braff also worked with a number of younger musicians including guitarist Howard Alden and saxophonist Scott Hamilton, who were grounded in swing and Dixieland. He nonetheless complained that many young musicians emphasized technique over style. “Many are too inexperienced to write music of importance,” Braff told Fred Bouchard in Down Beat. “They pay lip service to Duke and Louis, but fail to include them in their repertoire. There’s a lot of exercising and showing off.”
Braff’s health deteriorated during a British tour in 2002 and the remainder of the dates were canceled. He made his last public appearance in August of 2002 at the Narin International Jazz Festival in Scotland. “His personal style was marvelously intact,” George Kanzler noted in the Star-Ledger of a 2000 concert, “from his lyrical parsing of melodies to his pert, joyously swinging obligatos… .” Many critics argued that his playing grew warmer over time and that his solos reached even greater depths.
On February 9, 2003, Braff died of chronic lung disease at a nursing facility in North Chatham, Massachusetts. In his 50 years as a performer, he had played on 250 albums and performed with dozens of jazz’s greatest artists. “He brought musicianship to a new level,” jazz critic Nat Hentoff told Thurber in the Los Angeles Times. “Every note meant something to him.”
Ruby Braff Swings, Bethlehem, 1954.
The Mighty Braff, Affinity, 1954.
Adoration of the Melody, Bethlehem, 1954.
Holiday in Braff, Bethlehem, 1955.
Hustlin’ and Bustlin’, Black Lion, 1955.
Swing with Ruby Braff, Jazztone, 1955.
Two by Two: Ruby and Ellis Play Rodgers and Hart, Vanguard, 1955.
The Ruby Braff Special, Vanguard, 1955.
Inventions in Jazz, Vol. 2, Vanguard, 1955.
Inventions in Jazz, Vol. 1, Vanguard, 1955.
The Magic Horn of Ruby Braff, RCA, 1956.
Braff!, RCA, 1956.
Ruby Braff Featuring Dave McKenna, Paramount, 1956.
Hi-Fi Salute to Bunny, RCA, 1957.
The Ruby Braff Octet with Pee Wee Russell, Verve, 1957.
This is My Lucky Day, Bluebird, 1957.
Pocketful of Dreams, Vanguard, 1957.
Easy Now, RCA, 1958.
Ruby Braff Goes Girl Crazy, Warner, 1958.
You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me, Stereo-Craft, 1959.
Blowing Around the Around, United Artists, 1959.
Hear Me Talkin’, Black Lion, 1967.
Ruby Braff with Buddy Tate and the Newport All Stars, Black Lion, 1967.
On Sunnie’s Side of the Street, Blue Angel, 1968.
Ruby Braff and the George Barnes Quartet Play Gershwin, Concord Jazz, 1974.
A First, Concord, 1985.
A Sailboat in the Moonlight, Concord Jazz, 1986.
Music from South Pacific, Concord Jazz, 1990.
Cornet Chop Suey, Concord, 1991.
Live at the Regattabar, Arbors, 1993.
(With Ellis Larkins) Calling Berlin, Vol. 1, Arbors, 1995.
(With Ellis Larkins) Calling Berlin, Vol. 2, Arbors, 1997.
Ruby Braff Remembers Louis Armstrong: Being with You, Arbors, 1996.
Variety is the Spice of Braff, Arbors, 2002.
Holtje, Steve, and Nancy Ann Lee, editors, MusicHound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1998.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), February 11, 2003, p. 1.
Down Beat, July 1997, p. 42.
Independent (London, England), February 11, 2003, p. 18.
Los Angeles Times, February 12, 2003, B. 10.
Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), August 1, 2000, p. 39.
World and I, March 1997, p. 116.
“Ruby Braff,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (February 15, 2003).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
"Braff, Ruby." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 25, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/braff-ruby
"Braff, Ruby." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved March 25, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/braff-ruby
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