Jim Godbolt interviews Ruby Braff

December 5, 2014 at 8:59 pm (funny, jazz, Jim D, music)

This interview first appeared in the ‘Jazz At Ronnie Scott’s’ magazine of November-December 1996. It doesn’t seem to be available anywhere on the web, so I’ve republished it here. I think it’s a classic, especially as the interviewer, the late Jim Godbolt, was known as something of a curmudgeon, but met his match in the legendarily irascible Mr Braff; we start with Godbolt’s introduction:

That very perceptive and admirably descriptive critic Whitney Balliett, commenting on jazz trumpeters/cornettists, pointed to the diminutive stature of Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Bix Bederbecke, Charlie Shavers, Ray Nance, Bobby Hackett and Miles Davis.’The larger the lyric soul, it woud seem,the smaller its house’, wrote Balliet. This was his introduction to a monograph on Ruby Braff; five feet four inches and notorious for an equally short fuse.

I knew the stories about Reuben: his favourite tune is Just Me, Just Me, and that his favourite book is ‘Mr Hyde and Mr Hyde’. Indeed, one of is albums is entitled Me, Myself and I, described in the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CDs, LPs and cassettes as ‘Mainstream Jazz at its very best’, a tome Ruby obviously has not read, for him to be advised in what category he is generally placed in jazz literature.

Another tale concerning the forthright Mr. Braff was when he was appearing in a package led by festival organiser George Wein at Ronnie Scott’s Club. Wein was the pianist, Ruby the cornettist and when Wein commenced a solo Braff, heard all over the room on the microphone, said to Wein, ‘Keep it simple, George, don’t try and express yourself.’ Yet another story was record producer Dave Bennett enquiring of Ruby, ‘Didn’t you once share a flat with Kenny Davern? ‘ And Braff’s curt response was, ‘No, he lived below me, where he belonged.’

My interview with him (and our very first meeting) at the Dean Street, Soho, flat where he was staying, didn’t get off to a flying start. We shook hands, he howled in pain. He then introduced me to guitarist Howard Alden, grunting, ‘If you’re going to shake hands with him, please don’t break his fingers, he needs them to play with me tonight.’ And things got worse. Ruby doesn’t look at you; he grimaces and glowers. He doesn’t talk. He rasps, growls, grunts and grates. Emphatically so when he took exception to my opening comments, the thrust of which was that he was born in 1927, very much younger than those who seemingly, inspired him — Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Bobby Hackett and others of that ilk. Unwisely, I referred to him belonging to an older tradition.

RB: What the fuck do you mean by an older tradition! I don’t want to know about any older tradition! I’ve never played like anybody and nobody plays like me.

JG: Ruby, I am stating what people like Whitney Balliett and Max Jones and many others, have said about you.

RB: I don’t give a shit what’s been said about me. Most of it’s inaccurate anyway. I don’t care about most people. I have nothing to do with most people. The best thing to do in an interview is to take it from the source.

JG: May I ask you then, why, as a contemporary of, say, Fats Navarro and Clifford Brown, you don’t elect to play in the so-called bebop idiom?

RB: That’s a fucking dumb question! Do they play like me? I don’t play any style but my own. Do you go up to Johnny Hodges and ask him why he doesn’t play like this or that guy? Would you go up to Teddy Wilson and ask him why he doesn’t play like Lil Hardin or Bud Powell? Do you really wanna go on with this?
I had heard of interviews with Ruby that terminated suddenly, and this came very near to being one of them. I thought I would have to pack up my Walkman and walk. Desperately, I looked at my notes and my eye fell on the name of John Hammond.

JOHN HAMMOND
JG: Can I ask you about John Hammond?

RB: Sure. What do you wanna know?

JG: He was an interesting person from a wealthy socialite family, who did a lot for jazz in the thirties and later produced those famous Vanguard sessions you were on.

RB: John has a very important place in musical history. OK. Those he championed – Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Billie Holiday, would have made it anyway, but that’s not the point. His support brought them forward quicker.

JG: Those Vanguard sessions attracted the term ‘mainstream’.

RB: There you go AGAIN! I don’t go for all that shit! I don’t give a fuck about mainstream, bop or what the fuck have you. These are novelty words to box musicians into categories. Commercial morons invented them! It’s just music, that’s all! You talk about mainstream. OK, we had Sir Charles Thompson, Vic Dickenson and Ed Hall. What would you have called those records had Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie been on them?

JG: I didn’t invent the terminology, but had Bird and Diz been present I would say the character would have changed very considerably. Their conception was so much different and I think the term mainstream was helpful in identifying those who had been critically discarded in the traditional vs modern war of the late forties and early fifties, and, mercifully, were back in business thanks largely to people like John Hammond and Stanley Dance.

RB: Terminology doesn’t mean a goddamn thing. I played with Bird and Dizzy and we never spoke in those terms. Bebop became a commercial word and Dizzy exploited it. A load of baloney.
Here RB laughed. Well, more of a maniacal cackle, but it reduced the tension and I quickly changed tack.

ED HALL and PEE WEE RUSSELL
JG: I knew Ed Hall when he came over here and he was particularly sour about Pee Wee Russell, one of your heroes.

RB: Ed, a very nice man, didn’t have the ear to understand Pee Wee. Ed was a rather banal player, very consonant, but he had a good spirit and a very good jazz tone. Of course he wouldn’t understand Pee Wee. You had to be musically cultivated to understand him. When I first heard Pee Wee on the radio I thought it was a man with an electric saw cutting through a piece of wood, because I had been hearing Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman and Jimmy Dorsey, but Pee Wee was well ahead of them. He sounds contemporary today and always will.

JG: His death, and those of so many others you played and recorded with, must distress you. Two of the departed you recorded with were Coleman Hawkins and Lawrence Brown. Any comments about that session?

RB: Yeah, Coleman and Lawrence were not talking to each other, nor to me. I asked them to take off their overcoats, hats and gloves but had to use (baritone saxophonist) Ernie Caceres to mediate for me. A great baritone player, Ernie: a great mediator too!

JG: I’d like to ask you about the session you recorded with Jack Teagarden

RB: I never played with Teagarden.

JG: (defiantly): You did, with Lucky Thompson and Ken Kersey and I’ve brought along a cassette of the record.
I played a Braff chorus from this cassette and Ruby grudgingly listened, grunted and waved a dismissive hand. Bravely, I persisted.

JG: How did this session come about? Such a mixture of guys.

RB: There you go AGAIN! What mixture? They were MUSICIANS playing together! There was no mixture. Please tell me what you mean by ‘mixture’?

JG: Well, you were stylistically different, although, unlike yourself, I thought the session came off very well, and I don’t think you or JT had played with Lucky Thompson before.

RB: How do you know?
I was stymied. I didn’t know, and at this stage Ruby launched into a vitriolic attack on the clarinettist and the organiser. To say that he was less than enthusiastic about them would be the understatement of the century. In fact, they were ‘ass-holes’ and their names henceforth were taboo. There were quite a few who came into the ass-hole category, including those whose music he admired, but there were also many he eulogised: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Buick Clayton, Jack and Charlie Teagarden, Benny Morton and Emmett Berry. These were ‘beautiful’, but generally there were more ‘ass-holes’ than beautiful people in the Braff experience of life.

SALOON BAR ENTERTAINER

JG: Ruby, you have been quoted as describing yourself as a saloon bar entertainer.

RB: Yeah. An entertainer with a bit of tin in his hand.

JG: And you don’t expect total silence from your audience?

RB: No. They have the right to talk, to relax. I’m not playing in Carnegie Hall. I don’t think they should all shut up and drop dead. I love manipulating audiences – I play them something soft and cerebral to make ’em listen, then give ’em something up-tempo so they can breathe again.

JG: There’s a current wave of young British musicians who demand silence while they’re playing.

RB: If I were there I would demand my check and leave. Most of these guys haven’t any talent anyway. Them and their so-called original compositions. Who the fuck wants to hear their compositions? Do they compare with the tunes of Gershwin, Kern, Berlin or Ellington? No they don’t!

JG: I recently wrote about the Duke at Fargo album where marvellous music was being played to animated chatter from the audience AND the band, and how one of the engineers – a typical jazz buff – was horrified that Johnny Hodges engaged in conversation with Duke whilst Lawrence Brown was soloing.

RB: What would he have thought of Duke playing one of his extended works at Carnegie Hall when half the band walked off for a joint or whatever? I can’t stand that deep silent attitude. If Duke and Count and the like can put up with chatter, so can I. Benny Goodman told me, as did Count Basie, that the worst thing to happen to jazz is that people no longer dance to it. I took it as a compliment when I got a physical response like dancing. It meant they liked what you were doing. I wish I’d been at the Savoy Ballroom when Chick Webb was playing to the colored jitterbugs, but I was present one night at a colored hall in Boston when Duke was playing and I vividly remember the SWISH of feet on the floor. Marvellous sound!

JG: And what a constellation of stars in one band — Cootie, Rex, Lawrence, Tricky Sam, Bigard, Hodges, Webster.

RB: Sonny Greer, Jimmy Blanton. The DELICIOUSNESS of it all. Thank God for giving us the phonograph so we can hear that band and Count and the rest. I used to hear Duke and Cab Calloway and Benny Goodman on the radio when I was a kid in Boston. I even loved the Mickey Mouse bands.

JG: What! Sammy Kaye and his Swing and Sway Band?

RB: If I heard Sammy Kaye now after listening to some fucking rock crap I’d go up and kiss him. And Horace Heidt and Blue Barron and those cats. You had to be a musician to play in those bands.

BRITISH MUSICIANS
JG: I hear you think highly of certain British musicians?

RB: The greatest trombone player on the planet today is your Roy Williams. And Brian Lemon. Dave Green. Allen Ganley. Colin Purbrook. Simon Woolfe … no one plays better than those guys. It’s the British public who have an inferiority complex they would foist on musicians, and that’s what’s WRONG. Take Bruce Turner: I recorded with him in Belfast not long before he died. When I first came to Britain in 1826 — ha ha — it was John Hammond who told me to look out for Bruce, to make contact with him, and I did. He plays great. So musical.
Ruby wasn’t buttering the parsnips, crushing then underfoot was more his line: his praise was genuine.

RB: Would you like to hear the record I made with Roy and Bruce? As you’re a human being I’ll play it to you.
A human being! Me!” A hack in jazz journalism and an ex-band agent to boot! Heavens! No one has ever said this about me before! Good old Ruby, I say! To hell with his critics! Ass-holes!
As the cassette was playing (demonstrating, I have to say, the influence of Louis and Bobby Hackett in Ruby’s eloquent playing), the conversation veered wildly, as it does amongst all jazz buffs — and Ruby Braff is the quintessential buff; nigh on 70 years old and still the juvenile enthusiast. There are indeed many sides to his volatile character. Somehow the chat moved to pianists (‘I’m a piano buff’). Starting with the brilliant Mel Powell, who recorded a great album with Ruby in 1954, but is now totally paralysed.

A PIANO BUFF
RB: It’s awful! I just can’t bear to think about it. So sad. Let’s change the subject. Who are your favourite pianists?

I hadn’t expected to be quizzed, and stumbled, but came up with Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, Garland Wilson, Duke Ellington, Jimmy Reynolds and Nat King Cole, but in my confusion I omitted so many I liked — Joe Sullivan, Jess Stacy, Joe Bushkin and Randy Weston – but, thankfully, I remembered Count Basie.

RB: Count Basie INVENTED the rhythm section. Before him there was no such thing. You like a lot of good guys. So! Who else do you like?
Again I was nonplussed. Was Ruby trying to catch me out? Somewhere out of the recesses of my memory I came up with Claude Hopkins, not a name to conjure with, but I like his playing. A bullseye!

RB: Claude HOPKINS! I have the privilege and honour of being one of the few musicians who he didn’t screw up. He was called “The Assassin”, and rightly so. He hated everybody, read a newspaper during their solos and deliberately played bum chords to throw them. Go on! Who else?
This time I responded with Una Mae Carlisle. Another bullseye!

RB: Jesus Christ! Fifty-five years ago I was playing truant from school, went to a friend’s house and he played me a Una record with great Lester Young on it. ‘Eyes’ was in the title.

JG (proudly): Beautiful Eyes.

RB: That’s it! [Ruby then sang, or rather burped, the Lester Young chorus.] After all these years I remember that chorus! Who else do you like?

JG: (flattered by Ruby’s interest): Nellie Lutcher.
To my astonishment, Ruby had not heard of Nellie, fine pianist as well as a most engaging singer.

JG: She made a few hit records.

RB:
That doesn’t mean a damn thing. Who else?

JG (now emboldened, and taking chances): Jelly Roll Morton.

RB: Oh yes. Fine composer and arranger too.
That reaction surprised me a little. Ruby went on to praise many others, particularly Dick Hyman, Roger Kellaway, Hank Jones and Bob Brookmayer. The conversation veered to favourite players generally. Indeed, we were like two old jazz buffs waffling away, and most enjoyable it was too. I warmed to Ruby for his enthusiasm.

JG: I haven’t mentioned Bix Beiderbecke.

RB: A genius. Y’know, Miles Davis was a great admirer of Bix. He would seek out people who’d known him and ask them questions about him. You can hear a lot of Bix in Miles.

JG: I’d never heard that before.

RB: You ask me questions and you find out a lot of things, believe me. Miles was a very interesting guy. Played like nobody else.

JG: What did you think of Frankie Trumbauer?

RB: Interesting player. Lester was much influenced by him.
Ruby turned his head to catch a chorus on the cassette of the Belfast session.

RB: Here! Listen to Roy Williams! What a musician! Listen to the noise the audience is making. I like a good noise when I’m playing. It makes for fun. Ha! Ha! Dave Bennett did a good job on the recording. He’s a good man to have around.

JG: I’ve been listening while we’ve been talking. I agree with you and not for spurious patriotic reasons. Almost inevitably we were back to Duke Ellington.

RB: I’ve still got a lot of Duke’s 78s. 78s were great. Two and a half to three minutes of masterpieces. For a musician they concentrated the mind. You had to play good in those confines. Nowadays soloists go on and on when they shouldn’t. Y’know, Duke, like a lot of geniuses, could cat nap, wake up and write a great tune on the spot, although how he managed it running a band, with all the hassles, the touring and the arranging, I’ll never know. Louis was another one for sleeping. So was Dizzy: he could sleep for a hundred hours on a plane. Maybe that’s why he was a better trumpet player than me. I can’t sleep.
Here was the patently modest Mr. Braff, but when the chat touched on agents he was at his vitriolic best, especially about one British example. Then his mood changed with characteristic swiftness as he spoke wistfully of his trips to England not being the same since the deaths of Alex Welsh and sidemen Fred Hunt and Lennie Hastings [and also] Sinclair Traill (editor of Jazz Journal), Doug Dobell, John Kendall and Max and Betty Jones, all of whom have died in recent years.

RB: I really miss these crazy people. Now, if you’ll excuse me, young man, I’ve got to prepare a programme for tonight.
Young man! First I’m a human being, now I’m being addressed as ‘young man’. A guy who can refer to me in such terms can’t be all bad! Seriously, it was a most stimulating, unnerving, conversation. Ruby doodled and played a word game: ironically, he started with the word ‘charm’ and got as many words as he could from it.

JG: I see that you are a doodler.

RB: Yes, I’m a Yankee Doodler Dandy.

JG: It’s said that people can be judged by their doodles. I believe its called Graphology.

RB: Ruby Braffology! Like it!
Indeed, Braffology would make quite a study. What would the investigative Braffologist discover?
A disputatious misanthrope?
A man of the utmost musical integrity and supreme ability?
An amusing and well-informed raconteur? An artist sure of his conception, but not of his identity?
An utterly honest man who doesn’t give a damn for social popularity?
An impish character who parodies his own irascibility?
I suspect that they will find, as has those who have already encountered (and that’s the very word!) Ruby, the same unpredictable mixture of parts in the same unpredictable and disconcerting sequence.
******
A combative misanthrope, Ruby most certainly was, but there was a generous side to his nature. In the nineties, former ‘Jazz At Ronnie Scott’s’ Associate Editor Cindy Hacker was an assistant tour manager for a Braff UK visit and was paid accordingly. A few weeks later, Cindy received a letter from Ruby, with an enclosure, thanking her for the ‘enormous help’ she had been. ‘I don’t think you knew how sick I was. I hadn’t an ounce of strength. How fortunate that you were there. I am enclosing a small gift. Please believe me, it’s not payment, because there is no money that could buy your output, but I would like you to treat yourself top a lovely dinner and some nice wine. Please think of me when you have the first taste.’ The enclosure was a 100-dollar bill.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: