Ruby Braff, Adoration of the Melody

Mar 16, 2017

Today is Ruby Braff’s 90th birthday anniversary. The cornetist was born in Boston in 1927. Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, and Lester Young were his heroes. By most accounts Ruby was a prickly personality, but on all accounts he was a player dedicated to beauty. Great songs never failed him. He called his aesthetic, “adoration of the melody.” Ruby made a ton of records, not a throwaway in the bunch. In his last decade, Arbors Records produced him in a frenzy of settings: duos, trios, chamber ensembles, and big bands in studios, nightclubs, and concert halls. Ruby even sang a couple of tunes. Here he is with fellow melody idolaters Howard Alden and Frank Tate playing a Billie Holiday classic.

Braff was eminently quotable. Here’s how he ended an interview conducted by Wayne Eustis and Paul Rubin for the book, Jazz Spoken Here. “You should never take up music, ever, no one should take up music if they are a person who can turn on the radio and hear something like “All the Things You Are” and move the dial. If they find they can move the dial, it it’s possible to move the dial, they shouldn’t play music. That’s how overwhelming melody should be: it should grab them and drive them crazy. If they don’t feel that way they shouldn’t be playing music. It’s that simple.”

Ruby was often featured with George Wein’s Newport All Stars. This 1969 lineup includes Red Norvo, Barney Kessel, Larry Ridley, and Don Lamond. It’s a relatively rare delight to hear Braff playing the kind of 12-bar blues that opens this short set that includes “Blue Boy” and “Rose Room.”

Ruby Braff at home on Cape Cod in 1995 under a portrait of Louis Armstrong
Credit George Borgman

Braff said he was honored to live in the same “time space” as Armstrong and the other originators. You hear Armstrong-style phrasing in Braff’s playing, but he could never be mistaken for anyone other than Ruby. He was a great original, a player who defied trends and remained devoted to the legacy of love and beauty that he first experienced when he heard Pops on the radio around 1934. He said, “I heard this sound, even though I didn’t know why it was all so good, you know, it takes a long time to know that, but immediately this sound, this bright, lovely, orange sound came over the radio. And it just grabbed me…You can listen to one Louis Armstrong record for the rest of your life and never hear everything in it. As you grow you hear more of what Louis is playing.”

I’d say the same for Ruby, an extraordinarily creative player on popular songs and blues, a player who embellished and enhanced melodies far more than you might realize at first hearing. Braff was featured in a tribute to Pops at the Newport Casino in 1990. He played “Pennies From Heaven” with guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, then was joined by Doc Cheatham, Wynton Marsalis, and Jon Faddis for “Jubilee,” the Hoagy Carmichael tune that Armstrong made a celebrated record of in 1938.

Here’s a good glimpse of Ruby in 1989 discussing his hero and singing the praises of Marsalis for carrying the names of Armstrong and Duke Ellington forward to a new generation.