Ruby Braff: Interview 1
Ruby Braff: Interview 2

Ruby Braff (1927–2003)

Cornetist Ruby (Reuben) Braff was born in Boston, Massachusetts. Self-taught, he played locally during the 1940s, recorded with Edmond Hall’s band in 1949 and worked with Pee Wee Russell in the early 1950s. He moved to New York in 1953 and made outstanding recordings that year with trombonist Vic Dickenson’s septet.

While these and other 1950s recordings drew critical acclaim, Braff’s pre-modern mainstream style did not bring him plentiful work in that decade, as modern jazz established itself. In the 1960s Braff joined George Wein’s Newport All Stars with which he toured Europe in 1961. In 1973–5 he co-led a quartet with guitarist George Barnes which helped to build his international reputation, supported by many excellent recorded collaborations with like-minded players, and performances abroad. In later years he was often in Europe and much in demand as a freelance soloist.

Braff made many consistently good records, among this writer’s all-time favourites being the timeless, sensitive duets he recorded with Baltimore pianist Ellis Larkins. Digby Fairweather described Braff as ‘the most artistic trumpeter/cornetist to emerge since Louis Armstrong’, with an evolving style that, in later years, ‘never lost the grace and beauty’ that made his work ‘inimitable’. 

Biography by Roger Cotterrell.


Speaks his mind

In a second interview, in 1975, Ruby Braff talked about the drummer-less quartet he co-led with George Barnes, about ‘morons’ who think it sounds like Django Reinhardt, and about the timelessness of good music. 


Ruby Braff: Interview 3

Ruby Braff: Interview 2

Image Details

Interview date 1st January 1975
Interview source Jazz Professional
Image source credit
Image source URL
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Forename Ruby
Surname Braff
Quantity 2

Interview Transcription

How long have you and George Barnes been co—leaders of your group?

It’ll be two years in May we’ve had this group together, and we’ve been playing all over the world. Our reason for joining up? To make nice music—what other idea can there be? Before, we’d played together once or twice, here and there.

The concept is obviously, as you say, nice music. Would you say you’re concerned with more relaxed, subtle sounds than some of the extrovert type of jazz you’ve been involved with?

 I don’t know what that means, extrovert jazz. I play the same here as I played anywhere, except that there’s less interference. It’s less noisy; so it’s nice—one doesn’t get a hernia, playing with this group.

And it was the decision of both of you, to dispense with a drummer?

Right. We don’t need a drummer—we know how to keep time. And most drummers not only can’t keep time, but they’re too noisy. There are no more Sid Catletts, Jo Jones and all those wonderful people. Buddy Rich is not available—you know how he is; he won’t play with us—so we have to do without him. Yes, certainly I’m choosy when it comes to drummers. I’m choosy when it comes to anything.

The other two musicians were no doubt carefully chosen.

They were. Michael Moore is probably the best bass player in the entire world today. The best. I haven’t heard ,anybody play as good as him, anywhere. He’s a mastermind —as a very young man. Can you imagine what he’ll be like in twenty years? Amazing.

And by choice also you have the acoustic guitar sound.

Yeah, that rhythm guitar sound is good. That sort of ties a little web there, you might say. I like rhythm guitar; ever since Freddie Green, I’ve always thought it was the right thing.

I’ve heard the group compared to a Django-type feel.

There’ll always be morons who look for comparisons between anything and anything. There’s no comparison; this group sounds nothing like Django. All they can think of is, they see two guitars and they get excited, you know. They’re idiots. Anyone who thinks this group sounds like the Django Reinhardt group is a moron, without any question. They can’t compare anything or anybody I’ve ever played with to anything or anybody playing anywhere else before—because it’s bound to be different.

What would you say about George as a guitarist? You undoubtedly have a very high opinion of his playing.

If I didn’t, he wouldn’t be my partner in crime. Of course. Marvellous player. He’s been a fine virtuoso all of his life. And it was very, very good timing that we were able to get together and do all this. Timing very often has a lot to do with things; you’d be surprised.

Do you feel that the present musical climate is a receptive one for the music you’re playing?

I’ve never seen any musical climate more or less receptive to anything. If you have a nice product, they like it; if you don’t they don’t. The world was always receptive to Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and anybody else who ever put anything together. There are no climates, no audience gaps, no generation gaps, no musical gaps. There’s only lousy performance gaps in this world—caused by lousy players, who stink up jazz and make people not want to go hear it.

What exactly do you mean, then, by timing?

Well, the fact that we were both available for each other at that time, you know, to get together, and have the time to bother to rehearse every day. We rehearsed very hard—millions of hours. Nothing is done by accident—you know that. Nobody who does anything right does it without working hard at it. You have to work very hard at what you do, don’t you, to produce a magazine? Why should it be any less for anyone who wants to get a nice sound?

Actually, I would apply the word timeless to your music.

That’s a very flattering thing, and a very good thing. When you say timeless—I always think, anything that’s good is modern and timeless. I mean, there’s nothing nostalgic about Beethoven, Chopin or any of these people. What’s good contains the ingredients of being good forever—if it’s really good. The music of Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington isn’t old–fashioned; it’ll always be delicious. Certainly elements, like rhythm sections, can be heard to be from an earlier time . . . oh, sure. But you could take away the background from Louis, put it to a Basie rhythm section or whatever—it would always sound marvellous.

How do you feel about the recordings you’ve made so far with this group?

I feel very good about these recordings; they’re very special, and I’m very proud of them. I hate to say “some of my best playing” as though I’m Stravinsky or somebody—but I must say that I think it’s about the best playing I’ve done, on these things, because they’re so uncluttered, you know. At the risk of sounding conceited—I really think they sound very nice.

You’ve now signed with RCA. Have you recorded for them yet?

Yes, we’ve done “A Salute To Fred Astaire”; we did the tunes that were written for him, for movies, and that should be out very soon now. We played ‘em n lot ,of times at Ronnie’s. Actually, we’ve made ninety–six sides in the short amount of time that we’ve been together: that’s a lot of product out there. And more of it will be coming out; there’s e new one released, that’s around here, on Concord label, that we did live in San Francisco. There’s a marvellous jazz festival there that we did, and they recorded a Gershwin set of ours. For a live recording, it’s pretty good. We also went into the studios in New York for that same company, and did a Rodgers and Hart album which is very good. That’ll be very nice, when that comes out.

And have they always been with just the four musicians, without strings or anything added?

The only time we had twenty–two strings added to us was when we did some things with Tony Bennett. There’s a tune out called “All That Love Went To Waste,” from a picture called A Touch Of Class, and we recorded that with Tony; on the other side is that old song, “Some Of These Days”. Very beautiful string arrangements by Torrie Zito; they surrounded our quartet. Because we were doing concerts, just the quartet and Tony Bennett. We did twenty–three Rodgers and Hart tunes every night—it was quite a thing. So some of those we recorded ourselves, see. We said: “What the hell, we know them—might as well play them! ” Sure, I’ve worked with Tony many times. He’s a great performer—probably one of the best in the world today.

So you seem to have made a thing of doing these collections, then?

Yeah. We always do projects like that. It’s a very good idea, and it’s fun to do research on it before you do it. Then you have a whole new batch of tunes to do; you can almost say : “Well, we’re gonna do an Ellington set tonight.” Or a Rodgers set, or an Irving Berlin set. And it makes it kinda fun, you know; it’s nice to have a little motive to build around.

What do you do in the way of arrangements—do you sit down and get ideas together?

We work them out, yes, and we keep polishing them and fooling with them, until they sound better. And we never record anything that we haven’t played millions of times on the road, to see how they feel, and ii anybody likes ‘em. Instead of a recording date, where you sit down and play things—all you have there is a date; you don’t have a performance. It’s got to be a performance. We know what we’re doing when we go to record; that’s really what makes big difference, I think. it’s very important.

Is a live recording helpful, in some respects?

There are advantages to a live recording. Of course, if there are things wrong, there’s nothing you can do about it. Perhaps you could rerecord it, but then you’d be cheating.

There are pros and cons to it. I like both.

You remember Dick Hyman was talking about the old Louis Armstrong things that he copied out and arranged for a big band, for the New York Jazz Repertory Company? Well, that was very successful, and George Wein is going to open this season’s Newport, New York festival with that show—the only difference being that our group is going to be by itself, playing the Armstrong set. And that will be recorded, live at Carnegie.

Which should be a lot of fun. Then we’re gonna tour with that package, all over the world, in the Fall: I’m looking forward to that. Also, we’ll be in Nice this Summer, like we were last year, when George started the Festival there. I hope it’s a little more successful this time. I think it’ll build as it goes alone; that’s the way those things are—they start out a little shady, and then they begin to pick up, as people get to think of it as a thing to do.

You’ve had quite a long–standing association with George Wein. Obviously, you regard him as a good man to work for.

It’s been about twenty–five to thirty years. George is a very good man. If there were just twenty–five more like him in the world, the world of music would be in very, very good shape. He’s done an awful lot for music. He’s made a lot of sacrifices, seen a lot of money lost. And, you know, a lot of people don’t realise the amount of work that goes into doing these things. It’s gigantic. It’s an enormous responsibility, and he’s able to handle it.

The driving force is his dedication to perpetuating good music.

Of course. Had he put the energies he’s put into this into anything else, he would be a multi–millionaire. He does it because he loves it—I think it’s wonderful. We need a lot of people like that. Where do you get ‘em?

Well, apart from him, there’s been Norman Granz . . .

Norman did many wonderful things in his years, when he was running things. Of course, those Jazz At The Philharmonic things weren’t quite the same. There he had a particular set group of people that worked around, with the players he used varying now and then. Whereas George Wein can be running twelve shows, with two hundred musicians in each one of ‘em, at the same time; so it’s a different thing, you know.

But Norman deserves a lot of credit; look at the wonderful recordings he made of .great people that he had faith in, and that you have around today because of his care. So I take my hat off to him. In both cases, I think it’s a belief in good musicianship, and a desire to make sure it doesn’t go under.

But a lot of good musicians have gone under, haven’t they?

That’s true. It’s very sad, but they have. Well, every art has that going on—I’m sure writers, painters, everybody runs into that. You just have to keep fighting for the right thing, and try to improve yourself all the time. It’s about the only defence against it.

Right through your career, you’ve stuck to your principles. I mean, you came on the scene when all the other young trumpeters were playing a more so–called modern style. Yet you were an anachronism, in that you were playing a modern–sounding version of earlier styles.

True, but anyone who sounds different will have trouble anywhere. It’s a natural thing; if you don’t step in line and follow everybody else, they don’t know what to do with you!

You never wanted to jump on the bebop bandwagon, did you?

No, I’ve never wanted to jump on any wagon but the music wagon. That’s all that interests me—trying to do things as well as I can.

Do you think that that ‘forties movement, turning jazz around in the way it did, has done it good in the long run?

There are aspects of it that have done good, and many aspects of it that have done harm. Very few of the people who copied Charlie Parker really understood him. All they did was copy a lot of his fast–sounding playing, without understanding the essence of him, what he was made of, where he came from. If they had, they would have learned how to play a melody as beautifully as he could. How come they couldn’t do that? Charlie Parker came from everything natural before him, from all the beauty. He played beautifully, not ugly. When he played a song, it was delicious to hear it. Those people never went to his sources.

I think a similar thing happened with John Coltrane. People picked on his ugliness, and glorified that.

Right. Exactly. And I talked to John Coltrane one time; I said: “Gee, you sounded wonderful just now when you played a pretty melody.” He said: “I’d like to play a lot of those, but my fans get mad at me if I don’t play all this other stuff. I don’t know what to do” and he was very confused about it. So it shows you how strange all that is. People always pick up on the wrong things, but the real artists, they know what to look for.

Copyright © 1975, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.