Ruby Braff: Interview 2
Ruby Braff: Interview 3

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.


Beauty is the key word

A third interview with Ruby Braff in 1975 covers the ‘untalented’ Paul Whiteman, the attractions of recording with strings and the fresh reworking of musical sources as in Ellington’s ‘Nutcracker Suite’.


Gordon Brisker

Ruby Braff: Interview 3

Image Details

Interview date 1st January 1975
Interview source Jazz Professional
Image source credit
Image source URL
Reference number
Forename Ruby
Surname Braff
Quantity 3

Interview Transcription

Through the efforts of artists with integrity, such as yourself, there is a continued awareness of the value of inspired interpretation of good melodies. In fact, the wheel has tended to turn that way. Do you think such phenomenons as the Scott Joplin craze have been any help in this direction?

It’s true, to an extent, that there has been that trend. But I don’t care too much for revivals of ragtime. I thought it was very corny and rubbishy when I heard it in its original form, and it sounds much cornier and sillier when I hear someone doing it today. Sometimes I think they’re all necrophiliacs, you know. They don’t have to be going back and playing corny phrases like that; but if they wish to, that’s their problem. I mean, if you’re going to take Scott Joplin, I don’t think it’s your job to authenticate his corn. It should be your job to take it, find the beauty in it, smooth it out, make it wonderful, and adapt it to your style of playing. Who wants to play like Scott Joplin played three thousand years ago? It’s ridiculous.

But some of his tunes lend themselves to different treatments, as certain musicians have proved.

Of course. That’s what you’re supposed to do to them—fix ‘em. You’re not supposed to copy Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker. You should learn from them, take the nice things out of ‘em, and make good use of ‘em. Look what Duke Ellington did—everything beautiful he ever heard in his life, be it jazz, classical music or anything, he found a way of incorporating into his great talent and feeling. When he made Tschaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, he didn’t try to compete with them and sound like a European classical orchestra, because that would have been silly. He put it to an Ellington sound, and I think if Tschaikovsky were alive and heard that, he’d love it. He’d say: “What is that wonderful thing? That’s beautiful.”

Well, I picked up that record just recently, in fact. I’d been looking for it.

Isn’t that wonderful? Yeah, I’d been looking for it for ages, and a guy in Washington laid it on me and I treasure it. It’s thrilling, isn’t it?.

Yes—I like the originals, and it’s fascinating to hear what Duke does with them.

Exactly. And I think anybody would love what he did to them. It’s fresh and pure, because it’s his heart and soul in ‘em. It’s not any kind of a self–conscious attempt to merge jazz and classics. Which makes no sense. Many guys have done that kind of stuff—tried to wed jazz with it. Doesn’t work. It’s never sounded good to me, when they’ve done that.

The idea of trying to give jazz a symphonic sound goes right back to the Paul Whiteman days, doesn’t it?

He was a very commercial man, probably a good businessman; I don’t think he had talents of any kind, you know. But because of his good business sense, he was able to make big contacts, and he was thereby afforded the opportunity to hire marvellously talented people. He was smart enough to get the Teagardens and Beiderbeckes. So his orchestra sounded very good because of that, plus some good arrangements. From a musical point of view, I don’t think it was anything that he did—not from my knowledge.

It is nice, though, to hear a good jazz soloist against strings, if it’s done the right way.

Oh, that’s lovely—sure is. Why, Lawrence Welk had the good sense and taste to record Johnny Hodges with a whole lot of strings. Now that’s wonderful. I think anybody that recorded Johnny Hodges with anything did the right thing!

Would you like the experience of recording with strings yourself?

I would like to do that. I never have; nobody’s ever asked me to. But I think it would be a nice feeling to do it—sort of provide you with a nice bed of sound.

Somebody should suggest it to Dick Hyman—he’s the man who could write it, I think.

Oh, I love him. He’s a wonderful pianist; everything he does, everything about him is wonderful. A great guy. I’m glad you got to meet him.

He’s another man who’s had to work in the commercial field, but at every possible opportunity he’s done the things he really loves.

That’s quite true. And in the commercial field, I guarantee you that whatever he’s done, he’s done the best it could possibly be done. He doesn’t know how to do a half a job. He’s great.

As a musician dedicated to perpetuating the glorious tone a trumpet can have, how do you feel about the way Miles Davis seems to be playing nowadays—making a kind of a “quacking” sound with the trumpet, by means of electronics.

Well, the things I’ve heard him do, it doesn’t sound very good to me. The shame of it is: he started out playing with such a beautiful tone. He had a very pure sound, I thought; he sounded like a classical trumpet player—you know what I mean. I don’t know why he went and messed around with it. But that’s his business, if, that’s what he wants to do.

If he wants to be in that kind of a scene, that’s all the better for us—let us play the old–fashioned music! If he calls it progress—very good. I thought progress was trying to get to sound like Heifetz!

It’s very sad to listen through a whole album and not hear that Miles Davis sound, when his name is on the record.

I think so, too. But apparently there are enough people that like it, that must buy his records—or he wouldn’t be operating. He does concerts; I’m sure he has a lot of people attend. He’s sort of like a sure–draw type of guy, I think. I don’t follow what goes on that much, but I would imagine he has a lot of fans.

He gives them what they want, I suppose. But what do you feel about the influx of electronic ideas into the jazz field?

It’s disgusting, it’s sickening, its prime motives are wrong. It’s gimmicky, and I’ve never liked fads and gimmicks. I don’t see anything wrong with the regular, normal sounds that instruments can make; I haven’t heard anything take their place that sounds as good. And I would never play with an electric bassist, or any of those kind of things. Electric guitar is something else, because they’re mellow, and they can be adjusted to sound right and pretty. The rest of them—they don’t make it. You know, who needs it? Why should a person learn for years how to play his horn nice, and then have it spoiled in one day by an ugly sound? Of course, those electric sounds are propagated by the people that manufacture that kind of stuff. Like stereo, double stereo, quadraphonic—what is all that? That’s a lot of baloney.

The most pleasurable records I ever heard ,were monaural—and I love ‘em. And I’ve heard a lot of people who know a lot about music say the same thing—they didn’t need all that fancy stuff. But okay—if you’re gonna have stereo, that’s fine—if you use it properly, it’s all right. You have to always be careful how you use these things, you know. Like, the submarine wasn’t invented to kill people; it was invented to study under–sea life. See, anything is only as good as how you use it; you’re supposed to make it beautiful. Beauty is the word.

Perhaps they’re getting back to it now, but for a while a lot of younger musicians seemed to forget that you had to swing.

Well, they didn’t forget—they never knew about it. They think that time is a magazine! They’re not prepared to work, to play, or anything. They don’t even know why they’re here, or what they’re doing here. It’s surely an accident that they have horns; it’s an age where nothings are allowed to be on the stage and to participate in things. Under any ordinary circumstances, in normal times, these people wouldn’t be allowed into a club or concert hall as spectators, let alone as practitioners. Quality has decayed to such a great extent in the art worlds—in everything. Painters, everybody. Suits—look at suits, how lousy they are.

So, naturally, you have a lot of garbage out there. But there’s no excuse for anybody to say: “Well, what do you expect!  All I can hear is junk; so that’s all I know.” It’s a lie; there are millions of records of great things available for anyone that’s interested and wants to seek them out. The people who liked Louis Armstrong and all those marvellous players when they started, they didn’t have records or anything; they only had a few people around the street that they could hear, and that was it. Nobody in this world today has any excuse for not hearing Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington—name it.

So—they’re just not interested. What they really want to do is “express themselves”—and that’s pretension at its peak, because they have nothing to express. What can you express if you haven’t heard anything, if you don’t know anything? They don’t even realise the privilege of being allowed to express yourself. On top of it, they think they’re doing everybody a favour—that’s how completely warped they are.

But, despite these obstacles, there are good young musicians coming up , . .

When you say musicians, what do you mean? People that can play their horn well, or people that make music?

Well—people who are playing something that is valid musically.

Well, where are they? I haven’t been lucky enough to hear them yet. I hope I get to hear them. I’m looking forward to it; I’d love to hear some young cats play good.

For instance, some of the young musicians that Buddy Rich and Stan Kenton get in their bands have the right ideas, I think. They’re playing their instruments accurately, they’re reading music . . .

Oh yeah, that they can do. They come out of colleges, where they’re taught to do all that. But what kind of music are they playing when they play their horns? I don’t hear anything coming out of their horns but a lot of baloney. What good is learning to play your instrument well, if you have nothing to express on it? They haven’t an inkling of an idea of what goes into making a nice, finished piece of music.

But isn’t it the nature of any art that there are only a certain number of real virtuosi? I mean, people who express something that stands head and shoulders above the rest.

That is true. But years ago I think the musicians, even if they weren’t very talented, were closer to the roots of good music, and therefore even their attempts, for better or worse, were better than what I hear today. They weren’t concerned with ugliness; they were concerned with beauty. These guys just try to sound as ugly as they can—and that’s a drag, you know. I suppose this makes them feel like they’re rebels, and they’re fighting the Establishment. I think what they need is a good physic; it would be better for them. They’re fighting the only Establishment that they’ve ever known, that thus far has produced everything that’s worth–while on this planet—and I haven’t heard them produce a goddam’ thing in their time. So what are they tearing down? I don’t know; it beats me.

It could perhaps be said that, since you came along earlier, the last great individual on the trumpet was Chet Baker.

Chet Baker is a very, very talented person—I’ve always loved the way he played. A great player, I agree. I don’t know what he does these days, or anything about him, but he used to play marvellously.

Well, I have a record by him, “She Was Too Good For Me,” on CTI, that he made last year, on which he sounds just as good as ever, instrumentally and vocally. It looks as if he’s overcome his problems and got back. And Paul Desmond is with him on a couple of tracks.

Then there you go—that’s marvellous, isn’t it? That makes me very happy. With Paul Desmond, you say? Oh, I love the way Paul plays, too. I wish I could hear him more often—well, both of them. Now that’s what I call good players—they know what they’re doing, they love good music, and they come from good music. Sure. Chet Baker— you touched on one of my favourites there.

He faced criticism, though, at one point; they said he was imitating Miles.

He never imitated Miles, or anybody. He always had his own individual way of playing, that was very beautiful. When he was with Gerry Mulligan, that little quartet that they had, he was playing and singing wonderfully. He’s a very musical person; I like him.

In the same way that you do, he has a very distinctive sound. When I hear a record either of him or yourself . . .

You know who’s playing, right. That’s true, I know what you mean, yeah. That’s the trouble today —I can’t tell who’s playing. They all sound alike, and they all sound like they’re playing the same chorus. That can’t be very good, you know; there’s gonna be something wrong with that. However, individualism is not important, unless it’s coupled with background. Because you can be individual, and sound like Clyde McCoy! Now, Chet Baker is individual and he sounds good. Stan Getz and Zoot Sims are individuals.

Ah, now you’ve mentioned my two favourite tenor players.

Mine, too, I love ‘em. I love Illinois Jacquet, too—he’s a beautiful player. Accused of honking? Even when he honked, he honked better than anybody—and he can play, anyway. He can do anything with that tenor; boy, he’s a virtuoso. Bud Freeman is an individual. Ben Webster, Pres and all these guys.

The sad thing is that a lot of them have gone now.

I know it. Well, you’ve got Bud, you’ve got Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Stan Getz. Not an awful lot of them, that I like, but . . . they’re around. I’ve heard Sonny Rollins get stomping there sometimes, you know. Al Cohn can play good. But I wish there were a whole lot more good players. I don’t know—there’ll always be good music, I’m sure. As long as people like pretty sounds, they’ll always find something nice. Of course, I think Buddy Rich is the giant of giants. I can just watch him play all day and all night and never get tired of it. I love him. He should insist on doing everything his way; he’s a great genius at what he does—why should anybody fight him? I think Buddy Rich should have his own nightly talk show on television—it’d be wonderful.

Well, I’ve talked to him for nine years running now, and every time there’s still more to say.

You bet. Oh, when I see him play, I get very, very excited. I mean, I’m a fan of his; I just go to watch him play. His big band stuff that I’ve heard is too wild for me, sorta leaning towards a rock sound; I like to hear him with more of a regular band. But I don’t care—he makes it all believable and possible. I think I could hear the worst music in the world and like it, if he was playing it. He provides such excitement and electricity to everything.

I think he’s one of those special, rare people who raise the level of everything, wherever they are. Duke Ellington was another one.

Yeah—that’s what makes a giant. That’s why Buddy Rich is a giant. Print that, because I want everybody in the world that plays the drums to go and watch him. I think you should watch him, no matter what you play—he’ll make you play better. Just looking at him playing makes you want to practise! A few weeks ago, I watched him making a record, a loud, rock kind of a thing—and there he was, making it all marvellous. He had all kinds of guys there, but boy, did he play good. He just puts everything he’s got into it. He made a record recently with Zoot Sims and Bucky Pizzarelli, where he and Zoot sing “Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good To You?” It sounds wonderful—they both sound great singing.

Oh, I love to hear Zoot sing.

Well, get that little record; you’ll enjoy it. It’s very good. Oh, I like to hear Zoot do anything. I like to hear Buddy do anything. For heaven’s sake—1 think Buddy Rich ought to make a record tap–dancing!

Copyright © 1975, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.