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Tom Reney’s writings delve into the history and mystery of jazz, blues, and beyond. The Jazz à la Mode Blog has plenty to stimulate your interest and curiosity in American music.

Tony Bennett and Ruby Braff

Singer Tony Bennett performing at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 2007.
Jo Hale
/
Getty Images
Singer Tony Bennett performing at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 2007.

[Ed. note: This post was originally published July 17, 2013]

Tony Bennett included Ruby Braff, along with Shirley Horn, Joao Gilberto, and Milt Jackson, in a select group of “pure musicians” who have “a sound that’s as precious as a string of pearls or a rare diamond.“ For Alec Wilder, Braff’s purity came in the form of a trumpeter who “played the center” of every note. Whitney Balliett described him as “a well-stirred mixture of Louis Armstrong and Bunny Berigan,” and Jack Teagarden called him “the Ivy League Louis Armstrong.” Truth is, Braff never had eyes for the Ivies. Raised by Russian-born immigrants in a Roxbury household where Yiddish remained the mother tongue, Braff said that he could write music twice as fast as he could read a newspaper and that well into middle age he read books like Wilder’s American Popular Song with a dictionary at hand.

Balliett heard a precedent for the quartet that Braff formed with guitarist George Barnes in 1973 in the combo of Django Reinhardt and the Ellingtonians Rex Stewart, Barney Bigard, and Billy Taylor that recorded in Paris in 1939. Listen for what Balliett called the “treble bass blend” of the group on the Stewart original, "Montmartre," named for the Parisian village where Django came to prominence and that remains a stronghold for manouche, or Gypsy jazz.

Braff-Barnes ranks with the most exquisite chamber groups in jazz history, and they were hardly out of the gate when they accompanied Bennett on a concert of Rodgers and Hart songs at Alice Tully Hall, and then joined him in the studio for his self-produced Improv album, Tony Bennett: The Rodgers and Hart Songbook. Concord Jazz reissued the album in 2004; of Bennett’s many superb releases, it ranks near the top. As Bennett’s biographer Will Friedwald notes, it’s very much an ensemble project rather than a “star turn,” as Bennett blends neatly with B & B.

Braff was an old hand at Richard Rodgers’s music by the '70s. In 1955, he began a series of duo recordings with pianist Ellis Larkins that included Two Part Inventions in Jazz and Two by Two: Ruby & Ellis Play Rodgers & Hart. John Hammond produced the dates for Vanguard and touted them to Rodgers, who was in rehearsals for his show Pipe Dreams. Braff ended up with a non-speaking part in the musical, but he blew on a couple of tunes and delighted in seeing Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein at work. “He told me all these wild stories. Or lies, which I guess is a writer’s right,” Braff told Balliett. “It’s hard to believe that I worked with Richard Rodgers every day and watched him work. If they needed sixteen bars, he’d sit at the piano and write out those sixteen bars just like that, note for note.”

On their own, the Ruby Braff-George Barnes Quartet, which included Wayne Wright on rhythm guitar and either John Giuffrida or Michael Moore on bass, made a few sessions for Concord and Chiaroscuro, but the group was short-lived. Beneath the surface, Braff and Barnes were a roiling combination, and before they’d played a note on their renowned New School concert in ’74, they were already squabbling. By most accounts, including my own experience with him, Braff was quarrelsome and hot-tempered (one wag referred to him as “Mr. Hyde” and “Mr. Hyde”), though there’s nothing discordant about his playing.

Bassist Bill Crow tells a story about playing with Braff in Toronto, where musicians generally stayed at the Warwick, a hotel that Dizzy Gillespie called the Airwick. Ruby, however, wouldn’t stay in “that flea-bag,” so he got put up in a high rise down the street. When Crow paid him a visit, he discovered Ruby huddled in bed against the wall opposite his balcony. Crow remarked on what a beautiful view he had, but Braff said, “I can’t go near all that damned glass. I can’t stand heights.”

I like to think that whatever glories Ruby missed out on in the outside world he made up for with music, which he idealized in a way that others do a rarified view from the 20th floor. Braff famously said that “improvisation is adoration of the melody,” and he was among the most gifted players in finding new lyricism in the songs of Rodgers and Gershwin and Ellington and Berlin. Ruby’s style was as dramatic as any jazzman, and few can match him in the way he brought the emotional core of a song to life. In this regard, Louis Armstrong was also a model for him in “building a solo in layers.” Braff told Balliett, “When I play one of his records, I’m mesmerized at first with what he put on top, with the surface. When I play it again, I hear the second layer, and then the third…A great solo…surprises you each time you hear it, even though you know every note by heart.”

There’s a lot of great material under Braff’s name, including the prolific series of recordings he made for Arbors during the last decade of his life. These range from reunions with Ellis Larkins and Dick Hyman and a couple of dates with Ruby Braff and His Buddies at the Regattabar in Cambridge (Scott Hamilton, Dave McKenna, Gray Sargent, Marshall Wood, Chuck Riggs) to sessions featuring up to three guitarists and a couple of dates with strings in the mix. Remarkably, these were made when Ruby was hobbled by emphysema, but right till the end (he died in February 2003 on Cape Cod) his playing was undiminished. As John Fordham wrote in his obituary of Braff for The Guardian, “The moment he lifted the cornet to his lips, all thoughts of frailty and mortality evaporated.”

In later years, Braff worked with guitarist Howard Alden in various settings, including the trio recording Bravura Eloquence, which took its name from Balliett’s description of Ruby’s bold sublimity. Here’s Braff, Alden, and bassist Frank Tate in 1991 remembering one of Ruby’s guiding lights, Billie Holiday. 25 years earlier, he’d included “Mean to Me” on his tribute to Lady Day, Holiday in Braff.

Tom was honored by the Jazz Journalists Association with the Willis Conover-Marian McPartland Award for Career Excellence in Broadcasting in 2019. In addition to hosting Jazz à la Mode since 1984, Tom writes the jazz blog and produces the Jazz Beat podcast at NEPM. He began working in jazz radio in 1977 at WCUW, a community-licensed radio station in Worcester, Massachusetts. Tom holds a BA from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he majored in English and African American Studies.