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Unforgettable

Fifty years ago, an assembly of jazz greats shared the stage at Woolsey Hall. 

Ben Yagoda ’75 is the author of The B Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song and many other books.

On stage at Woolsey Hall, on an October night in 1972, a sextet comprising Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, Sonny Stitt and Lucky Thompson on saxophones, Dwike Mitchell on piano, Willie Ruff ’54MusM on bass, and Kenny Clarke on drums was playing the jazz standard “I’ll Remember April.”

In the middle of a Gillespie solo, a New Haven police captain went backstage and declared that somebody had phoned in a bomb threat. The natural person to tell the audience about it was Ruff, a Yale music professor who had organized the concert and, indeed, the whole extraordinary weekend of jazz. But he was plucking his bass at the moment, and it fell to his assistant, Brent Henry ’73JD, to step to the microphone, announce a “bomb alert,” and ask everyone to leave in an orderly manner.

One person in Woolsey Hall was not inclined to follow that instruction. This was the bassist Charles Mingus, who was famous for countering expectations of all sorts. As Ruff recalled in a talk he gave at the Yale Art Gallery in 2016, “Mingus said, ‘It sounds like a conspiracy to me. Too much talent on this stage of the wrong complexion. It’s a racist act.’ He said to the police, ‘Get all my heroes out of here. Take Duke, Willie the Lion, Eubie Blake. I’m staying.’”

Duke Ellington, the elderly piano pioneers Willie “the Lion” Smith and Eubie Blake, the three dozen or so other world-class jazz musicians in the house, and the audience indeed walked out, in an orderly manner, leaving Mingus alone on stage.

“This is terrible news for me,” Ruff recalled, “because Mingus is holding my bass.”

Yale sophomore Erroll McDonald ’75 had been assigned to be Mingus’s chaperone for the weekend. But he reasonably concluded that his duty did not include keeping his eye on the bassist during a bomb scare, and he left. On the way out, he saw what he calls “the most powerful moment of the whole weekend: Mingus, alone on the stage, playing ‘Sophisticated Lady.’ He was not going to yield to racism.”

I was a sophomore too, and I was part of the crowd that left Woolsey—and returned 20 minutes later, when a police and fire sweep found no bomb. Of the many decisions I made while at Yale, probably the best—or at least in the top five—was to attend three concerts in the “Conservatory Without Walls,” as Ruff dubbed the extravaganza. It was without a doubt one of the highlights of my musical and cultural life, and over decades of following jazz and sometimes writing about the music, I’ve been somewhat surprised never to come upon any references to that event. It’s made me wonder whether it really was as marvelous as in my memories.

Spoiler alert: it was.

Willie Ruff got his master’s degree in music from Yale in the 1950s, spent more than a decade playing French horn and bass full-time, and returned to the university in 1971 as a music professor. Within a year of returning, he hatched the idea of hosting a major event commemorating the history and glory of African American music. Speaking on the phone from his native Alabama, where he’s lived since retiring from teaching in 2017, Ruff recalled meeting with Yale president Kingman Brewster Jr. ’41. “I told him that the university had given Duke Ellington an honorary doctorate in 1967, and now was the time to follow it up with a major event, and a permanent visiting fellows program at the university bearing Ellington’s name.”

“Brewster said, ‘That’s the best idea I’ve heard in ages. But we don’t have any money. Can you raise it?’

“‘Me? I’m a French horn player who likes to teach.’”

It turned out Ruff was a decent fundraiser as well: he convinced Ernest Osborne, a former Yale administrator who had recently been named executive director of the Mellon family–bankrolled Sachem Fund, to pay for the event. Then it was time for him, Ellington, and Brent Henry, then a student at Yale Law School, to work the phones. Apparently no one said no—if you don’t count Miles Davis, who was then in one of his ornery lying-low phases and couldn’t be reached. Henry, a jazz fanatic, says that working on the event “was like being a kid in a candy shop.”

When all was said and done, a remarkable list of luminaries had agreed to come to Yale, receive a medal naming them an Ellington Fellow, and perform. Besides those already mentioned, the roster included reed players Benny Carter, Harry Carney, and Russell Procope; vocalists Joe Williams, William Warfield, Roland Hayes, Marion Williams, and Odetta; drummers Max Roach, Jo Jones, and Sonny Greer; bassists Ray Brown, Slam Stewart, Milt Hinton, and George Duvivier; trumpeters Clark Terry, Cootie Williams, and Harry “Sweets” Edison; and pianist Mary Lou Williams.

The list would have been even longer had it not been for illness (Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, Ben Webster) and prior commitments (Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Roy Eldridge, Sarah Vaughan, and Teddy Wilson).

Two things stand out about the invitees and attendees. First, while the folk singer Odetta was only 41, the youngest jazz honoree was Ray Brown, at 45, and neither he nor any of the others was identified with modern or experimental jazz in any of its manifestations. Ruff wanted to honor the legacy of the music: give the pioneers their due while they were still around. “History and longevity,” he said.

Second, every single participant was African American, including the gospel artists and singers from the Georgia Sea Islands. That was intentional as well. Ruff wasn’t implying that white people couldn’t play this music. That would be absurd. But the list of players made a clear statement that Black people had established the tradition, and owned it.

On the first weekend in October, the musicians, one by one, arrived in New Haven. Ruff was there to greet them. “Nobody ever went to bed,” he recalled. “We stayed up all night shooting the breeze.”

The Yale Daily News assigned Robert Rubin ’74 to cover the weekend. He was a huge Ellington fan and was excited about interviewing the Great Man. Duke did not disappoint. “He had long gray hair and a d’Artagnan shirt with extravagant collars,” Rubin recalls. “He was gracious and courteous.

“At the time, I knew by heart 17 members of the 1940 Ellington band and started reciting them: Juan Tizol, Lawrence Brown, Cootie Williams, Ray Nance. . . I had had a few drinks and when I got to 14 or 15 I lost the thread.

“Duke said, ‘Don’t stop now, boy! Don’t stop now!’”

Each performer was assigned a Yale student as a chaperone. For Erroll McDonald, drawing the cantankerous Mingus was, well, memorable. “He was not amused by my presence,” remembers McDonald, who met up with the bassist at the Sheraton Park Plaza Hotel (and is now a vice president and executive editor at Alfred A. Knopf publishing house). “Every attempt I made to be helpful was foiled by a lack of response. Finally he told me to get him a hairbrush, and I went out and bought one. No mention was made of reimbursing me.”

The next night at dinner in Commons, McDonald sat next to Mingus. “He was quite specific. He said I would be of great use if I could get him some pussy and apple pie. I diddle-daddled and made my exit.”

The occasion for Willie Ruff’s 2016 talk at the Yale Art Gallery (which can be viewed on YouTube) was an exhibition of photos of the 1972 event taken by New Haven photographer Reggie Jackson. Those photos, which the gallery still owns and can be viewed by appointment (and which illustrate this article), are part of a sadly and surprisingly sparse audiovisual record of what took place 50 years ago. In his talk, Ruff partly explains the scarcity by quoting what unnamed Yale administrators told him at the time: “You must not even think of making a documentary. That’s something not even our law school can handle.” So, fearing copyright problems, no one from Yale filmed the proceedings. But also—bafflingly—no one apparently taped it. Or, if they did, all tapes have been lost, with the exception of 40 minutes of the Ellington Orchestra, in great form, that are preserved digitally in the Yale Collection of Historical Sound Recordings.

Although Yale didn’t make a documentary, it turns out someone else did: TV station WTIC in Hartford devoted two episodes of its public-interest series What’s Happening to the event, and the Yale Film Center eventually came to possess a copy. It does include some footage of the music—apparently filmed by an enterprising Southern Connecticut State College student—but most of it consists of one of the two wide-lapelled hosts rather awkwardly interviewing some of the players in the bowels of Woolsey, while the strains of jazz emanate tantalizingly from above.

From those sources, from the contemporary press coverage of the weekend, from Ruff’s 1991 memoir A Call to Assembly, and from my own and other attendees’ memories, a picture of an amazing weekend of jazz emerges.

On Friday night, before the bomb scare, the Ellington Orchestra played some newer pieces and some classics. It kicked things off with Ellington’s trademark number.

Ruff: “The orchestra strode to the stage without its leader but with its collective chest thrown forward and gave ‘Take the A Train’ a rare fire and celebratory lift. I knew they were playing on the inspiration that surfaces whenever professionals perform for an audience of their peers. Just as ‘A Train’ was ending, Ellington made his entrance, and his audience stood in a roaring welcome. He went to the side of the stage and brought out Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith and introduced him as his ‘artistic overseer and custodian of good taste.’ I joined several other musicians in the audience, then began to move all around the hall to hear from different vantage points. Mingus, Dizzy, and Sonny Stitt were lined up along a side wall, listening. . . . Just then, onstage, Cootie Williams eased up out of his chair and, with his plumber’s plunger, bent his deep-throated trumpet growls all around the melody of ‘Concerto for Cootie.’ Dizzy Gillespie grabbed his face.”

Robert Rubin, writing in the Yale Daily News: “Whether masterfully mapping out his composition on the grand piano center stage, lithely moving his body to coax the piece’s sophisticated modulations, or simply shouting in lusty approval of the proceedings, Ellington proved what people have been saying about him for decades—that his orchestra is his instrument.”

At the end of the 40-minute recording, you can hear Ellington say, as the orchestra plays a reprise of “Satin Doll” softly behind him, “You are all cordially invited to join the finger-snapping. One never snaps one’s fingers on the beat. It’s considered . . . aggressive. Don’t push it—just let it fall. And if you would like to be conservatively hip, at the same time, tilt a left earlobe. Establish a state of nonchalance.”

At the end of the set, Ellington utters his trademark phrase, “We love you madly.”
Then he repeats it in French, German, and ten other languages.

The Saturday afternoon session, titled “Jam and Jamboree,” might be the greatest jam session in the history of jazz. At least that’s how I remember it. I was happy to find that Dan Morgenstern, reporting in DownBeat magazine, was equally enthusiastic. He wrote that while the set

began with a splendid quartet made up of Dizzy, Mary Lou Williams, Slam Stewart, and Kenny Clarke, Stewart broke it up with his inspired singing-and-bowing—he was one of the big hits of the festival. [And I recall Stewart bringing down the house with his trademark number, “Flat-Foot Floogie.”] So was Max Roach, who unleashed a tremendous solo at the climax of an ‘I Got Rhythm’ excursion featuring Clark Terry, Sonny Stitt, [Dwike] Mitchell, and Ruff. Stitt, on tenor, got it on. By popular demand, Max remained on deck for one of his masterful solo pieces. . . .

An unusual conclave followed, beginning with Joe Williams, backed by Ellington, Ray Brown, and Jo Jones—quite a rhythm section. In a set of Ducal tunes, they were joined first by Benny Carter, then Sweets Edison, and some joyful music was made. . . . What an accompanist Duke is, what a sound Ray Brown has, and what taste Jo Jones has got!

Then there was a conglomeration of six bassists and four trumpeters joining forces on “How High the Moon.” The concert ended with a set from 85-year-old pianist and composer (of “I’m just Wild About Harry” and many other songs) Eubie Blake, who had begun his career just after the turn of the century. He played “Eubie’s Classical Rag” and other tunes and then asked his songwriting partner, Noble Sissle, to join him for a song. Morgenstern wrote: “Eubie, who’d garnered several standing ovations, requested one for his friend. (‘He’s only 84.’) He got it.”

I missed the Saturday evening festivities at Woolsey, at which Brewster presented medals to all the honorees. But somehow I had found out about an impromptu session that night at Battell Chapel on the Old Campus and—another good decision—made my way there. I sat in the balcony and listened as Ruff, Mitchell, and Gillespie played “Take the A Train.” And played. And played. In my memory, Dizzy took about one hundred choruses of the Ellington tune.

The set isn’t mentioned in articles about the Conservatory Without Walls, and I sometimes wonder if I dreamed it. But when I talked to Ruff, he confirmed that it happened, and that it was completely impromptu. “Mitchell and Dizzy and I had done a lot of performing together,” he said. “We don’t plan anything.”

Brent Henry missed the Battell set. After the session at Woolsey, he went back to the Park Plaza with Mingus and some of the other musicians and drank anisette till 3:00 a.m. Kid in a candy shop, indeed.

One by one, the medalists of 1972 left the stage. Willie the Lion died in 1973, Duke Ellington in 1974, Mingus in 1979. Eubie Blake kept going till 1983, when he passed away just days after his 96th birthday. I believe the last survivors were Max Roach, who died in 2007 at 83, and Odetta, who died the following year.

Their legacy lives on, of course, in their magnificent music. And the legacy of the Conservatory Without Walls lives on as well. In the last 50 years, the Duke Ellington Fellowship has brought scores of performers from a variety of jazz-adjacent disciplines and of multiple ethnicities to perform and give workshops for Yale and the broader community, reaching an estimated 180,000 New Haven schoolchildren. In 2018, Willie Ruff was awarded an honorary Doctor of Music from Yale—the same degree Ellington had received in 1967.

And the legacy of the joyful noise of October 1972 lives on in the memory of all of us lucky enough to have heard it.

Kenny Clarke said it best. Standing in the wings at Woolsey Hall during one of the sessions, he turned to Robert Rubin and summed up what they were witnessing:

“There has never been anything like this, and there probably never will be again.”  


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