When my friend Ruby Braff passed away last February, silence came to both his gorgeous cornet playing and his razor sharp tongue. Throughout his life, Ruby went his own way. He taught himself to play, and developed a style all his own. He was an easy laugher, and was in love with melodic jazz, starting with his idol, Louis Armstrong. He was also easily outraged, and was outspoken to a fault. Maintaining a personal relationship with Ruby was difficult. In fifteen minutes of conversation with him you could run afoul of at least ten of his prejudices, on which he was quick to expound. But playing music with him was a delight.
Ruby was rarely satisfied with his own playing, nor was he satisfied for long with the playing of the men he hired. He went through every rhythm section in town, and then started over at the beginning of the list. He loved spontaneous music, but had strong opinions about style. We played together in many different situations, and I rarely got through a job with him without having an argument. I learned to discount his pugnacity and just listen to the music. Aping the way Jack Benny would end conversations with Dennis Day with an exasperated, “Sing, Dennis!” I would often end our disagreements by saying, “Play, Ruby!”
Ruby was famous for burning his bridges in front of him. When Joe Glaser, the booking agent, once called Ruby to ask if he would like to go to England, Ruby said he’d love to take his band there. “I don’t want your goddam band, you stupid sonofabitch!” shouted Glaser, “I want you to play with Jack Teagarden and Earl Hines!” Ruby yelled, “Who are you calling a sonofabitch, you sonofabitch!” and hung up. Then, after getting madder, he called Glaser back and told him, with added expletives, “You don’t deserve to know guys like Teagarden and Hines!” Needless to say, Glaser did what he could to keep Ruby unhired in the venues he controlled.
Entrepreneur George Wein knew Ruby from his Boston days, loved his playing, and hired him when he could. But Ruby spent a lot of time sitting home listening to his records when he should have been playing somewhere. He was later involved in moderately successful partnerships with other musicians, once with trombonist Marshall Brown, and at another time with guitarist George Barnes. Some wonderful music got played, but inevitably, personal sparks flew, and Ruby went his own way again, no longer speaking to his former partners. When an English fan asked “Why don’t you make another album with George Barnes?” Ruby snapped, “Why don’t you make a f’ing album with George Barnes?”
At Jim and Andy’s bar one day, trumpeter Red Rodney suggested to Ruby that they make a record together as “The Jazz Midgets.” He soon discovered that Ruby was sensitive about his height, and, as of that moment, was also no longer speaking to him! Writer Jack Tracy remembered how everyone in Chicago was waiting for Ruby to explode as clubowner Frank Holzfiend announced him every night at the Blue Note as “Rudy,” but for once Ruby failed to take offense.
When George Ziskind met him on Cape Cod, he wanted to invite Ruby over to his house for a jam session, but was worried about calling too early. He phoned a little after eleven one morning, realized from the sound of Ruby’s voice that he had waked him up, and quickly asked, “When would be a good time to call you back?” Ruby shouted venomously, “When my eyes open!”
When Marianne Glasel first moved into an apartment in Greenwich Village and got a new phone number, she kept getting calls from men asking for “Ruby.” She assumed some swinging chick had the number before her until she told one caller, “She doesn’t live here any more.” The caller laughed and said, “He’s not a woman, he’s a man…Ruby Braff, the jazz musician.” When she met Ruby later and told him the story, he was delighted.
Not long after John Glasel’s administration was elected at Local 802, I got a call from Ruby at home. He complained angrily that he had been billed for work dues he had already paid. I told him I’d straighten out the clerical error, but Ruby was already wound up, and he went on to give me an earful about the many failings of the union and his low opinion of Local 802. After listening to his tirade for quite a while, I said, “I’m glad you called, Ruby. We’re trying to make changes in the way Local 802 operates, and we need input from musicians like you who have strong ideas. Why don’t you come down and join the jazz committee, and help us remake the union?” Ruby quickly calmed down, said goodbye, and I never heard from him again.
Fortunately, Ruby was copiously recorded in his later years, mostly on the Concord and Arbors labels, and there is some film footage of him playing at jazz festivals. And so, though we don’t have him to kick us around any more, we still have his beautiful music.