September 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

"Braff!!" Ruby Braff, Epic, 1957

Ever since I first laid eyes on this – again, another Amoeba dollar record – a few years ago, it has been my favorite album cover. I don’t think I really need to, or can, explain too much about why. On one level, though, something I can point to that certainly adds to the impact is the decision to allow just the smallest intrusions into the photo: the catalog number and title (in red, the only bit of color on the sleeve) in the upper left corner; and then the “Epic” logo promising “Outstanding High Fidelity Through Radial Sound.” They had all sorts of “sound” back then, and everyone seemed to have their own charming name for it. Sometimes even their own diagram of how it made its way to your head. These days sound is just sound, and not really worth commenting on. Well, the whole phenomenon of recording, stereo, etc. of course isn’t so new anymore, so that makes sense (also, it seems most people have given up really caring that much about how good things sound in the end, or what music is played on). Still, I appreciate knowing whether I am enjoying, say, “stereo-orthophonic high fidelity sound” or, as in this case, simple “radial” sound.

In researching the photographer, Jay Maisel, it made sense that he is considered “one of the top natural-light color photographers in the world,” and has been described as “non-technical.” That natural light as well as what one could I suppose call a ‘non-technicalness’ are both present in this great image. Perhaps that actually does go a tiny bit of the way towards capturing some of its appeal to me, then, as I fall decidedly on the less-technical side of just about everything, including how I approach photography and music – both in the making of them and in what I tend to be drawn to in what I come across. On another personal note: I’m sure it has, if anything, an extremely small role to play, but I grew up with an uncle who played trumpet in the San Francisco Symphony, and originally intended to take it up myself. When they demonstrated the instruments to us in 4th grade, however, somehow the snare drum (rightly for me, I can definitely say) swayed me at the last minute. Still, perhaps this scene somehow conjures up a touch of something connected with that history. (Though maybe I should point out for accuracy’s sake that Ruby Braff actually played the cornet more than the trumpet, and preferred its mellower tone. They’re very similar, in any case.)

To return to the photographer, though, I must admit I was not familiar with Maisel, but was intrigued to find that he started shooting commercially in New York in the mid-fifties, and is still out there working and teaching. In perusing a few interviews, one of the things he said particularly struck me. Not that it is a revolutionary insight, but something about the way he expressed it resonated as I pondered the cover. At an event attended by several photographers who between them had produced some of the most enduring images of the 20th century, Maisel said,

Nick did the photo of the young Vietnamese girl running from a napalm attack, Bill Epperidge photographed Robert F. Kennedy after the shooting by Sirhan Sirhan, and John Filo captured the girl leaning over the slain student at Kent State. It was humbling just to be in the same room with these three guys. It also reminded me of the power and emotional impact of a still photo … I thought that powerful as film may be, it acts as a continuum, while the still image is a commitment – a final unaltered (we hope) statement of reality, and as such has enormous power, even more than film. To illustrate consider this: Eddie’s image of the street execution of the Vietcong, Nick Ut’s Pulitzer Prize winning image, and even the man in front of the tanks at Tiananmen Square were also covered by film camera crews. However, it is the still photo that impresses and stays with us long after the moving image has faded. Commitment to a moment gives that impact. There is none of the diffusion of time that motion pictures deal with. (

As for Ruby Braff, he  came to New York in his mid-twenties in 1953, and, as many young artists of course do, struggled. Apparently his parents would send him and his roommate cans of sardines to help them out. This album was recorded in 1956; perhaps he was still living in his simple apartment, and that was his landlady. I suppose Maisel would remember. I can say that the photo was as far as I ever got with this record: I was, frankly, a little scared to actually play it and risk associating the cover with anything that might not live up to it, and had not even taken the time to look up who Braff was. I still haven’t listened to it, but after reading a little bit about him I am now intrigued. In his obituary in The Independent in 2003, radio presenter and friend Steve Voce wrote that “he was one of the most melodic improvisers in the history of jazz,” but that “the beauty ended abruptly when he took the horn from his mouth. He was usually abrasive, insensitive, cruel, [and] insulting.” To illustrate, here are some choice quotes collected from various interviews:

I don’t know what they mean by “blues feeling”. That’s a very mysterious phrase to me. I’ve heard it applied to players that are incredibly horrible, ridiculous musical morons. These congenital idiots play insipid nonsense and they say: “Man, don’t he play the blues!” I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I play the blues if that’s what they imagine it is.

On what basis do they judge talent—reading ability, how fast he can run the notes? Out of a symphony of 180 musicians, there’s liable to be three that have talent. They can all play their instruments beautifully that has nothing to do with having talent. Talent is something that very few people have, really … [N]ot everybody was born to write or play.

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 … Yes, certainly I’m choosy when it comes to drummers. I’m choosy when it comes to anything.

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.

The following, though, takes the cake for me personally, and made my jaw drop, as it so happens that the very nice guy who lives across the street from us is a former jazz musician who played saxophone in the ’60s and ’70s for Buddy Rich and Stan Kenton.

Q: 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?

Q: 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.

Q: 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.

Well, as for all that, I don’t know what to say, except that I have to side with my neighbor, who I’m sure was a great player. He told me that the normal length of time someone lasted in Buddy Rich’s band (Rich was known for being sort of a lunatic) was a matter of weeks, but he lasted six months.

So Braff was certainly outspoken. It’s hard to conclude too much from such limited exposure to him, but from what I have read I have to say that despite how abrasive he seemed to be, I kind of like him. A lot of the time he is too resistant to anything new (disliking, to cite one example, the way Miles Davis “messed around with” his sound: “…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”; at another point he said he would “never play with an electric bassist”), but all the same, I appreciate the fact that he just comes out and says, for example, that there are many musicians who aren’t really musical and/or have “nothing to say,” etc. I often feel the same way, frankly. And maybe it is a sign of aging, but I also smiled at his statement that ”Most people play three times louder than they should.” Of course there is a place for volume, especially when you move away from jazz and towards rock, but at the same time a lot of musicians could use a lesson in how to play quieter (or at least with more dynamics) and/or simply less more of the time.

Braff was a traditionalist with an old-fashioned style, a “throwback” who, The Guardian said, “loved the sound of musicians who had made their reputations 20 years before him – men like Louis Armstrong and Bobby Hackett.” Still, they continued, “Ruby Braff may not have joined the household-name category of Louis Armstrong (his most significant influence), Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, nor did he shift the evolutionary course of the music. But he was one of the finest practitioners of his instrument, gifted with a rare fertility of ideas and an unerring control of their direction and shape. The way he would skitter playfully around a melody, steady himself with spare, carefully poised sounds, brightly attack an improvisation as good as the original, hold shimmering long notes, or duck in and out of a different tune, was endlessly fascinating.”

Braff never married. His final album was, incredibly, recorded in New York the day after the September 11 attacks. His final tour took place in the U.K. In his obituary in The Independent, Voce says, “Paradoxically, as Braff’s health fell away his playing continued to improve. It was the rigour of his British tour last autumn that led to his death, but the music that he played as he travelled around got better and better until it concluded with what was to be his last and best performance at the Nairn Festival in northern Scotland.

After it he returned to his lonely life in Cape Cod.”

I don’t necessarily picture Ruby Braff being a baseball fan, but given his traditionalist leanings and the fact that he was born and lived much of his life in Massachusetts, where people tend to be hardcore Red Sox fans, maybe he was. If so, I can’t help but notice that he died in 2003, the year before the team famously broke its “curse” and won its first World Series since 1918. If he was a fan, then, that’s a real shame. So maybe he was a difficult person who could drive people away from him, and maybe he died relatively alone and before seeing the Red Sox finally triumph. But he played til the very end, even though he had to be wheeled across airport tarmacs. And he obviously left the world with a lot of music that a lot of people loved. As Voce says in his eloquent piece (in which he describes Braff as “one of [his] best friends”), “When Ruby Braff played the cornet it was, to paraphrase Eddie Condon, like a girl saying ‘yes’.”


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