Books to Awaken, Delight, & Educate

Mitchell & Ruff :
An American Profile in Jazz

Mitchell & Ruff

Trade Paper
191 pp.
5.38" x 8.5"
November 2000
ISBN: 9780966491340

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Quantity in Basket: 0

William Zinsser

Foreword by Albert Murray

Take a Moment and read an excerpt from this book.

View the curriculum guide here.

Since 1955, Dwike Mitchell and Willie Ruff have been playing, teaching, and sharing jazz around the U.S. and around the world. William Zinsser, one of our finest chroniclers of American life, tells their story as he travels with the duo to China, to Davenport, Iowa, to New York City, and—with Willie Ruff—to St. Mark's Basilica in Venice, where Ruff journeys back to the roots of Western music in order to understand jazz's musical legacy.

Zinsser also accompanies Mitchell and Ruff as they visit their hometowns in Florida and Alabama. We listen as the two men tell of growing up in small towns in the American South of the 1930s and 40s; as they tell about the teachers, community leaders, and family members who believed in two young black men with talent but no formal musical training; as they tell of their struggles, their perseverance, and their ultimate success.

Jazz is indeed a uniquely American musical tradition, and there are no better guides to this inspiring art than Dwike Mitchell and Willie Ruff.

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  • "Jazz came to China for the first time on the afternoon of June 2, 1981, when the American bassist and French-horn player Willie Ruff introduced himself and his partner, the pianist Dwike Mitchell, to several hundred students and professors who were crowded into a large room at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Probably they were not surprised to find that the two musicians were black. . . .What they undoubtedly didn't expect was that Ruff would talk to them in Chinese." —from Chapter 1, "Shanghai"

    "In this account of the world adventures of two splendid jazz artists, Bill Zinsser has given us one of the most exciting books about America's original art form that I've ever read. It's a revelation." —Studs Terkel

    "[This is a] thoughtful, adept, and satisfyingly unusual book of reportage. . . . Though its contents are entirely factual, it concerns lives that give the sense of being but fatefully, imaginatively, arranged, and it constantly suggests improvisation—that is, 'something created during the process of delivery,' as Mr. Ruff explains the term to the Chinese. . . . He also tells them improvisation is 'the lifeblood of jazz.' William Zinsser's book reminds us that improvisation is the lifeblood of life, too. [This book is also] about difficult passages that end in victorious arrival. Mitchell & Ruff is a deservedly happy book." —New York Times Book Review

    "Highly recommended" —Library Journal

    "In Mitchell & Ruff Mr. Zinsser chronicles the trips and the lives of . . . two remarkable men. He does so in a clear, sparse prose that is as good as any reportage being written today. Mr Zinsser obviously admires his subjects and has a sense of wonder at the way that have combined lowbrow and highbrow, stern intellectual discipline with joyful emotion, and humble origins with astonishing achievements. . . . Now, thanks to Mr. Zinsser, we have the chance to learn from them too." —Wall Street Journal

    "Pianist Dwike Mitchell and bassist Willie Ruff have been playing jazz as the world-renowned Mitchell-Ruff Duo for almost 30 years. For this excellent biography of the duo, Zinsser (On Writing Well, etc.), a colleague of Ruff's at Yale University, travels with the pair across the world, recording their memories of life and music. Mitchell was a child prodigy who made the most out of his meager opportunities in the musically 'barren terrain' of Dunedin, Fla. When Mitchell was a toddler, his father, a garbage-truck driver, salvaged a thrown-out piano and brought it home. At five, Mitchell was already good enough to become his church's accompanist. After his father declined various patrons' offers to pay Mitchell's way through music conservatories, including Julliard, Mitchell set off for the army, where he met Ruff and his 'musical education really began.' Ruff, a bassist and French-horn player, grew up in Sheffield, Ala., where he, too, was recognized early on as a special talent. At the Lockbourne Air Force Base—an elite base for talented black specialists whom the air force would not, in 1947, integrate with white officers—Mitchell and Ruff flourished, joining the base's prestigious band, which doubled as a self-made jazz conservatory. Soon the two men teamed up to perform as a second act for the likes of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis. In the late '50s, they felt 'under some moral persuasion to pass their experience along' and began supplementing their performances with educational programs. Their insights into musical structure and pedagogy are a treasure for any music teacher. Using long, direct quotations, Zinsser's biography captures the voices of these two remarkable men, while deftly situating their lives in historical context. The result is a highly infectious, Studs Terkel-like chronicle about the unorthodox development of two distinguished musicians." —Publishers Weekly

    William Zinsser is author of the best-selling On Writing Well and fourteen other books. His most recent is Easy to Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs. He has been a writer, columnist, critic, and editor at leading newspapers and magazines as well as general editor of the Book-of-the-Month Club. During the 1970s he was master of Branford College at Yale University, where he taught nonfiction writing and where he first met Willie Ruff. On the faculty of the New School University in New York City, Mr. Zinsser is a part-time jazz pianist and a student of Dwike Mitchell.

    Albert Murray is a cultural critic, biographer, essayist, and novelist. He has taught at several colleges, including Colgate, Barnard, and Tuskegee. Mr. Murray's works include The Omni-Americans, South to a Very Old Place, Train Whistle Guitar, The Blue Devils of Nada, and The Seven League Boots.

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