Cornetist Ruby Braff knows exactly how to describe himself.
"I'm a performer," he asserts. "I'm not like some other musicians. Back when I was very young and just beginning to play, the musicians all felt wonderful until the people started coming in. Then they'd say, `They're coming!' with such contempt--like, `The enemy approaches!' I said, `Don't you like them?' And they said, `No, goddammit! We hope nobody shows up!'
"And that's what most musicians are really made of," he continues. "They're people who learned to play an instrument so they could hide behind it and get away from everybody. And I did that, too, until I came into another world--the world of performers and show people. It taught me a few things--especially to get out of that goddamn type of musicial feeling. I was born to perform. And here I am, all my life with characters who hate to perform. So after being with show people, I decided that every time I played, I would make sure I was in control of the situation. That's when I started to live, musically speaking."
Braff makes this attitude adjustment seem so easy--so Norman Vincent Peale--so Up With People. But for him, it's worked; his history proves it. Although his career began in the late Forties (he was born in 1927 and likes to give his age in dog years), Braff has managed to consistently maintain his presence in the music world even during periods when the vintage sounds he prefers were considered utterly out of vogue. The reason is simple--Braff's music instantly creates a mood, a fantasy. You could be sitting in your underwear burping up beer, but if a Braff album was playing in the background, you'd still feel crisp, elegant, beautiful. His perfect playing makes listeners feel the same way.
Today Braff remains a fresh musical voice capable of enlivening jazz and swing popularized prior to World War II. He's often plagued with symptoms associated with the severe asthma and emphysema from which he suffers, but he's lost none of his musical vibrancy. His most recent recording, Ruby & His Quartet Live at the Regattabar, issued on the Arbors label, has earned raves in publications such as The New Yorker, and the handful of duet albums he's made with pianist Dick Hyman are pristine classics. Moreover, Braff is identified as a super-mentor by the graying members of the neo-swing movement: Ken Peplowski, Scott Hamilton and Howard Alden, among others. When told that Alden once confessed that the most wonderful thing in the world is to play with Ruby Braff, Braff heartily agrees. "It is," he says. "It is."
This kind of response is typical of Braff, who's as much a performer offstage as on. To the uninitiated, meeting him is comparable to being doused with a bucket of ice water--both invigorating and scary. He comes across like Jimmy Durante, and his fondness for vaudeville one-liners soon turns any conversation into a Catskills-style comedy routine. For example, he cautions people who haven't been Sanforized against taking showers. They'll shrink, claims Braff, who's barely five feet tall. He says he's proof.
By the same token, Braff also enjoys crabbing, or simply messing with people's heads. Many critics have noted that Braff is just as well known among members of the jazz community for his strongly held and frankly expressed opinions as he is for his much-admired musical ability. A case in point: Braff did some of his best work during the two-year period when he collaborated with guitarist George Barnes in a drummerless quartet setting. The sound was unsurpassed, but the group disbanded due to differences between Braff and Barnes. When asked about the guitarist, Braff says, "Yeah, we hated each other. But, gosh, he was such a magnificent musician, a most natural player. He was as wonderful a player as he was an asshole. Which is pretty big."
A self-taught musician, Braff says the cornet was not his first choice of instrument; he wanted a saxophone, but his parents thought he wasn't tall enough to hold one. After they bought him a cornet, he adds, "I hated it so much that I wouldn't even open the case for months. But they wouldn't exchange it, so I was stuck with it. But I fooled them anyway. I learned to play like Ben Webster without playing tenor."
Braff has been just as stubborn when it comes to sticking with swing. But he gets his back up when discussing the manner in which the music industry dates and categorizes its products. "None of those things have anything to do with me," he insists. "No artist is affected by trends. You have to have your own standards and yardsticks of measurement, and you live by them. The things that formed me in music, that made me be what I am, none of those things are less valid now than they were then. Anything that is great contains in it all the elements of contemporaneity eternally. If they were great, they'll always be great. If they're not great now, then they weren't great before, either. People are only dated the minute they start to think that way.
"Unfortunately for the kids today, there's a criminal conspiracy by the media," Braff goes on. "They're connected with the record companies and the movie people. They promote the lowest music. And these kids are only allowed to hear the lowest music on every station. When they get to hear something good, they're amazed. Look how they fell in love with Tony Bennett--a real professional singing wonderful tunes. They finally were exposed to something good. They never heard real lyrics by real poets with pretty tunes. The kids aren't dumb. It's not their fault. But they're being poisoned by these people. It's a criminal conspiracy."
Having unmasked this plot, Braff becomes quite somber when asked to reflect on what he hopes people get out of hearing him play. "I would like them to think that I'm the best single instrumental dramatist of American song. Because that's what I am," he reveals. "I don't see myself as any great trumpet virtuoso or anything like that. I'm an entertainer with a piece of metal in my hand. I have the disadvantage of not using words, lyrics. I try to dramatize a song with my playing. That's the way I look at it."
Clearly Braff is not shy about trumpeting his talents. And neither is he reticent about noting the shortcomings of others. Most people are more cautious in their remarks--but Braff knows that he's not most people.
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"Let me tell you something about `most people,'" he begins. "It's the most sensible thing Tony Bennett ever told me. It was brilliant. He said, `There are more assholes than asses.' Don't you know that right now there are probably physicists across the world trying to figure the literal meaning of this? But the fact of the matter is that the good people are far fewer than the other ones. And that's why it is so wonderful and rare when you bump into people who are nice and honest. That's what makes them just asses, not assholes. So what you're telling me is that at least I'm an ass."
When Braff is told that he's quite a wonderful ass, he coughs out a long, raspy peal of laughter.
"A wonderful ass," he repeats. "I like that. I think that's a great philosophy. To wake up every day and thank God you're just an ass."
Ruby Braff with the Super Star Sextet, featuring Ralph Sutton, Jack Lesberg, Scott Hamilton, Jake Hanna and Jon Wheatley. 7 p.m. Friday, October 28, and Saturday, October 29, Park Hill Golf Club, 4141 East 35th Avenue, $30, 333-2940 or 333-5414.