Who is Ruby Braff? His name doesn’t come up often enough such that he had slipped my mind since those long-ago days of Jazz History classes at UM – so when I saw the LP at Ella Guru I thought, “How cool!”
Boy am I glad I indulged! I’m a fan of Louis Armstrong – one of the very few musicians in my experience who can make me involuntarily happy when I listen to his music – and Ruby Braff carries forth that Armstrong torch with his boisterous-but-not-belligerent style radiating confidently from the bell of his horn.
If you’re like me, you love good mono. Aside from the retro-ness of the presentation (that certain grayness in sound that reminds you of old photographs and anachronistic cocktails), it’s also much less about the loop-de-loops and parlor tricks that stereo-high-fidelity distracts us with and rather just leaves the music to speak for itself. Our expectations when it comes to that laundry-list of audiophile attributes folks ordinarily seek aren’t really high – we understand that these mono recordings won’t have that 3D imaging and soundstaging thing going on, and that there’s not much to expect from the frequency extremes as these recordings were often quite bandwidth limited. All that is left is the music and the performance of the musicians.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy the benefits of great stereo recordings, mind you, but rather that mono has charms all its own and once you’re bitten by them – there’s no going back. In the case of BRAFF! we have a fairly late-issue mono recording from 1956 – two years before the first stereo LPs would be offered on the retail market.
Additionally, because of the limited bandwidth, mono LPs could be quite “Long Playing,” indeed. In the case of Ruby Braff and His Allstars on BRAFF! we’re talking about 12 cuts of mostly-standards … long enough to keep a party going with seriously good tunes!
SO … MUSIC & HISTORY:
In the late 1940′s into the 50′s the larger swing bands began to give way to the smaller ensembles, due as much to the challenging economics of keeping an orchestra paid as it was to the gaining popularity of more introspective and heady small-ensemble compositions emanating from the Bebop, Cool, and West Coast scenes seeking a way out of the traditional “General Relativity” of music theory and into the more radical “Quantum Mechanics” … seeking the finer sub-atomic particles of dissonance and chromatism, and the controversial “flatted Fifth” that seemed to have become Bebop’s signature emblem. And while the Afro-Cuban craze may have kept somewhat-larger bands working, there was no shortage of enthusiasm for these more cerebral styles showcasing much smaller crews.
But then there was this Dixieland revival being fostered, mostly by labels reissuing popular back-catalog from the Kid Ory, King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Bix Beiderbecke days. The old timers who made their bones in that golden age (think Louis Armstrong, Max Kaminsky, Eddie Condon) were gigging anew, and this also made it possible for new blood to enter the ring playing that good old N.O. style of jazz that can’t help but make you smile. That’s where our man Ruby Braff comes in.
Born in Boston in 1927, Braff undoubtedly grew up with the sound of Dixieland, and as he matured the music matured into the Jazz Age that made Louis Armstrong a household name. As a youngster he originally wanted to be a saxophonist, but his folks thought the instrument too big for their delicate boy … so trumpet it was! By his late teens, early twenties the prodigy was already gigging – by 23 he had been hired to play with Edmond Hall’s band, the “Edmond Hall All Stars” (known as ‘the best band Boston ever had’) at the Savoy Cafe right there in Boston. This is likely when he got a serious, hungry-man-sized dose of New Orleans Jazz. In 1950, Hall left Boston for NYC … Ruby followed three years later.
Add another three years and we’ve got BRAFF! – this record – as historical testimony to the popularity of the New Orleans/Dixieland revival. His fourth record, but only his second as solo headliner (the middle two were shared with Pee Wee Russel, “Jazz At Storyville” – Vols. 1 and 2). With more than 20 album credits to his name and a career that lasted into the 21st Century, Ruby Braff is one of those rare Jazz musicians that made it through the roughest times and managed to stay delightfully relevant.
Jack Teagarden once called Ruby “The Ivy league Louis Armstrong” – and we know how very fond Jack was of Armstrong – so this was high praise, indeed! Like Armstrong, Ruby is one of those musicians and BRAFF! is one of those records that just makes you happy.
I got very lucky to pick my NM copy up for $4.00 … you may not be so lucky. As it turns out, it would appear that it’s kind of collectible – which means that you’ll find it out there for sale in VG to NM shape for between $15 and $90!
Get out there and dig those crates!