Cornetist and trumpeter Reuben “Ruby” Braff was born in Boston on March 16, 1927. Braff’s long career in jazz started at Boston’s infamous bucket of blood, Izzy Ort’s, in 1942, when Braff was all of 15. He was a scrawny kid, so the bandleader had him stand on a box behind the piano so no one could get a good look at him. Benny Goodman, who was across Essex Street at the RKO Theatre, heard Braff one night and wanted to hire him right away, but Ruby’s mother said no, he had to finish high school first.
Braff caught his first break in 1949, playing with Edmond Hall at the Savoy, and meeting George Wein, with whom he formed a lifelong friendship. He led a group at Boston’s first jazz festival, part of the Boston Jubilee, in May 1950. On October 25, 1950, Braff was on the bandstand for Storyville’s opening night, filling in for a tardy Sidney DeParis. Braff would work at Wein’s club about once a year for the next decade, as well as at the first Newport Jazz Festival in 1954 and several festivals thereafter. Wein also recorded Braff on his Storyville Records label, and used him on the sessions for five other recordings. In later decades, Braff was a longtime member of Wein’s road band, the Newport All Stars.
Braff, who moved from Boston to New York in the mid-fifties, spent years in jazz purgatory, his style of playing out of fashion. He looked to Armstrong and the swing masters for his inspiration, while many of his generation followed a modern jazz path. But he didn’t ignore the modernists, either; he was well aware of what they were doing. Braff, though, always played it his way—warm, agile, melodic; a style all his own. You don’t mistake him for anybody else.
He was notoriously hard to work with, and much has been written about the irascible Braff over the years. Thomas Hustad’s book, Born to Play, documents Braff’s career in detail.
Here are two examples of Braff at work. The first is grainy video from Newport in 1962, Ruby playing with Pee Wee Russell’s group. The second is Braff with the Newport All-Stars in 1969. You’ll know the tunes.