Ruby Braff: cornetist, trumpeter, bandleader

Reuben “Ruby” Braff: born Mar. 18, 1927 in Boston; died Feb. 9, 2003 in Chatham, MA

    Ruby Braff was already playing in Boston clubs as a underaged teenager in the early 1940s, and by the end of that decade was working regularly with established stars including Pee Wee Russell and Edmond Hall. His mainstream style with modern influences won Braff many fans, and in the early 1960s he began a long association with George Wein and the Newport All-Stars, touring the world. In later years, he worked extensively with Scott Hamilton and Howard Alden, and recorded numerous albums for Concord Jazz and Arbors Records.

    On April 9, 2002, an ailing Ruby Braff—cornet in hand and walking cane by his side—delivered one of the most remarkable performances of his 60-year career when he helped the New England Jazz Alliance pay tribute to NEJA Hall of Fame inductee Bobby Hackett at Boston’s Tremont Theater.

    Both the audience and the musicians with him on stage went away feeling they had experienced something special, historically as well as musically. In two remarkably spontaneous sets, Braff, sitting upright in a stiffed-back high office chair, set the tone for each of his renditions from the great American songbook with humorous stories and anecdotes pertaining to the songwriters, Louis Armstrong, Bobby Hackett and other great musicians he had known, and the pretentiousness often found in the music business. Braff truly enjoyed every aspect of the evening and asked NEJA to arrange a return engagement, which he planned to record.

    Unfortunately for jazz fans everywhere, the 2002 concert proved to be Braff’s last public performance in America. Against doctors advice, he did a British tour that summer. John Fordham wrote in The Guardian: “He looked as if he couldn’t make it from one gig to the next. But the moment he lifted his cornet to his lips, all thoughts of frailty and mortality evaporated.”

    At the Tremont Theater, Braff scolded Gershwin, Porter and Kern. “They die and they forget about you. I’ve helped keep their tunes alive, and you’d think they’d thank me once in a while. But they never call me.” Perhaps they have, Ruby.

    —Brent Banulis

Ruby Braff by Ken Franckling

Ruby Braff (Photo by Ken Franckling)