Mitchell & Ruff: An American Profile in Jazz
by William Zinsser
Forward by Albert Murray
Reprinted by Paul Dry Books, 2000
To my delight, this book is remarkably free of social science findings and studies and speculations about race relations. Its fundmental concern is with the development of an American esthetic sensibility. The author, William Zinsser, wants to find out how that sensibility was formed, and that leads him to Dwike Mitchell and Willie Ruff as artists. He isn't thrown off by issues of politics and justice and injustice. What he's after is how an American personality develops. There's something about these two musicians that attracted him to them. He wants to know: Where did they come from and how did they get to be where they were when I encountered them? What enables them to play usic that I admire so much?
John A. Kouwenhoven, in his book Made in America, talks about what's particularly American aobut American culture. He suggest that it's a mixture of learned traditions imported by emigrants from Europe with native or frontier forms, which together create the vernacular. That combination in turn gets refined, beyond folk, beyond pop, into the most comprehensive forms of fine art. You can find the 12-bar blues stanza of a Mississippi delta guitarist, for example, elaborated into an American sonata form know as the jazz instrumental in Duke Ellington's "Harlem Air Shaft." The process has nothing to do with social status. It's a matter of how artists develop a growing mastery of their medium.
Zinsser never loses sight of that process. He focuses on why Dwike Mitchell plays the piano as he does, and why Willie Ruff plays the bass and the French horn as he does. He discovers that their music is a fusion of what was imported to this country and what evolved here. Everything he leaves about the life of the two musicians reaffirms that dynamic. Mitchell realizes as a young man that the piano is his destiny. The more he learns about it, the more he wants to learn about it. He wants to know what a piano is, and what has been done with it, and therefore what he can do with it — what he can say with the piano about his experience. He can say more if he knows what other people have done with piano keys, so there's everythign possible to be learned. His whole life becomes a search for what will make him a better artist. The same is true of Willie Ruff. He goes wherever he needs to go to learn what he wants to know next: to Yale to sutdy with paul Hindemith, to Africa to study the drum language of the Pygmies, to St. Mark's church in Venice to listen for "a distant sound."
Zinsser stays focussed on that double search. He goes down to Florida and Alabama, where Mitchell and Ruff grew up — which is a long way from his own hometown of New York. But he doesn't confuse what he finds with exotica. He never forgets that he's dealing with American character and how it gets shaped into art.
Being a down-home boy myself, from Alabama, I feel a connection between Mitchell and Ruff's early years and my own early years as I describe them in my novel, Train Whistle Guitar. The novel is about a little boy growing up in the outskirts of Mobile, listening to the guitar players and juke-joint piano players and becoming a serious schoolboy. I was that schoolboy, developing literary and intellectual interest at an early age and going on to win scholarships, right through college. Mitchell and Ruff did it in a different way. I did it through literature and they did it through music, but they achieved the same level of sophistication in their chosen métier. Their way was more imporvisational — their first conservatory was an air force base in Ohio — but for all three of us it was the same picturesque fairy tale.
The similarity really hit me when Dwike Mitchell talks about how he was made to play the piano in the Baptists church when he was a small boy and how the minister would preach that everyone would be damned and go to Hell. What he says is very close to what I write about Sunday mornings in Train Whistle Guitar: "The sermons used to be so full not only of ugly propheicies and warning but also outright threats of divine vengeance on hypocrites that when people all around you began stomping and clapping and shouting you couldn't tell whether they were doing so because they were being visited by the Holy Ghost or because being grown folks and therfore accountable for their trespasses they were even more terrified of the dreadful wrath of God than you were (whose sins after all were still being charged against your parents."
The point is that I feel a close personal identification with Zinsser's protrayal of Mitchell and Ruff, not just because I'm from the South but because his book is an excellent natural history of te development of our sensibility as indigenous American artists. The book has nothing to do with race relations as such. Zinsser has an omni-American sensibility —it's neither white or black. That sensibility is also at the heart of my work. I never think of myself as an "African-American." As Willie Ruff says to the old monsignor in St. Mark's church, it's a word I don't use.
Mitchell & Ruff is the literary equivalent of a jazz piece. It's composed, has themes, and it develops those themes. Zinsser's prose tries to get as close as possible to the rhythms these two men use in their music. Tm me the ur-father of jazz is Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway swings; his prose is as precise as it is lyrical. What he did is exactly what Count Basie thought you should do when you're playing music: Don't use frills or curlicues; get a good solid rhythm; make it swing. That's what Zinsser does: He tells his story with a directness and a simplicity that ad up to the kind of elegance that the higher physicists admire.
Zinsser sees Mitchell and Ruff just about as I would see them. That impressed me, because he's a Yankee, working in a context he's not as intimate with as I am. Ordinarly when people enter an unfamiliar situation there are two common reacitons. One is insecurity, which can result in xenophobia: fear, or hostility, or condescension. The other is to see the situation as exotic, or weird, or dagerous, and to find it fascinating — as all those people did who used to go slummin in Harlem. But here's a man who identifies with Mitchell and Ruff because their story is universal, and he's sensitive to the local conventions that an outsider needs to penetrate in order to tell that story. He doesn't allow anything to get in the way of the relationship — the kinship — of these two men from the South.
So what you've go in Mitchell & Ruff is not only a profile of two people but, in effect, a profile of three people: Dwike Mitchell and Willie Ruff and William Zinsser. I'm completely confortable with Zinsser's take on the down-home neighborhoods he visited. He never got deflected from what he wrote this book to find out: how these to men forged their American identity as artists. It pleases me that he chose to move into this context and that he wrote about it so well.
Interview with William Zinsser about this book on Jerry Jazz Musician