William Zinsser's "Mitchell & Ruff: An American Profile in Jazz"

I don't know anything about jazz, but this book's opening chapter immediately transported me to the Shanghai Conservatory where in 1981 the two African American musicians introduced jazz to the Chinese. The Conservatory audience, steeped in the Western classical music tradition, were reportedly fascinated by the improvisations of jazz. At one point in their program, Willie Ruff invited a student to play a Chinese melody, before Dwike Mitchell improvised on it on the piano, and Ruff joined in on his string bass. For the Chinese students, this moment, according to Zinsser "was the ultimate proof--because it touched their own heritage--that for a jazz improviser no point of departure is alien." That is a beautiful idea; it makes me want to be the poetic equivalent of a jazz improviser, to take no point of departure as alien.

As proof of Zinsser's own cross-cultural understanding, he does not end the chapter on the triumph of American music in China. Instead, he ends by quoting Mitchell on that Chinese student who played that Chinese melody: "But, you know, that boy phrased his piece perfectly. The minute he started to play I got his emotions. I understood exactly what he was feeling, and the rest was easy. The notes and the chords just fell into place." Another wonderful insight into the process of communication in the arts: technique--feeling--feeling--technique.

Written in pelluid prose, the book alternates chapters on each musician with chapters of them making music together, a kind of jazz improvisation in its own way. After Shanghai, it moves to Dunedin, a small town in Florida, where Mitchell grew up as a poor black boy, and then to Muscle Shoals in Alabama where Ruff grew up. The two boys enlisted in the military and found themselves playing together in Lockbourne Air Force Base, near Columbus, Ohio, where they learned their craft as musicians. The next chapter moves to Davenport, Iowa, where the Mitchell Ruff Duo embarked on a punishing but typical schedule to play for schools, farming communities and the Rotary Club. The chapter illustrates the hunger for the arts in places outside the traditional centers like New York City and New Orleans. The arts are brought in by grassroots activity as well as big business patronage.

The last two chapters are more personal and introspective. In New York City, where he lives, Mitchell thinks about his work as a teacher and mentor to young men in whom he could see his younger self. He speaks naturally of his growing understanding of his strict father's love for him, as he himself grows older. Ruff, in Venice, wants to play his French horn in St. Mark's Cathedral where Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli, uncle and nephew, performed their polychoral compositions in the late 1500s. When Ruff finally gets his way, he plays from the Liber Usualis, 'the book of use,' which contains the hymns and chants most used in the Catholic liturgy, and colored by the music of the Byzantine church. The Book of Use is a perfect way to describe a living artistic tradition.


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