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Last modified: Monday, June 25, 2012

Lifelong appreciation for jazz artist Ruby Braff leads to major book for IU Kelley School professor

'Born to Play' focuses on the life and music of cornetist who played with George Wein and Tony Bennett

June 25, 2012

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Finding the right words during a brief encounter led an Indiana University business professor into a lifelong relationship with one of the underappreciated legends of jazz, cornetist Ruby Braff.

Born to Play

The cover of Thomas P. Hustad's book features a photo of Ruby Braff with Louis Armstrong, which was taken by Duncan Schiedt, a collaborator with Ken Burns on the "Jazz" documentary.

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Thomas P. Hustad, professor emeritus of marketing and a past chairperson of the MBA program at IU's Kelley School of Business, also became Braff's biographer and a serious archivist of his vast musical career.

The 700-page book, "Born to Play: The Ruby Braff Discography and Directory of Performances," has just been published and is the result of more than a dozen years of interviews and extensive research common to his other vocation, marketing and product development.

"Ruby was an important transitional figure in jazz," Hustad said. "He played with a number of both older and younger musicians. He represented a link between musical generations that worked to maintain melodic traditions in jazz music ... Ruby's artistry should not be forgotten."

Reuben "Ruby" Braff, who died of complications from emphysema in 2003, was well known as a member of an all-star band with George Wein, founder of the Newport Jazz Festival. He worked with major bandleaders such as Buck Clayton, Benny Goodman and Bud Freeman as a young man. He later collaborated with pianists Mel Powell, Dick Hyman and Roger Kellaway, and even the legendary folk group, The Weavers.

Drumming legend Buddy Rich declared that Braff was "one of my favorite trumpeters." Tony Bennett described him as "my great friend who now holds the reigning position of the best cornet player in the world." John Hammond, best known for launching the careers of Billie Holliday, Count Basie, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, produced his early recordings.

His music has been used in films, including "Billy Bathgate," starring Dustin Hoffman, and "The Story of Us," with Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer.

Born to Play

From left, IU professor Thomas Hustad, Ruby Braff and Bucky Pizzarelli, after a recording session at Nola Studios in New York City in 2002.

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To Hustad, the two worlds -- music and business -- are not mutually exclusive. "I'm a new product innovation creativity guy, and so was he, but in a different milieu," he said of the source of his avocation. "We could collaborate and the vocabulary might have been a little different, but the spirit was similar."

Growing up in Edina, Minn., a suburb of Minneapolis, in the 1960s, Hustad received his introduction to jazz music through the mail and the RCA Record Club. One of his first records was a release by Braff, along with others by Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman.

"In Minnesota, polkas were a big deal. I played an accordion for a number of years. I could play anything that was written -- I kid you not -- but I couldn't improvise," he recalled. "Fortunately, I moved from polkas to jazz and I became very dissatisfied with the limits of my abilities, so the accordion's in storage."

As an undergraduate at Purdue University, Hustad hosted a campus radio show, "Profiles in Jazz." He joined the Kelley School faculty in 1977 and retired from teaching in 2010. Hustad founded the Journal of Product Innovation Management, which is circulated in 37 countries and ranks among the most influential management journals.

Hustad and Braff's relationship began in 1973, when the young academic then at York University went to see Braff perform at a club in Toronto. Between sets, Hustad approached Braff, who initially wanted nothing to do with another fan. "I said, 'Sorry to interrupt. I just wanted to tell you that you taught me taste in music,'" Hustad recalled.

After being invited to sit down with him, the two went on to discuss the trumpeter's early acclaimed recordings on Vanguard Records, which Braff said he wasn't fond of.

"I guess I got the right words out real fast, " Hustad said, "I said, 'I can understand why you said that, because clearly your range and coloration have widened greatly since you made those, but I enjoyed them tremendously."

Fast-forward to 2000 and two other authors interested in doing books about Braff became unable to do so due to health problems. Hustad decided to call Mat Domber, founder of Arbors Records, Braff's label at the time, about such a project.

Within a few minutes, Domber called Hustad back, saying that Braff fondly remembered the conversation 27 years earlier and that he wanted the professor to phone him.

Soon, Hustad and his wife visited Braff at his home in Cape Cod, Mass., and the two weekly spoke by telephone, through letters and sometimes in person. For the next four years, the business professor and the jazz musician went on a musical odyssey, discussing and even attending historic recording sessions and performances.

In the process of doing the book, Hustad uncovered rare and previously unreleased recordings. He is more than a fan of Braff's work -- as well as many other jazz players -- he's an archivist. His vast personal collection includes recordings that otherwise can be found only in the Institute of Jazz Studies and the Library of Congress.

Wein gave him permission to request copies of Braff's recordings from the Newport Jazz Fest. Collectors have sent Hustad box after box of private club recordings.

"I had the pleasure once, when he was talking about a particular performance at the Nice Jazz Festival in France, on how delightful the whole occasion was, of telling him that I had a copy of that show on a cassette, made from the audience," Hustad said. "I sent it to him and probably for close to a month and a half in our conversations I would ask, 'What did you think?' He always dodged the question.

"Finally, he said, 'I listened to it.' I asked, 'Why did it take so long?' and he said, 'Sometimes when you have such wonderful memories, you don't necessarily want to rush to hear the tape, because it might take away your memories' … He said it was as good as he thought it was."

For the project, Hustad corresponded with Braff accompanists such as Hyman and Marian McPartland, as well as former managers and some of Braff's other collaborators.

"Ruby always kept some distance," Hustad said of their relationship. "I used the word 'friend' once and he said, 'Tom, you've got to be really careful in using that word' ... It was a give-and-take. He was delighted that I was interested -- I was asking questions and he was providing answers … I was a reporter."

In addition to the book, which is part of a series sponsored by the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, Hustad has authored liner notes on CDs released by Braff and pianist Dick McKenna. He is a trustee of the International Association of Jazz Record Collectors.

The book has been well received. In a review for Jazz Lives, Michael Steinman wrote, "'Born to Play' is a fascinating document, invaluable not only for those who regarded Ruby as one of the marvels of jazz -- it is also a chronicle of one man's fierce determination to create beauty in a world that sometimes seemed oblivious to it ... Tom Hustad's book is an ideal mixture of scholarship, diligence, and warm affection: its qualities in an admirable balance. I think the only way this book could have been improved would have been for Ruby to continue on past 2002 and the book to follow him."