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Mark Ruffin: Bebop Fairy Tales

Mark Ruffin: Bebop Fairy Tales

Photo credit: Nick Carter

Seton Hawkins By

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My imagination takes over and these stories just keep coming. I decided that I had to do something as my mind was bombarded with historical stories. I wanted to tell jazz stories. It's what I know, what I've absorbed. —Mark Ruffin
Celebrating 40 years as a jazz broadcaster, music producer, and writer this year, Mark Ruffin—perhaps best known as the program director for the Real Jazz channel on SiriusXM —stands as one of jazz's unsung heroes. Countless artists owe their career successes and prominence to his tireless efforts, boundless enthusiasm and advocacy, and encyclopedic knowledge of the art form. While he may be best known throughout the nation for his broadcasting, Ruffin has an equally deep resume as a writer, with longstanding journalistic and editorial work for Chicago Magazine, Down Beat, N'Digo, and more.

Perhaps then it is no surprise that Ruffin's worlds collide in his love for fiction. A self-described "frustrated screenwriter," Ruffin has emerged this year with his debut book, Bebop Fairy Tales: An Historical Fiction Trilogy on Jazz, Intolerance and Baseball. Comprising three short stories—"Saturday Night Fish Fry," "Round Midnight with the Ku Klux Klan," and "The Sidewinder"—Ruffin's book delves into historical fiction, casting such icons as Gene Ammons, Lee Morgan, Bob Fosse, and Kenny Gamble into rich narratives of music, sports, and adventure. Engaging and fun, the stories can also turn poignant, with frank depictions of America's systemic racism and homophobia. Throughout, the stories also build a rich, lived-in world, weaving in historical benchmarks as natural pillars of storytelling, enabling lovingly painted characters to grow and develop as they navigate the Twentieth Century in America.

In a year marked by distrust, strife, violence, and fear, this book feels all the more essential.

All About Jazz: While American Jazz audiences might better know you for your longstanding work with SiriusXM's Real Jazz station, your writing credentials are extremely extensive. How did you start out as a writer?

Mark Ruffin: Smokey Robinson taught me how to turn a phrase. I'm the second-youngest of six, and for the first eight years of my life, my parents had a record store on the West Side of Chicago. Many of the records that came in were written and produced by either Smokey Robinson or Curtis Mayfield. My sisters and I would dance to them, we'd learn the lyrics, we'd learn the songs. We'd compare Smokey's lyrics to our schoolwork, and they were very clever. In addition to the Miracles, Smokey wrote for The Temptations, Mary Wells, the Marvelettes. So at a young age, I was studying these people, absorbing their music.

At that time, radio wasn't as segregated as it is now. On pop radio, whether it was white pop radio or R&B radio, they filled the time at the end of the hour with instrumental pieces. Jazz pieces could become hits. My parents and my mother's brothers were all jazz heads, so that's where the jazz came from. As I grew, these styles were one and the same to me. People are often surprised about how much R&B history I know, but, as Christian McBride said, "That's my groove!"

AAJ: As you absorbed the music, did it translate into writing early on?

MR: There was a show called Father Knows Best, and it starred Robert Young. There was an episode of it I didn't like, and I remember rewriting the end of the story. So that's the first writing thing I remember, and I was very young. For the first piece of journalism, I don't know why, but I thought could write a review of an album for my high school newspaper. So I wrote a review of a War record called Why Can't We Be Friends?; that was the first thing I remember writing. But I always liked jazz writing. To me, even when I was young, the people who had the most freedom in journalism were music and movie reviewers as well as sports writers. They had so much flair and fun, and they could turn phrases like Smokey did! I really got into it.

When I got to college, I was a music major. I was a product of high school band camps, and I went to camp with Pat Metheny, James Williams, a few other folks. But when I got to college, I saw Return to Forever, on the Where Have I Known You Before tour. Stanley Clarke did a run, and I knew then that I couldn't do that. My college happened to be a place that was huge in radio, television, and journalism. My focus shifted when I changed my major to radio and TV—I thank Stanley Clarke to this day!—and I got the position as editor of the black student newspaper.

AAJ: Did your work in radio develop alongside this?

MR: I didn't finish school because of money issues, but while I was in school, at the big public station you had to have a Third Class license, but I didn't know what that was. When I was young, my dad had a full-time job as an electrician in a steel mill. At the store, he sold records to bring people in, but his thing was fixing radios and TVs. When people came in, we would troubleshoot during the daytime, so by the time he came in, he knew exactly what was wrong. When I got to the school and this guy showed me how to get a Third Class license, he was very mean about it. He said, "You'll never get it." He handed me a pamphlet, and when I opened it up I said, "Man, this just the shit daddy taught me!" And I went to Chicago, got a license, and came back to that station. That's how I got into radio. I found my lane, and I was lucky to be in one city that had more than four jazz stations at one point.

But I didn't know what I wanted to be when I grew up until I was close to my mid-thirties, with a kid and another soon to come. I decided I wanted to be a screenwriter, and so I immersed myself in movies. There's a guy named Syd Fields who is a how-to guru on do-it-yourself screenwriting. Then there's the great screenwriter William Goldman—one of his most famous scripts is Chinatown—and he has a book that I highly recommend called Adventures in the Screen Trade. For over two years, I watched movies, dissected them, kept a diary. It was over 350 movies.

I was lucky enough to join an amazing screenwriters' group. By this time I had my radio career and I was about 12 years into it. I was also working for Ramsey Lewis, and I was the first producer of his syndicated show, which is still going strong today. Ramsey did a lot for me. He knew about my interests, my new dream, what I wanted to do. By then, I had finished my screenplay on Fats Waller and Al Capone, and it had been really vetted by my group. One day, we were interviewing Terence Blanchard, I told him about it, and he let me send the screenplay to Spike Lee under his own name, sight unseen! Surprisingly, Spike wrote me back a little later saying he thought it was good and he wanted to see more. He also said don't give period pieces to black companies because they didn't have any money! I soon learned that you could substitute "black" with "independent," because independent companies can't do history pieces, because history costs money to recreate. But I was very encouraged by his letter.

I wrote a second screenplay, another history piece, but I didn't like what I did, and my screenwriters' group didn't like it either. My third one was also a history piece, which I liked better. It had a kind of reggae theme, music and history, but I didn't send it out. My group said, "Get off this history thing. If you're going to have anything happen, you should write about something in your life."

Now, I didn't think my life was interesting. However, I was stalked 18 months. When it was happening, it was horrible, but people used to tell me it was funny. Two or three years later, I saw it was funny, and I wrote a screenplay called The Spark That Caused the Flame. I entered it into Sundance on a fluke, and I made the first cut. I was a semi-finalist at Sundance! My friend Malcolm-Jamal Warner said, "Dude, you should come out to Los Angeles and at least talk to some agents." These were people who normally wouldn't take my call, but maybe they saw my name on the Sundance list, because I got meetings with them. Malcolm also took me to a party where this guy was telling me about Brokeback Mountain, about how it came from a book of short stories. My book is a reaction to all of this, being told that with a screenplay about history, I couldn't attract somebody to do it, because history costs money.

The irony is that if you look at my IMDB page, my second credit is music supervisor for a movie called The Drowning with Julia Stiles and Josh Charles. That was a lot of fun, and the way I got that gig was through a friend who worked at Columbia. She taught a lot of different people, including the actor Zachary Quinto. He has a production company, and a guy there read the second story that appears in my book, "Round Midnight With The Ku Klux Klan." He was excited about it! He said, "That's a gay story, a black story, a white story, a coming of age story, a jazz story, a baseball story...!" he went on and on. They said they wanted to option it. I didn't even hear what they had to offer; they didn't know I was a frustrated screenwriter! I just said, "I want to do it." And they worked with me for almost three years. So I actually have a screenplay of the second story.

So that's what I want to be when I grow up!

AAJ: Thinking on the three stories that appear in Bebop Fairy Tales, your comments on developing screenplays makes sense, as some of them truly have a cinematic quality to them. Earlier in our chat, you talked about aspects of your earlier life. Let's talk about the third story in the book, "The Sidewinder." While the story's setting moves from your hometown of Chicago to Philadelphia, the notion of a song driving a life's narrative feels like it could be somewhat autobiographical. Is it?

MR: No. I think there is something about certain regions in the United States. Take the Bay Area: for most of my life, I've been a Bay Area sports fan and a Bay Area music fan. The history of Bay Area pop music? Oh my God! Or when I was a kid listening to all those records coming out in Chicago, which was such an R&B hub, and later I became fascinated with Memphis. I became fascinated with Philly. I became fascinated with different sounds to this day. I can hear a song from between 1962 and the early 70s, and I can tell you where it was recorded. Regions just absorbed me, and my friend Eric Mercury says I have a phonographic memory. To an extent, I get what he's saying.

Before each story in the book, I tell you who the inspirations for it were and who it's dedicated to. With "The Sidewinder," so many things made that story happen, but the germ was something that happened a long time ago when Norman Connors told me in an interview about how Spanky Debrest used to practice outside his house in Philly. Also, my best friend from college is from Philadelphia. We went to college together, we were on radio together, he also worked for Verve Records for a long time. In college, he would tell me stories about Philly.

The book is historical fiction. In the first story, "Saturday Night Fish Fry," Bob Fosse really was in the Navy, he really was a child star on radio in Chicago, and Joe Papp really was his station chief. So there are things that are truth in that story. In "The Sidewinder," there are so many things in that story that really happened. Chrysler Corporation did use the song "The Sidewinder" for a commercial in 1965. And the things that happened during 1964? Oh my god, the list is crazy! Nelson Mandela went to jail, Dr. King got the Nobel Peace prize, Sam Cooke was killed, Muhammed Ali changed his name [from Cassius Clay -ed.], the Civil Rights Act was passed, there was a riot in Philadelphia on Bird's birthday after police harassed Odessa Bradford, that's all real. I'm a big fan of David Halberstam, who has a book about the Civil Rights movement called The Children, and it will blow your mind. At the end of my book, I credit the books that inspired me, and he has a whole book about 1964.

In baseball, one of the most historic crashes in the world in baseball history was the Philadelphia Phillies in 1964. I thought "Damn, that's my story!" And the story took on a life of its own from there. The Phillies' fall was so historic. At one point there was this game where they were about to fall out of first place, and there was a football game in Philadelphia on the other side of town where the Eagles were playing the Browns. There were many people with radios at the football game, and when something happened at the baseball game, they all exploded! It was so much fun doing the research for the story, and as the story progressed into the eighties, everything's on film, and all of the broadcast stuff I referenced is real. I just took it straight and MLB said they were cool with it! So my story took on a life of its own!

AAJ: In "The Sidewinder," you create all these historically accurate points, but what feels so successful about them is the way in which they sketch out your characters' identities and also drive their growth. For example, early on there is a beautiful character sketch of Shawn when he believes that by actively not paying attention to the outcome of the Phillies game, he can ensure their success! That type of superstition also repeats in his belief that perhaps there is a mirror version of himself, which sets up his intertwined destiny with Bill.

MR: I wonder if those things are universal to people. I thought about some of those things when I was a kid. I set that up from feelings I had when I was young. If you think about DC Comics, Superman had Bizarro World, you know?

AAJ: Thinking on these three stories as a whole, all are historical fiction, but they nevertheless have drastically different tones from one another. "Saturday Night Fish Fry" delves into magical realism, "Round Midnight with the Ku Klux Klan" is a very taut first-person narrative, while with "The Sidewinder," you almost dip into documentary-style or diarizing with the date markers. Can you talk about working with the different genres?

MR: Part of that is frustrated screenwriter. I wanted to display different tastes, different flavors. With "Saturday Night Fish Fry," it takes place in New Orleans, but the two main guys are from Chicago. I had to make them have fun, and I had to get them to a party, which is how Billy Eckstine comes in. For that, part of my inspiration came from my mom. You see, Billy Eckstine was really mean to my mom. As I researched, I found out that he was a really mean guy! So I wanted revenge for my mother!

Another inspiration is from back in Chicago, when I was part of an amazing program with Steppenwolf Theater called Traffic. They had these intersections of different art forms coming together. Ray Bradbury did a thing with poetry, Kurt Elling did a thing with dance. And one night they had three dancers from three different genres of dancing. Maria Tallchief was one, Carmen de Lavallade was another, and Gwen Verdon was the third. Now, my job with all of those shows was to turn it into radio, I was on that team. Me and Gwen hit it off, and she told me lots of stories.

So those were kind of the disparate portions that inspired "Saturday Night Fish Fry," and somehow they came together. The story clicked when I realized that it was so much fun: what if these two guys from Chicago went down to New Orleans when Billy Eckstine stranded Gene Ammons there? It was easy after that, because I could take a guy in the Navy and put him anywhere there's a port. My imagination just took off.

I've always been a history buff, and the idea of jazz stories just bombarded my mind. It became a sleep aid for me. That's how I've been going to sleep each night since the nineties, I run a movie in my mind. My imagination takes over and these stories just keep coming. I decided that I had to do something as my mind was bombarded with historical stories. I wanted to tell jazz stories. It's what I know, what I've absorbed. I can throw R&B in there too, and in "The Sidewinder" I loved getting into that history and crossing genres in Philadelphia with MSFB, and I love how Sam Cooke is woven throughout the story.

AAJ: Sam Cooke and his music are pivotal to the development of at least four of the characters in that story. His music is almost a character unto itself, and the characters' engagement with his songs is one of several moments in the book where the music provides a lens for examining social themes like racism, sexism, and homophobia.

MR: Right now there are so many books on the bestseller list where people are preaching about how not to be a racist. For me to have this opportunity to even be in the conversation is an amazing thing, but I think a difference is that I'm not preaching, I'm telling the story. Terri Lyne Carrington said it in the book's forward, I make you look at your internalized biases. And that might not work for some people. If you're homophobic, you ain't digging a couple of my stories. I'm not preaching, but it's a reflection of America.

AAJ: To that point, in some of your stories, particularly in "Saturday Night Fish Fry," you find some characters who are surprisingly tolerant for the time in certain respects, while perhaps more predictably intolerant in others. It was nice to see that complexity in people.

MR: People are complex. I've seen people develop different attitudes depending on who they're with. It's been heightened lately, but I've always held that it's not about how many black friends or how many white friends you have, it's about how you treat people. Do you change when you come upon a black person, or a white person? There's a little bit of preaching that I get through Shawn's mother in "The Sidewinder."

AAJ: The character Neil in "The Sidewinder" seems to speak to this too, espousing a tremendous amount of racism that's also wrapped in an almost clique-ish view of his family.

MR: Yes. The reason for people's hatred and biases is complicated, you know? A lot of kids are just trying to navigate this without being hit over the head. Some make it through the jungle but some fall under this influence. Like, I come from the Midwest, and when I hear people from the East be so naive about what kids in Middle America are gonna do, I'm saying "Dude, they're learning it from their parents, y'all don't see that?" I just think for the most part, those kids would know that ignorance and intolerance are stupid.

AAJ: Thinking now to harnessing historical fiction to tell these stories and contemplate these messages, did you have concerns in preparing dialogue for real-life individuals, some of whom are still alive?

MR: When it came to Kenny Gamble and Dee Dee Sharp, I know they're both still alive, but I would hope that anybody from Philadelphia could see how much love was taken into building this. I hope they would see the love that I have for the city and its history.

AAJ: You've mentioned there are three stories that don't appear in this book. Are they slated for a second book?

MR: Inspiration is a funny thing! I know my next book already: it's going to be called Obama on Rosedale. Americans might shrug that off, but if I say that to someone from Toronto, they look up and go "What the hell is that about?" Rosedale is like the classiest area in Toronto, and I love Canada. The story kept eating at me, my imagination took off, and in my mind the story wouldn't stop. I think this is going to be totally outside of what people think about me and my wheelhouse. It's not about jazz, it's not about baseball. Just like how "The Sidewinder" is a love letter to Philadelphia, Obama on Rosedale will be a giant love letter to my friends up North.

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