Willie and Dwike: An American Profile

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9780060152758: Willie and Dwike: An American Profile

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Willie is Willie Ruff, an Alabama-born, classically trained jazzman (bass, french horn) who speaks seven languages and teaches music and Afro-American studies at Yale--where Zinsser (Writing Well), a college-master and amateur jazz musician, met him. Dwike is Dwike Mitchell, the Florida-born jazz pianist who is Ruff's longtime partner in a traveling/teaching duo. And this often-captivating profile begins with as short opening 1981 chapter that overshadows everything that follows: a mesmerizing evocation of ""the first American jazz concert ever presented to the Chinese""--with Willie and Dwike in Shanghai, taking a Conservatory of Music from the very basics of jazz (Willie genially lecturing in Mandarin) to the highest of musical highs (improvising on a Chinese melody they've never heard before). After that, perhaps inevitably, the narrative is less steadily compelling. Three chapters fill in background: the two musicians' childhoods; their informal/ haphazard early musical studies; their intense musical education (and familial joy) as part of the 1940s band at Lockboune Air Force Base--where they met. And though much of the detail here is engaging, this section suffers a bit from over-reliance on the traditional New Yorker profile style (long blocks of quoted reminiscence) and some uninspired Zinsser prose. (""Music was literally in the air during Ruff's boyhood. . ."") Then, however, it's back to the 1980s--for five days with Willie and Dwike as they come as ""visiting artists"" to four small Iowa cities: concerts with bad pianos, with students eating lunch (""Mitchell is probing the keyboard like a doctor examining a dying patient for some signs of life""); a glum master class, but more than a few moments of stirring education/entertainment breakthrough--with eloquent dramatization of the importance of community-arts programs. And the final two chapters focus first on pianist Mitchell (his Manhattan teaching, his father's death), then on horn-player Ruff--who goes to Venice and, while recalling the influence of Hindemith and Stravinsky, realizes his dream of playing his horn in St. Mark's cathedral at night, recording the accoustical effect. Despite the limitations of the format, with less than we want to know in some places and the opposite in others: a warm, vivid double-portrait--for jazz fans, anyone interested in cultural education, and others too.

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William Knowlton Zinsser
Published by Harpercollins (1984)
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