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Long-time Branford resident Willie Ruff received the C. Newton Schenck III Award for Lifetime Achievement in and Contribution to the Arts at the Greater New Haven Arts Council Awards Luncheon on Dec. 4. Daisy Abreu, a vice president of the Arts Council board (left) presented him with the award, along with Cynthia Clair of Guilford, executive director of the Arts Council. (Photo courtesy of Judy Sirota Rosenthal )
International Festival of Arts & Ideas executive director Mary Lou Aleskie was presented with an award by Ron Ebrecht. In accepting the award, Aleskie recognized the Festival’s founders: Anne Calabrese, as well as Rosalyn Meyer and the late Jean Handley, both of Guilford. (Photo courtesy of Judy Sirota Rosenthal )
Portrait of Willie Ruff by Harold Shapiro )
Photographer Harold Shapiro of Guilford was given special recognition at the event for his 25 years shooting portraits of the awards recipients. (Photo courtesy of Harold Shapiro )
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Willie Ruff, a world-renowned jazz musician and educator who has lived in Branford for more than 30 years, is a “legend in his own time,” says Cynthia Clair, the executive director of the Arts Council of Greater New Haven.
During the Arts Council’s annual awards ceremony earlier this month at the New Haven Lawn Club, where Ruff was the recipient of the C. Newton Schenck III Award for Lifetime Achievement in and Contribution to the Arts, Clair pointed out that Ruff, who attended Yale School of Music as an undergraduate after serving in the Army, performed internationally for 50 years with the late pianist Dwike Mitchell. The duo shared the stage with such jazz icons as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Sarah Vaughan and is credited with bringing jazz to new audiences around the world, most notably in the Soviet Union in 1959 and China in 1989.
“Among the many things I find fascinating is Willie speaks seven languages,” Clair says. “And he brought the jazz greats of our time to New Haven over the past 30 years. Through the Duke Ellington Fellowship [that he established], he not only introduced them to New Haven audiences, but took them into New Haven Schools.”
Ruff also ran a jazz club in New Haven for several years, where he presented a stellar lineup of artists including a young, then-unknown singer named Aretha Franklin.
Ruff was among several people and institutions honored during the annual awards ceremony. Each year the public is invited to nominate individuals and organizations that have made a significant impact on the Greater New Haven arts community. A jury then selects five recipients to each receive an Arts Award.
The theme of this year’s event was “Art Recharged,” in honor of both individuals and organizations that “respond to artistic and logistical challenges through reinvention,” a category where Ruff excels. Born in Alabama in 1932, at 83 Ruff continues to be active as a musician, educator, and advocate.
He said he was gratified by the award.
“Thank you very much. I’m almost speechless,” Ruff joked on stage after accepting his award. “This is a great honor for me to be recognized by this community where I’ve spent most of my life. I came here as a veteran, who had become an underage Buffalo soldier. That’s where I learned the instruments and music that I would continue.
“And since I’ve come to New Haven, it’s been my great good fortune to fall under the influences of many great teachers,” he added. “They all made me the man I am today, but I forgive them.”
Award-winning International Festival of Arts & Ideas
The International Festival of Arts & Ideas, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, was among the five awards recipients, credited with “having over the course of two decades introduced us to extraordinary music, dance, and theater, expanding our artistic horizons and broadening our understanding of other cultures.” Special recognition went to the three “visionary women” who founded the festival: Ann Calabresi of Bethany, along with Roslyn Meyer, and the late Jean Handley, both of Guilford.
In accepting the award, festival director Mary Lou Aleskie said, “Twenty years ago when Ann Calabresi and her co-conspirators Roz Meyer and Jean Handley [founded the festival] they knew that a festival needed to be lasting and relevant because it needed to reflect the city it was in and they knew us to be an engaged, caring group of people. They knew us to be compassionate, intellectual, ambitious. They knew us to have remarkable infrastructure, talent, spark—everything that a festival needs to thrive.
“We are now standing distinctly on the world stage of other festivals and we stand here because of the characteristics of this community and all of you, and therein lies our success for the last 20 years,” Aleskie continued. “And so we are grateful that Anne and Roz and Jean imagined a festival that was big enough to include all of us. Its ambition is that great…and I have to tell you that an idea this big takes all of you to make it happen.”
Aleskie concluded by saying that the festival is “the sum of many parts over the course of generations…The work we do has a product and that product is understanding, tolerance, and empathy. We must stand together and recognize that arts and culture is fundamental to being human beings. It belongs to everyone…So, I thank you for your vision and for trusting us to carry it forward.”
• Paul Clabby was recognized for his 20 years as curator of the John Slade Ely House Center for Contemporary Art where he opened the gallery’s doors to regional artists and arts organizations, “providing them with space for imaginative exhibitions and offering us an opportunity to engage with remarkable works of art.”
• Sculptor Susan Clinard received the award for her artist residency at the Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop “where she transformed a historic space and engaged audiences while creating a body of work that captures and reflects the struggles of human experience.”
• Steve Rodgers, formerly of the band Mighty Purple, was acknowledged for giving artists and audiences of all ages a welcoming place in which to share the live-performance experience when he opened The Space in his hometown of Hamden more than a decade ago—and further expanding the region’s dynamic original music scene with the addition of the Outer Space and the Ballroom.
• The final award went to virtuoso flamenco dancer Melinda Marquez, who, at her Wooster Square studio and through a partnership with the Fair Haven-based BalletHaven, “celebrates, teaches, and creates access to the beloved style, embracing it as a rich cultural tradition and vehicle for enriching lives and fostering personal development.”
• The luncheon also featured a special tribute to photographer Harold Shapiro of Guilford for his 25th year shooting his beautiful portraits of the award winners.
Clair, the Arts Council executive director, says that although the council has been presenting these awards for more than 30 years, there is never a shortage of candidates.
“There isn’t a lack of worthy, deserving people working in the arts in this community,” she says. “Every year there are individuals nominated, some who are relatively new to the community, but have already made their mark, and others who have been established here a very long time.
“All of these people in their own way are not only talented artists but are contributing to the community in many meaningful ways,” she adds.
Clair, who lives in Guilford, notes that the shoreline is very involved in both the Arts Council and arts community it serves.
“Many arts organizations have employees who live throughout the region and board members from the shoreline,” she says. “The Arts Council serves a 15-town region, and several board members are from the shoreline, as well as many of our members—both artists, and individuals who are arts supporters and enthusiasts.”
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