Radio vet, West Side native Mark Ruffin’s ‘Bebop Fairy Tales’ combines loves of jazz, baseball
The SiriusXM jazz director and now author, who had a long run in radio in Chicago, says jazz and baseball both have a problem winning the interest of millennials of color.
Chicago radio veteran Mark Ruffin remembers the moment he fell in love with jazz.
It was as he watched his family’s West Side record store, Ruffin’s TV and Records, get robbed.
“My dad was at work, and my mom was watching the store,” Ruffin says. “My little sister was in a carriage, and a guy walks in with a woman, and he pulls a gun on my mom. He has the woman go around. She went around the bench, and she picked up a few radios, and they just took all these records. On the turntable was the Miles Davis single ‘If I Were A Bell.’ ”
Hearing Davis’ voice kept him from being nervous even though, he says, “I could feel the inherent danger. I’ve always said music is a spirit, and that was the first time that spirit protected me and has protected me ever since.”
His love of jazz has stayed with him ever since. A devoted Cubs fan, he also has a passion for baseball.
Thanks to a chance encounter at a party, he was able to combine those two loves in the recently released, self-published book “Bebop Fairy Tales: An Historical Fiction Trilogy on Jazz, Intolerance, and Baseball” ($20).
“I really didn’t know what I wanted to do until the ’90s, when I fell in love with screenwriting — I fell hard,” says Ruffin, a West Side native who’s now program director for SiriusXM radio’s “Real Jazz.” “When I decided to start writing fictional screenplays, a lot of jazz stories just invaded my head. My connections got one of them to Spike Lee, who told me it was ‘OK,’ but period pieces cost a lot of money, and I was always discouraged by that.
“The actor Malcolm-Jamal Warner was a friend of mine, and he took me to a party, and a guy who was sympathetic to my plight said, ‘Do you know “Brokeback Mountain” comes from a book of short stories?’ And that was the light.”
“Bebop Fairy Tales” includes three stories: “The Saturday Night Fish Fry,” “The Sidewinder” and “ ‘Round Midnight with the Ku Klux Klan,” which tells the story of a baseball player who endured an abusive upbringing.
“A southern Mississippi white guy unsure of his sexuality is bullied as a kid by a sadistic father — a former minor league pitcher — who made sure that his effeminate son could do one thing: hit a baseball,” Ruffin says of the story. “Through a fluke, he became a baseball hero in college, and he has a nice job in New York City when he hears Thelonious Monk, and it changes his life.”
As Ruffin was writing the book, he learned of jazz writers with the same interest in baseball he has.
“For some reason, especially in the ’70s and ’80s, Chicago was a center of jazz criticism,” says Ruffin, who names Cubs leftfielder Billy Williams as his favorite baseball player ever. “More than 75% of them were also big baseball fans. There’s a lot of improvising in baseball. You don’t see one person — a collection of people, but it’s always one person soloing. It’s either the pitcher with the ball or the batter, and it takes a collective of people to get through the whole thing.”
Ruffin had a 25-year run in radio at WBEZ-FM (91.5), WDCB-FM (90.9), the old WBEE-AM (1570) and the old WNUA-FM (95.5) as well as having been a cultural correspondent for WTTW-Channel 11 and a freelance music writer for the Sun-Times.
He says jazz and baseball both have a problem winning the interest of millennials of color.
“They’re having a hard problem with minority kids because soccer and basketball are so much cheaper to do in the neighborhood,” he says. “And I think both of these genres are looking at a point where they could lose their audience if they don’t do something. Although jazz is coming back, and young kids always find jazz, so it is coming back a bit now. Baseball could be in trouble.”
Ruffin hopes his book can be an impetus for people to take a look at themselves, see their own biases and find ways to get past them.
“I would love for the world to get along better, and there are so many things through history that have impeded that,” he says. “I just want to show some of those things in a fun, historical kind of way — those things that have impeded us, how we can look to ourselves, and how to make it better.”