Episode 1: Bebop Fairy Tales with Shelly Berg and Mark Ruffin

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This episode was edited for clarity. Audio transcriptions may not be 100% accurate and some content has been summarized.
Aired October 6, 2020

Shelton Berg: This is Shelly Berg. We're doing Frost Sessions with a very special guest today a good friend and an amazing person. Welcome, Mark Ruffin.

Mark Ruffin: Hey, Shelly. The tables are turned. You're talking to me, and I'm being interviewed by you.

Shelton Berg: Yeah, well, it's interesting. I'm the Dean of the Frost School of Music. I'm, like, the head of the organization here, but I worked for you in my other life because you're my boss at Sirius.

Mark Ruffin: Shelly, you're so amazing. I'm not your only boss. I don't know how you do it, but also with the cruise people, you doing the GRAMMY® arranging.

Shelton Berg: Well, you're a good one. And I love getting the chance to work with you at Sirius XM. So I was just fascinated to read your book Bebop Fairy Tales and I want to steer our conversation towards that in a minute. But, it'd be fun to go back and talk about your life and how it led to Bebop Fairy Tales. Your father had a store that was kind of a combination record store and repair store for electronic equipment. Right?

Mark Ruffin: Yes, he was the electrician. He had a full-time job at a steel mill as an electrician. It wasn’t a steel mill, but they made things that were steel. He had a record store. He fixed to draw people in. He fixed televisions and radios. I am the fifth of three brothers and two sisters. No, that's backward. Sorry. Three sisters and two brothers. So I'm the fifth of six. I was the second youngest, so all of us learned how to troubleshoot when the customers come in. We're all involved from a very young age. And I grew up in a record store. Electricity was what he did for a living. But the records brought people in. I mean, I was there, man. And that's really what led me into radio, Shelly. Absorbed by music from a very young age.

Shelton Berg: Yeah, because in those days, it was records.

Mark Ruffin: Yes, it was Ruffin records and TV. The first store was on 15th in Chicago. The second store was 1651 South Pulaski road. I remember that everyone remembered the phone number, man. It was a big stamp on my life.

Shelton Berg: And did the store carry all kinds of records?

Mark Ruffin: Okay, Shelly. A lot of people don't know about my writing life. A lot of people know about me being on the radio. September 1st will be my 40th anniversary and all of that still from the record store. By osmosis I got into the music business. I did all that. But, I knew I was going to be a writer at a young age, and it was Smokey Robinson. He's the first person I thank in my book, because when I was young, my brothers and sisters, I mean that record store was amazing. And we danced. My sister, Connie, was the wordsmith and we learned how to read and write to Curtis Mayfield and Smokey Robinson songs because we saw many of the records coming in were produced and written by those two guys. Smokey Robinson taught me how to turn a phrase, and that's what I say in the book.

Shelton Berg: Wow. And Smokey is still performing.

Mark Ruffin: I know, man. And I've had a chance to hang out with him. Oh man, I have three great Smokey Robinson stories. Yes. Shelly, you must experience this to hang out with people that you admired when you were young. And for me, Smokey. I have a great picture of a man with a Cubs uniform.

Shelton Berg: That's great. How did your career then start?

Mark Ruffin: So Smokey and music was my thing, man. I have a friend who says that I have a photographic memory. I know people can see in the podcast but there are 5,000 CDs behind me. Actually, a lot of people don't know that I know more about R&B than I do jazz. That's reflected in the book in the last story. And it's just music I absorbed it, man. And just so happens I found my lane in broadcasting, all of it was osmosis. Music is protecting me. The first story that I remember with music protected me it was about this the family legend. The NEA does a nice little animation of it if you google my name and the National Endowment. They have an animation of this story where I was four or five with my mom and she was in the record store. A guy came in with a woman and he pulled it down. He had a woman on the other side to go get radios and TVs whatever she could carry then they came over to the records on the on little record player. Remember those? 45 single of Miles Davis’ If I were a Bill. He says, “I play it now tell you what it is later.” OK? And then he stays for the melody. Then he solos. Coltrane solo. It rejects and comes back and as long as I remember, as long as that guy came back and said that I felt that we would get through this. It was very intense and, like I said, one of my first memories, man. And from that moment on music seems to have protected me. Right? Writing started with Smokey. I started writing poetry. I started learning music. I wanted to be a piano player first selling. I wanted to have your game at first. So, I wanted to be a piano player. And then I started playing bass. And I played bass through high school. I was in band camp. I went to band camp with a Pat Metheny. Gary Burton Illinois State, like ’73. I was a junior maybe in high school. Gary Burton told me, “You need some work on that bass.” And so, as I go into the business. I always teased them a little bit, but every night, man. He and Pat Metheny know that band with Bob Moses they played every night. Boy, Pat Metheny and the University Miami.

Shelton Berg: Yeah, we’re so proud of the association.

Mark Ruffin: Yeah and somebody else with the University of Miami Association changed my life with Jocko, man. So, I started out as a classical bassist because that's where I was. And then we had a jazz band. You may know somebody. You know Dave Beach?

Shelton Berg: Very well.

Mark Ruffin: In the jazz band was his brother, Dave Beach. He was a drummer, not as good as Doug.

Shelton Berg: I’ve known Doug for decades. The last time I played was with Patti Austin.

Mark Ruffin: Wow. That is something.

Shelton Berg: Talk about the crossover between R&B and jazz. That's Patty.

Mark Ruffin: Yeah, she's another one that music has protected all her life. It's like a spirit, man. If you go with it and be as creative as possible, it seems like the spirit protects you…which kind of has been my life.

Shelton Berg: It's happened to me, too. Many times that I’ve been protected by music.

Mark Ruffin: Are you kidding? Your life reflects it. So, I was trying to get to the writing part because music. I fell into it when I was at school. Another point that changed my life with a guy who now lives in Florida, Chick Corea. I was at Southern Illinois University. I was a bass major and I saw Stanley Clarke. He did a run and I knew I couldn't do it in the school I was at happened to be a good broadcasting school. Southern Illinois University, to this day, one of the best schools in broadcasting. I learned enough there, man, working in two radio stations. I became a student editor of the black student newspaper. So, then again I was even writing back then. Yeah, that's how I got into broadcasting, man. Again, just an extension of being in a record store and growing and loving music. I found my lane. I like to tell some kids, people who are looking for direction. Sometimes if you can find your lane and specialize…sometimes you can get over and that's what happened to me in jazz and journalism. I found my lane. I could have tried to be an R&B jock because I would still be very knowledgeable today. In the 80s and 90s, I lost my way in R&B stuff. But, before that, jazz scene was more sophisticated to me. I knew as much about that as I knew R&B. When I found that lane, I just didn't let it go, and my love of writing came in. My first job, as I mentioned, September 1, 1980, was at WBEZ. I was an operations engineer.

Shelton Berg: Because you knew about the electronics, too. Right?

Mark Ruffin: Yes, that's how I got it. I had a first-class license. And to get a third-class license…when I got the pamphlet, which is a great story, too…it was the same stuff my father taught us when we were troubleshooting. Stuff to come in. So, that was my entry into radio. I had a first-class license head of engineering job at a jazz station WBEZ. There's a guy, Howard Mandel. Do you know him?

Shelton Berg: Sure, of course.

Mark Ruffin: Okay, today, Howard Mandel is the executive director of the jazz journalists association. But, in 1980, he was president of the Jazz Institute of Chicago. And in 1980 before I had the job, I already was volunteering. Another great way to get into things is volunteering at a radio station. I was volunteering at two radio stations. This is such a crazy story and how music has protected me. I was volunteering at two radio stations WRRG and River Grove, Illinois, which was Triton College. WDCB College, out in suburban Illinois. And then I got this job. Well, how I got the job at WBEZ and even getting on the air. So, I was at the post office, Shelly, working at these two stations and my first-class license. I started going to two stations just walking in. I got a first-class license. And the guy who I worked with, volunteering at WRRG. When I went into WBEZ, they told me they didn't have a job for me. And when I walked out of WBEZ, there was this guy from WRRG. He said, “Ruffin, what are you doing here?” I said I'm trying to get a job. He walked me right back into the engineer, the guy who just told me there was no job. He said, “Dude, this is the guy you want…reliable, knowledgeable.” Suddenly, I had a job at WBEZ. At the time, Shelly, I was also volunteering, as I mentioned, at WDCB, where I devised a show called Jazz Talk. I figured if I interviewed folks and local people, then I could write up the interviews. There was a twist in local people who didn't have any time for me. But, the national people were coming in. They were looking for people to talk to. So suddenly, I had this National Public Radio Show interview. Howie Mandel heard it, but he was working for WBEZ in the city where I was an engineer and he came up with this show, Jazz Chicago. Judy Roberts was my first professional on-air experience. I was already engineering. So, I have to give it to Howard Mandel who gave me my first on-air experience. But also that led to journalism. So, I also used those interviews to approach newspapers and different music magazines. And this guy at Illinois Entertainer Magazine. Well, I also give credit to him at the beginning of the book. His name is Guy Austin. He said, "Dude, you have a voice." And I believed it. My first article was Chick Corea and Gary Burton. Their names are there again and then from there on, I was writing. Again, music protecting. I was assistant editor of this paper, Illinois Entertainer and music editor at Chicago magazine. They just lost their jazz editor. Dude, I was just getting started. 1981. 1982. And suddenly I was the jazz editor of Chicago magazine because I found that lane. In journalism, you have to show people what you know because suddenly I was at Chicago magazine, I could call up magazines. I didn't even have to do queries, man. He said, “Okay, let's do it.” And that's how journalism starts now.

Shelton Berg: You mentioned four things that people are thinking about younger people, like the ones we teach, thinking about a career. Number one: you weren't afraid to go out and volunteer and learn from others and give of yourself. Number two: you are reliable and people could count on you and you were trained so you had the expertise to do what you were doing. Number three: you are proactive, you went out. And number four: because of all the other three things you have mentors and champions for you. And all those things jumpstarted you into a career. When young people are thinking about how to have a career. Well, there's a blueprint right there.

Mark Ruffin: Shelly, that blueprint hasn't stopped to this day. I mean, I've had mentors and music protecting me. Another great story just…Reputation. So there was a time I worked in smooth jazz in Chicago for 8 and a half years. I'm not ashamed to say now, I spent half the time trying to get out. But at the time, I had a journalism career and a writing career that subsidized everything I wanted to do. I was fortunate in radio and that I had journalism. It wasn't a lot of money. I always had a radio job. So I always had that side hustle to do. A few years later, man. When Oprah got into Sirius XM I was trying to get in. I was trying to, but I couldn't get in at all. But when they announced that XM had this partnership with Oprah, they hired my general manager where I had this reputation of being late twice in two years. This is honestly the truth. I got the gig at Oprah. I called up John Guerin. I said, “John this is Mark Ruffin. Oh my God. You're perfect.” He called me two weeks and that’s how I got hired. Being reliable, having that reputation of being there, knowing, it's showing up every day.

Shelton Berg: There it is. There are lessons. So, what was Chicago scene like when you were a kid with music? What were you checking out there? I mean, what are you hearing local people?

Mark Ruffin: Okay, well, I was consumed with R&B and jazz back when we were growing up, man. I mean, I really don't know how old you are.

Shelton Berg: The same age. I'm a little older than you by a few months.

Mark Ruffin: Okay, so you know how important pop and R&B radio was. Not only playing the singles, but I don't know where you grew up, but many of the stations where I was, pop and R&B stations, would tag the hour till the hour with the instrumental or jazz tune. And jazz tunes could become big hits, and there are many examples of them. From Eddie Harrison with Exodus in the 50s, maybe the last one to successfully go what Spyro Gyra in the late 80s. So I was absorbed by both of them R&B and jazz and just records. That's what I was into back when I started playing. I got to college, that's when I started seeing a lot of live bands. Oh, no. I should back up to high school. Oh my gosh. High school, man. I was, again, it was a different time. My mom trusted me as long as I got my grades and we had no danger. So, I saw great shows. But again, mostly R&B. I remember seeing War and Isaac Hayes together for like $4.50. You know, Earth, Wind, and Fire and Funkadelic. Very cheap. My first show was Smokey Robinson at the regal theater Motown. The story in the family is that I made my mom take me to see Smokey, but I saw Smokey, Marvin Gaye, and the Contours. I still remember some things with such an impression and I almost remember Smokey’s whole set. Okay? When I started playing in high…Oh, Jeffrey and Greg Hancock. And again, Greg Hancock and Doug Beach. They were very tight in high school. We had this major musician thing. Through them, I started going out and seeing again mostly national acts. Pre-college I saw lot of national jazz. My first jazz show was a jazz showcase. I met Joe Segal, I begged the man who was with Bobby Hutcherson. He had a place where if the cops came, there was an easy way out. Right? My first show was funny, Shelly. I thought I was so special that Joe did that for me, you know, he just passed away last month. Great NEA jazz master. I found out I wasn't special; he did that to a lot of people. Joe Segal was my entry to seeing people

Shelton Berg: He was a hero.

Mark Ruffin: Absolutely. Through him, I got to know local people because many times local people backed up national acts and I got to know Southside musicians. I came into a different way. I really liked avant-garde music as a player when I first started to play. As a player, I came in that way in school. I got into the jazz bands. Then in college my mind exploded because I went to a big university and jazz folks started coming in national and local. Then when I got out of college and got into radio, I started seeing the local scene in Chicago, and it was a vibrant. So many people.

Shelton Berg: You worked with a wonderful gentleman who I just think is one of the nicest people I've ever known. And just a great trailblazing artist. I'm talking about Ramsey Lewis.

Mark Ruffin: And if I kept talking instead of waiting for you to ask the question, I would have led to him anyway. As a young man getting into the scene and knowing local people, there was a lot of folks after him after his trio broke up. He hired a lot of local musicians, a lot of young guys. He always had the young guys during his Earth, Wind and Fire pop stage after that. Henry Johnson's a good name. I could think of a guitar player. And then I did work for them. It was an amazing experience. He was such a mentor to me…It's amazing how in my life, as musicians know, if you know a lot about them, they also warm up to you. So, I had that part of Ramsey already. He loved that I knew history. He taught me how to live. He taught me different things about how to conduct yourself in the music business. You, Shelly, had classy folks who are mentors who teach you things outside of what music is about, but how to live within our business.

Shelton Berg: It's so important you carry those lessons with you forever.

Mark Ruffin: Yes, and you bring that Ramsey's name. I could go through all the great people he introduced me…to the amazing experiences. He led me to somebody else who has shaped Miami's jazz scene. That’s Larry Rosen. I was the person who got Ramsey on GRP. It’s such a fluke, man. I was doing a story on GRP’s 10th anniversary, I think, and I had Dave Gruesin on the phone while I was producing Ramsey Lewis’s radio show trying to set an appointment. And I said, “You know Ramsey Lewis? He doesn't have a record deal and they got their people with their people and that is how Ramsey Lewis got on GRP Records. Just me being right there doing something for my mentor and I'm connecting people. You know what I mean.

Shelton Berg: Well, Larry, of course, with me being in Miami. We were just great friends. He revered Ramsey. And, in fact, the two people that played it at Larry's Memorial were me and Ramsey.

Mark Ruffin: Yeah. Amen. Oh man, Larry, man. So back to my writing in the book.

Shelton Berg: Let’s get into this book.

Mark Ruffin: Okay, but let me tell you about Larry, man. My book, Bebop Fairy Tales, is an historical fiction trilogy on jazz and tolerance of baseball. I was with Ramsey at smooth jazz together. Afterward, I kept writing things and he had that amazing TV show. Legends of Jazz by Ramsey Lewis. Ramsey knew about my interest in screenwriting. This is a great thing for your students, too. I got this amazing career in the ‘90s and suddenly I found out what I wanted to do for a living. And it's writing screenplays. That is me and I've been obsessed kind of with no it's my life and I do all these crazy things. I've been writing screenplays for over 25 years, but I digress. Let's go with Larry, then I'll tell you how Ramsey helped me with the screenplay thing. Ramsey knew my interest in writing. He did all he could to help with that. So, when we got to GRP and he had all these amazing projects. He told Larry Rosen and Dave Grusin that I know this young man who could talk about Charles Stephanie. So, I got these amazing projects with GRP to research my heroes to write. There are so many jobs. Well, it's different now. But, record companies back then needed press people. And they still do need people to write about artists. I started writing bios. Larry Rosen always looked out for me writing. When he got the TV show, man, he reached out to me. He knew my interests in screenplays as did Ramsey, and I wrote a couple of those TV shows. Larry Rosen was always looking for opportunities, man. I think you know about the tribute to Ray Charles?

Shelton Berg: Well, yeah, I was the first music director that show and you wrote the show. We were working together there.

Mark Ruffin: Good people begot good people, too. I honestly believe that. So Ramsey knew about my writing stuff and then I taught. I was too late in life to go to school now. So I did some pretty radical things as my life was developing. I took two or three years. And there's a guy named Syd Fields, who's the How-To Guy on screenplays. And an amazing screenwriter named William Goldman, who has a book called Adventures in the Screen Trade. I absorbed myself with these guys. And I took a year and a half, and I watched over 300 movies and transcribed them. Then I lucked up into amazing screenwriting group. We made a movie, actually. There were so many people from different magazines Playboy, Chicago Reader. And there were so many of us, there was always a screenplay to be talked about developing. So, my first screenplay was Fats Waller being kidnapped by Al Capone.

Shelton Berg: Oh, wow.

Mark Ruffin: It was called Cash for Your Trash. Okay. Ramsey knew that I had this interest. So we're doing our show interviewing and there's Terence Blanchard. This was, like, ’95 or ’96. I tell Terrence about this screenplay. Because Ramsey trusted me, Terrence gave me an interest into Spike Lee. I sent Spike the screenplay, and he loved it. He wrote me back and I have the letter somewhere where he said, “But you don't give him period pieces to independent companies because we have no money. Because it costs money to recreate Fats Waller and Al Capon.” So, that's just an example of a mentor helping me even when I was looking for something else to do. And also, don't be afraid to change. Changing careers could be a hard thing. I haven't changed my career, but I think this book has helped me to maybe see another act. I still have this burning desire to get into Hollywood and to mix jazz with it. I’ve been discouraged to not write about history and I can't. This book is kind of a response to Hollywood telling me that I'm a nobody. And you could never get a chance to write about history because you don't know anybody. So actually, it came from an idea from a guy again. Shelly, it's hard for me to brag sometimes because I haven't in me. I have Grammys. A lot of people don't know that I had had a Sundance Award, too. I was writing all that time. In 2003, I was a semi-finalist at Sundance and all that means is I made the first-class. And the first cut is major, though. I have a friend named Malcolm-Jamal Warner who people know from the Cosby Show. He said, “Man, you have a Robert Redford agent-free card. And you should come to LA and talk to some people.” And it kind of turned me off and I got the same message that Spike’s gave me. You know you are nobody, man. Don't write about history, try something else. And this guy at this party that Malcolm took me to said, “No, there's this movie Brokeback Mountain. It's so hot right now and it came from a book of short stories.” That was the genesis right there. It took me 17 years but mostly because of my life. I mean, I could dream all I want. But my job is so much fun. When I do for a living is so much fun. I believe if I was a really frustrated screenwriter. But if I had a frustrating job I may have done more to give info.

Shelton Berg: Happens as it should. So this is happening now. I love the book. Even though I'm a jazz person all my life, you read the book and wonder how much of this was fact. You can tell what's obviously fiction. But, did Gene Ammons and Bob Fosse actually served in the military together?
And is Joseph actually their commander?

Mark Ruffin: Hey man. Okay, so I'm glad you went there. Joe Papp was Bob Fosse’s station chief in the special services in the Navy. That's a fact. I cherry pick. Gene Ammons was in New Orleans in my story because he was in the building with that famous bebop band. Had Dexter Gordon and Charlie Parker and Art Blakey led by Billy Eckstein. That's how they ended up in New Orleans.

Shelton Berg: You put them together.

Mark Ruffin: Yes. Now, Billy Eckstein may or may not have been in New Orleans, but he could have. I use my imagination a lot to build this story. All those people who are in the band were actually in the band.

Shelton Berg: It seems to me that all these stories have a thread of your life in that music is protecting people in all of these stories.

Mark Ruffin: Wow. Yes, I've been saying it since we've been talking music protected me and sometimes people. I mean, you write what you know. Music has protected me.

Shelton Berg: I want to get into some specifics of the book, but there's something also that we use for the book. That I find you write in a very nuanced way. And because there are people in this book, who are the worst kind of bigot. And there are people in this book, who want to do the right thing and want to be a champion for black people. And then some people are sort of in-between; the true fabric of humanity and they're flawed. But, especially in a time right now where there's so much racial acrimony, you really show all kinds of people in this book. You show humanity across the spectrum. And I don't know if that was an intentional thing or put born out of your experience.

Mark Ruffin: My wife doesn't like the line that I use but I always thought intolerance is so stupid. And I felt that for so long in my life. Shelly, I really appreciate the question. It almost makes me emotional because I did an interview with a guy, an old friend Bill King. Do you know Bill King in Toronto? Piano player? Okay. So, Bill King has a radio show in Toronto and he said to me, “Some of your topics are hard. You may have a lot of wit and maybe funny in history, but have you thought that your friends may not want to talk to you about transgender issues or homophobic issues?” A friend of mine said maybe it's a reflection of my heart, and what I want to see. But, I'm glad you picked it out, man. That means a lot, Shelly.

Shelton Berg: Yeah, well it makes the book hopeful in a way that I think is needed right now.

Mark Ruffin: And you know what's cool, man? I've worked 17 years on it and it's funny how the impetus to made me finish. That's a whole other funny story in a story about inspiration. But, it is a blessing in so many ways that is out now. It comes at this intersection of not only us talking about race, talking about a hope will change, but even baseball has gone through some change because of the COVID thing. So, it's ironic, I feel like there's music protecting me again. Put me in the conversation. And, to your point, I think I don't. There are so many books you look at Amazon's Top 10 now. Right now, man. There are so many books about race and so many people preaching. I think if you read these stories, and again, it's just happenstance. But, I think we'd be stories. I think I'm not preaching. I'm just showing. I'm just getting them the movie scripts that I want to write out.

Shelton Berg: I feel it. But it shows that people have better angels. There are people that we've had mentors and supporters and champions. There are people that will be that and there's good in the world. This book gets to that. The third story in the book, it just so brilliantly weaves all these streams together. It's just so much fun to read.

Mark Ruffin: Oh man, Shelly. And again, what's been fun at the initial starting off is getting out. I've been doing shows outside of jazz. I did a national talks black talk show. I did another talk show. I did a Canadian sports show. But the first time I did a show with someone who actually read the book was on major league baseball, and it was Rico Petrocelli from Boston Red Sox. Dig this. He's a major jazz man. He had told me about how they used to go hang. He plays piano and drums. He was tight with Buddy Rich, okay? So, I appreciate that you read the book. There is so much about the last story that means so much to me. So much happened in 1964. Now, you talk about weaving historical…

Shelton Berg: Exactly. That year and then there is sports and jazz and the world situation all woven together.

Mark Ruffin: I mean, the list is incredible. The Civil Rights Act was passed, Dr. Martin Luther King got the Nobel Peace Prize, Muhammad Ali changed his name, Sam Cooke was killed. Not long after, Malcolm X was killed. Nelson Mandela went to jail. On and on. And not long ago. A time before that, President Kennedy just got killed. Again, it’s ironic that it came out at this time that story called The Sidewinder. It begins a week after a woman named Odessa Bradford was harassed by the police. It's such a reflection of what's going on now.

Shelton Berg: And then you and I are in that short story. I mean, there's a guy named Sean Berg, who's a musician. We’ll leave it as the record store and wants to be the record producer. Didn’t play as well.

Mark Ruffin: Honestly, Shelly. I didn't even think about that until right now. So, that is not you. Okay? Wait. Wow. Okay, now I can't remember. I had to make it as, for lack of a better term, the character’s Jewish kid. I felt like maybe I couldn't lose with Berg. But no, it's not you, Dean Berg.

Shelton Berg: Well, I was a Jewish kid who was very interested in hanging out with the black musicians because that's how I learned my craft. I was studying classical music. I was sneaking out with my dad.

Mark Ruffin: It's funny. I'm so glad you brought it up. I mean, because the story is about a black kid from one side of Philadelphia and the Jewish kid from another side of Philadelphia, but it was the music that drew that Jewish kid to outside of his classical universe. Again, I don't want to give much of the story away. There's a point where in the story when he's watching the Lee Morgan Quartet practice outside. There's a point where his mind was like, “Wait, I've never seen musicians play standing up.” His classical world was different. He couldn't put it together and doubted if they were playing right but it sounded so good to them. It didn't matter.

Shelton Berg: Yeah, the book is almost like a symphony. The second movement, which is the second story, is different than the other two. It doesn't have as much humor. Therefore, it's not as long. It takes you to a place of reflection and then opens your back up for the third. At least that's how I took it.

42:35 Mark Ruffin: Oh, Shelly Berg. Man, I love you. Again, I'm not done so many interviews with folks that just read the press release as the publicist is introducing me. So, this is so refreshing. That story has a life of its own. I would have been done with the book much sooner had I not have another brush with Hollywood. I've been fortunate enough, man. One of the coolest gigs a music nerd could get…you guys must have a film school. Music supervision for music word. Oh my god. You’ll love this. So, I did music supervision for Julia Stiles. It's called “The Drowning” and…I built this incredible soundtrack…it was so much fun but I ended up doing something else. Through that experience through a friend at Columbia College who took an interest in my writing. I was working on the book. I had my Columbia Professor friend read the story and she gave it to a couple of her students and a former student named Zachary Quinto. He's an actor. He was in a show called “Heroes.” He's also Spock in Star Trek. And this guy who worked for him read my story. He was amazing. He said, “Man, it's a gay story. It’s a black story. It's a straight story. It's a jazz story. It's a baseball story.” He was so excited, man. And so they offered me an option…to give you money to hold it for a while and then if they don't you get the rights back. But I told them no, I'm a screenwriter. I'm a frustrated screenwriter. Let me write it. So we worked on it for two and a half years until they lost interest, but it was very exciting. They tried to give me fellowships and tried to raise money. It's very exciting. In the end, I have a finished screenplay of that second story so when I finished the book in January when I was all done and I searched around for screenplay competitions. I'm doing really well in one right now.

Shelton Berg: Oh, that's great. You get to know these characters. They may have a lot of texture and a lot of depth. You really get to know them and you really get involved in the story. It's a book you can't put down when you start to read it. I just loved having the opportunity in that second story is so important. A man discovering his game, his sexuality, and how jazz played a role in it. I don't want to give the story away but all that is just fascinating and he gave up a lot.

Mark Ruffin: Yeah. You may have noticed that I dedicated to the people who have inspired the story. There's a dedication at the beginning of the book. And that story was Pannonica.

Shelton Berg: Yeah, I saw that.

Mark Ruffin: Yeah, and because Pannonica’s life changed so much through the music of the Thelonious Monk. I remember in the record store, when I was a kid, I think it was the inaction was with him with the place. He's in a little red wagon. I was scared of that, man. Okay? And eventually I got past that when I got to be a preteen but I remember being afraid of that record. And with her life, the bio is an HBO special called “The Barrenness.” It is a great film about her life.

Shelton Berg: People should check it out because some of the people watching this podcast may not know who she was. “The Bareness,” Pannonica. She was the champion of the jazz musicians.

Mark Ruffin: She went to jail for Monk. Again, for those folks who don't know, there's been songs name for her. Most famous in history. I have another friend who had some crazy adventures in Mississippi. I mean crazy. So I thought about what if a guy from the south had his life suppressed and somehow saw more. That was the genesis of the story.

Shelton Berg: It was brilliant. They're all great. I really recommend the book the first story is just so much fun with Bob Fosse and Gene Ammons thrown together with these outrageous New Orleans characters. An amazing adventure.

Mark Ruffin: Wow, thank you so much, Shelly. I had fun writing. It took a long time. Man, you must when you teach talk about inspiration.

Shelton Berg: Absolutely. It's a core thing.

Mark Ruffin: But it’s amazing where it comes from sometimes. For me, finishing this book. Again, my life and my job is Sirius XM is very demanding. How I found the time and being a recently married man, it was just hard to find the time to write. Sometimes an idea can get a hold of an idea and an idea won't let you go. So I've been working on this book for 13-14 years. Then I got that opportunity to get took two years to write the screenplay. I love the screenplay. You'll appreciate this, and I don't think it’ll spoil the story. The thing when I worked with these guys with the screenplay. What I didn't notice about the second story, Shelly, is doesn't have a strong woman. And that's the difference in the screenplay. There is a strong woman character, but with that story…I'm sorry, I forgot my point. What's the question?

Shelton Berg: That's a good question. I got so involved in what you're saying.

Mark Ruffin: Yeah. Oh, I know the inspiration. There we go.

Shelton Berg: Inspiration. Right.

Mark Ruffin: Yes. So I wanted to do something else. This story. What will now be my second novel bothered me so much. The character started talking to me it and it just consumed me, man. I go to sleep fantasizing. I've been doing that since I've been wanting to write movies. I think one of the reasons for stories move so well in the book is because I look at it as a movie. I use some of the same devices that you're using the movie. The characters started talking to me in this novel that I wanted to write that's based in Toronto. So much that I started writing the book. Now, here I've been on a project for 13 years and I started writing another book. My wife did not dig it. And I have a friend, Renee Marie. We didn't talk about producing records, but the first record I produce she was on it 20 years ago. It's been a dear friend ever since. And I started telling her about the story. Then I told her that around midnight Ku Klux Klan story. She said that story that's inspiring you right now that story's gonna stay with you and it is never gonna go away. But if you don't finish what you started…I won't be able to tell that whole story. The word she said so inspired me and made me wonder how that inspiration thing works. I went home and I wrote the outline for the second story. Something between 40 and 50 pages out of this fully formed story came. I want to get to that story so bad that I finished the book. I don't know if I would have finished if I wasn't inspired to get to the next story.

Shelton Berg: That's great. Well, it's amazing how this time flies. I'm really glad we had a chance to talk about this. I think your book is an important read right now. Like I said, because through all the lack of humanity that you get to see. You get to see the other side and you get to see the hope and you get to see people who not only persevere, but they find a way to thrive. They come out of their adversity and thrive and I mean that's what living is all about. Right?

Mark Ruffin: Thank you, Shelly. You may not believe this, but some people thought it was a book about kids because of the title. But if you look at, I think the title says a lot about it and historical fiction trilogy on jazz and tolerance and baseball. And I just appreciate that you got it. Thank you.

Shelton Berg: Well, you said intolerance is stupidity. But I agree. The definition of bigotry is ignorance because if you really know, how could you possibly paint with such a broad brush about any race, ethnicity, religion…So any kind of bigotry is, by definition, ignorance.

Mark Ruffin: Dean Berg, that’s right.

Shelton Berg: Thank you for shining a beautiful light in this world right now, Mark Ruffin.

Mark Ruffin: Hey, man. Do your kids know that you have a radio show on SIRIUS XM?

Shelton Berg: Yeah!

Mark Ruffin: Okay. Just making sure. On the first Saturday of every month at 9:00 a.m. eastern.

Shelton Berg: Generation Next. I get to interview a young jazz artist and we talk about their influences and their music. I love doing it and I appreciate you. I appreciate Sirius XM for giving me that format because that's been my life for 40 years as an educator.

Mark Ruffin: Yeah. Well, good luck to you on the podcast.

Shelton Berg: Thank you, Mark. Thanks for being with me and being on this podcast and I look forward to seeing you back in New York as soon as I can.

Mark Ruffin: Absolutely. Take care.