In a newsletter, the Deanna Durbin Society said Ms. Durbin died “a few days ago,” quoting her son, Peter H. David, who thanked her admirers for respecting her privacy. No other details were given.
Ms. Durbin had remained determinedly out of public view since 1949, when she retired to a village in France with her third husband.
From 1936 to 1942, Ms. Durbin was everyone’s intrepid kid sister or spunky daughter, a wholesome, radiant, can-do girl who in a series of wildly popular films was always fixing the problems of unhappy adults.
And as an instant Hollywood star with her very first movie, “Three Smart Girls,” she almost single-handedly fixed the problems of her fretting bosses at Universal, bringing them box-office gold.
In 1946, Ms. Durbin’s salary of $323,477 from Universal made her the second-highest-paid woman in America, just $5,000 behind Bette Davis.
Her own problems began when she outgrew the role that had brought her fame. Critics responded negatively to her attempts to be an adult on screen, as a prostitute in love with a killer in Robert Siodmak’s bleak film noir “Christmas Holiday” (1944) and as a debutante mixed up in a murder plot in “Lady on a Train” (1945.)
The child-star persona affected her personal life as well.
“When my first marriage failed, everyone said that I could never divorce. It would ruin the ‘image,’ ” she told Robert Shipman in Films and Filming magazine in 1983. “How could anybody really think that I was going to spend the rest of my life with a man I found I didn’t love, just for the sake of an ‘image’?”
The man was Vaughn Paul, an assistant director, whom she had married at 19 in 1941. The marriage lasted two years. Her second marriage, to Felix Jackson, the 43-year-old producer of several of her films, also ended in divorce, after the birth of a daughter.
The third marriage was a success: in 1950, at 28, she married Charles David, the 44-year-old French director of “Lady on a Train.” After starring in 21 feature films, she retired to a French farmhouse.
“I hated being in a goldfish bowl,” she said.
Edna Mae Durbin was born on Dec. 4, 1921, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and grew up in Southern California, where she studied singing. She was discovered by an MGM casting director searching Los Angeles singing schools for someone to portray the opera star Ernestine Schumann-Heink as a child.
Signed by the studio at 13, Ms. Durbin, who already possessed a mature coloratura soprano, soon appeared in a one-reel short, “Every Sunday,” with another recently signed 13-year-old, Judy Garland, who sang swing while Ms. Durbin sang classical music.
Her MGM career ended suddenly, however, when Schumann-Heink, who was to play herself as an adult in the movie about her life, died at 75 and the studio did not pick up Ms. Durbin’s option. Shortly afterward she moved to Universal, shepherded there by Rufus Le Maire, a former MGM executive who had switched his allegiance to the rival studio.
Ms. Durbin was quickly handed to Joe Pasternak, who produced her first 10 movies, and to Henry Koster, who directed six of them: “Three Smart Girls,” “One Hundred Men and a Girl,” “Three Smart Girls Grow Up,” “First Love,” “Spring Parade” and “It Started With Eve.”
In his autobiography, “Easy the Hard Way,” Mr. Pasternak — who would eventually move to MGM and build the careers of two other coloratura sopranos, Kathryn Grayson and Jane Powell — said that stardom was always “a matter of chemistry between the public and the player” and that no one could take credit for discovering Deanna Durbin.
“You can’t hide that kind of light under a bushel,” he wrote. “You just can’t, even if you try.”
Ms. Durbin, who was originally to have ninth billing in “Three Smart Girls,” became the movie’s star when studio executives saw the first rushes. About the same time, in 1936, she began singing on Eddie Cantor’s popular weekly radio program.
In 1938 there was a nationwide search to choose the young man who would give Ms. Durbin her first screen kiss in the movie “First Love.” (Robert Stack was the actor chosen.) She was given a special miniature 1938 Academy Award for her “significant contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth.”
In movie after movie Ms. Durbin’s character found a way to help the struggling grown-ups in her life: reuniting her divorced parents, persuading the conductor Leopold Stokowski to help her out-of-work musician father, cajoling a stranger into becoming her father for a day.
Many of the films were Depression fairy tales in which Ms. Durbin won over or defeated silly rich people with the help of butlers, cooks and chauffeurs, who often risked their jobs to aid her.
After moving to France in 1949 and settling outside Paris in the village of Neauphle-le-Château, Ms. Durbin devoted most of her time to keeping her home, cooking and raising her children. In addition to Peter, her son from her marriage to Mr. David, Ms. Durbin had a daughter, Jessica, from her second marriage. Mr. David died in 1999, a few months before their 50th wedding anniversary.
Mr. David once said that he and Ms. Durbin had made a deal that he would protect her “from spiders, mosquitoes and reporters.”
Ms. Durbin, who gave almost no interviews after she left Hollywood, did send reporters a letter in 1958 that read in part: “I was a typical 13-year-old American girl. The character I was forced into had little or nothing in common with myself — or with other youth of my generation, for that matter. I could never believe that my contemporaries were my fans. They may have been impressed with my ‘success.’ but my fans were the parents, many of whom could not cope with their own youngsters. They sort of adopted me as their ‘perfect’ daughter.”
In the letter, which was excerpted in some newspapers, she also wrote: “I was never happy making pictures. I’ve gained weight. I do my own shopping, bring up my two children and sing an hour every day.”
MIKE GRAY, ‘CHINA SYNDROME’ WRITER
By BRUCE WEBER
Published: May 3, 2013
Mike Gray, a writer and filmmaker who tackled thorny contemporary issues in his work, including race relations in Chicago, American drug policy and, most notably, the safety of nuclear power plants — the subject of the 1979 film “The China Syndrome,” for which he wrote the original screenplay — died on Tuesday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 77.
Jack Lemmon and Jane Fonda in the film “The China Syndrome,” which was released in 1979.
The cause was heart failure, said his wife, Carol.
Mr. Gray brought an activist’s passion to projects in a variety of formats. He produced a pair of documentaries — “The Murder of Fred Hampton” and, with Chuck Olin, “American Revolution 2” — that examined race, politics and civil turbulence in Chicago in the 1960s. His magazine journalism included articles for Rolling Stone about a heroin overdose epidemic in Plano, Tex., and for GQ about voter fraud.
He wrote several books, including “Angle of Attack,” which detailed the failings of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration during the Apollo space program; “Drug Crazy,” about the history of American drug policy, which he characterized as folly from beginning to end; and “The Death Game,” about capital punishment.
“The China Syndrome,” which starred Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas, who was also the producer, was a fictional story about a near disaster at a nuclear power plant and the power company’s attempt to cover it up. It was well researched: Mr. Gray did his homework on the potential dangers of nuclear power. But it was also denounced as alarmist by supporters of nuclear power.
Then, only weeks after the film was released, the nuclear plant at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania suffered a partial meltdown, allowing a small amount of radioactivity to escape into the atmosphere. To many Americans, the film now seemed prescient.
Mr. Gray’s screenplay was changed somewhat — Ms. Fonda’s character, a television news reporter, had been in his version a male documentary filmmaker — and two co-writers are credited, T. S. Cook and the director, James Bridges.
Mr. Gray said he had written the script with the idea that in the rush to embrace nuclear power, the potential consequences had not been thought through. But he was, he acknowledged (to his family, at least), a novice at screenwriting.
“Before he started, he typed out the whole screenplay of ‘The African Queen’ to teach himself the format,” his wife said. “And he wrote the whole thing standing up, because he read somewhere that that’s how Hemingway wrote.”
Harold Michael Gray was born in Racine, Wis., on Oct. 26, 1935. His father was a traveling salesman, and the family moved to Darlington, Ind., where young Mike grew up. He graduated from Purdue, where he studied aeronautical engineering, and afterward worked in New York as an editor for Aviation Age.
By the mid-1960s he had moved to Chicago and formed a film company with a partner, making television commercials and documentaries. It was filming the violence during the Democratic National Convention in 1968 that changed the course of his life. Before that, he said, he had defined himself as a Goldwater Republican; afterward he was angry at the status quo.
“He was a small-town Indiana boy,” said his wife, the former Carol Hirsch. “He was really transformed. He was motivated by injustice. That’s how he described himself.”
Mr. Gray wrote a science fiction film, “Wavelength,” which was released in 1983, and produced and wrote episodes of “Starman,” a short-lived science fiction series, in the mid-1980s. He later produced episodes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
In 1982, in the wake of the Three Mile Island accident, Mr. Gray and Ira Rosen recapitulated the event in a book, “The Warning.” After his book “Drug Crazy” was published in 1998, Mr. Gray became an activist on behalf of drug-policy reform, appearing at conferences and serving as the chairman of Common Sense for Drug Policy, an advocacy group.
Mr. Gray’s first marriage ended in divorce. So did his second, to the former Ms. Hirsch, whom he married in 1968, divorced in 1986 and married again in 1996. He is also survived by a brother, Dudley, and a son, Lucas.
“He used to say, ‘We got a divorce but it didn’t work out,’ ” his wife said.
CHRIS KELLY OF HIP-HOP DUO KRISS KROSS
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc., via Getty Images
Chris Kelly, a k a Mac Daddy, right, with Chris Smith, a k a Daddy Mac, performing as the duo Kris Kross in 1993.
By JON CARAMANICA
Published: May 2, 2013
A pair of moppets with braided hair who wore their clothes backward, the kid duo Kris Kross was one of the unlikely music success stories of the early 1990s, multiplatinum stars who bridged hip-hop to pop, had indelible style, and showed that rap could sustain a youth invasion.
In the duo, Chris Kelly was the Mac Daddy to Chris Smith’s Daddy Mac. They had met in the first grade and were discovered in the early 1990s at the Greenbriar Mall in Atlanta by Jermaine Dupri, who molded them into the first commercially successful teen-oriented hip-hop act.
Mr. Kelly died on Wednesday after being found unresponsive in his home in Atlanta. He was 34.
According to a police report, Mr. Kelly’s mother, Donna Kelly Pratte, said he had been using cocaine and heroin before his death. The Fulton County Medical Examiner’s office said toxicology reports would not be available for several weeks.
James Christopher Kelly was born on Aug. 11, 1978, grew up in Atlanta, and was barely in his teens when he became a star. Kris Kross’s debut album, “Totally Krossed Out,” released on Ruffhouse/Columbia in 1992, was one of hip-hop’s first and loudest pop crossover statements, topping the Billboard album chart and going platinum four times over. “Jump,” the duo’s debut single, was the No. 1 song in the country for eight weeks, at the time the longest run for a hip-hop song.
Kris Kross was “the first major hip-hop artist to come out of Atlanta,” said the group’s former manager, Michael Mauldin. There was also no real precedent for the success of rappers of such a young age. “We didn’t have nothing to measure against at that time,” Mr. Mauldin said, “but we did in older times: Jackson 5, New Kids on the Block.”
At its peak, Kris Kross toured with Michael Jackson and recorded a song for the popular Nickelodeon cartoon series “Rugrats.” But as the group aged into more mature subject matter, its popularity waned. Two subsequent albums were successful, but less so: “Da Bomb” (1993) went platinum and the tougher, West Coast-influenced “Young, Rich & Dangerous” (1996) went gold. The pair reunited in February for the 20th-anniversary concert of So So Def, the influential label founded by Mr. Dupri in the wake of Kris Kross’s success, and were slated to be part of a coming tour celebrating the label.
In the meantime, Mr. Kelly studied audio engineering, ran a small record label and owned a day-care business with his mother. In addition to his mother, survivors include his stepfather, Jim Pratte, and his grandmother Rosina Williams.
During the lean years, Mr. Kelly could get frustrated, said DJ Nabs, the group’s D.J. and a longtime friend of Mr. Kelly’s: “People looked like they turned their back on him.”
But even though the style the group pioneered had changed, Mr. Kelly never fully left his glory years behind. In an interview with Yahoo earlier this year, he proudly proclaimed, “I’ve worn my pants backward since 1991, never frontward.”
DONALD SHIRLEY, A PIANIST WITH HIS OWN GENRE
By BRUCE WEBER
Published: April 28, 2013
Donald Shirley, a pianist and composer who gathered classical music with jazz and other forms of popular music under a singular umbrella after being discouraged from pursuing a classical career because he was black, died on April 6 at his home in Manhattan. He was 86.
Donald Shirley around 1985. His works melded American and European traditions and exhibited a vast musical erudition.
His death, which was not widely reported at the time, was caused by complications of heart disease, said Michiel Kappeyne van de Coppello, a friend who studied piano with Mr. Shirley.
A son of Jamaican parents, Mr. Shirley was a musical prodigy who played much of the standard concert repertory by age 10 and made his professional debut with the Boston Pops at 18, performing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor.
But when he was in his 20s, he told his family and friends, the impresario Sol Hurok advised him to pursue a career in popular music and jazz, warning him that American audiences were not willing to accept a “colored” pianist on the concert stage.
Thus derailed, Mr. Shirley took to playing at nightclubs and invented what amounted to his own musical genre. First as part of a duo with a bassist and later as the leader of the Don Shirley Trio, featuring a bassist and a cellist — an unusual instrumentation suggesting the sonorities of an organ — he produced music that synthesized popular and classical sounds. He often melded American and European traditions by embedding a well-known melody within a traditional classical structure.
In his hands, Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” for example, became an elaborate set of variations on a theme. In his arrangement — he called his works transcriptions — of George Shearing’s “Lullaby of Birdland,” the famous melody abruptly became a fugue. His recording of Richard Rodgers’s “This Nearly Was Mine,”from “South Pacific,” was Chopinesque.
Mr. Shirley’s music exhibited a vast musical erudition. He was drawn to indigenous American forms, by which he meant the blues, the work song, the Negro spiritual and the show tune, and his compositions referred to those forms. He was not inclined to improvise and disliked being referred to as a jazz musician.
“He had a love-hate relationship with jazz,” Mr. Kappeyne van de Coppello said.
Still, he was close to many well-known jazz figures, including Duke Ellington, in whose honor he wrote “Divertimento for Duke by Don,” a symphonic work that had its premiere in 1974, performed by the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra of Ontario. His other orchestral works include a tone poem inspired by James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake.”
His playing was virtuosic and lush, and in performance he often impressed critics with both his sound and invention. (His admirers also included Igor Stravinsky and Sarah Vaughan.) He eventually did make it back to the concert stage, though rarely to perform the standard classical repertory. He played Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” at La Scala in Milan; he played at Carnegie Hall with Ellington; he played Gershwin’s Concerto in F, accompanying the Alvin Ailey dancers, at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In the late 1960s, he made unreleased recordings of Rachmaninoff with the New York Philharmonic and Khachaturian with the Minneapolis Symphony.
“The silky tone and supple rhythmic flow of Mr. Shirley’s playing is just as artful and ingratiating as ever,” Peter G. Davis wrote in The New York Times of a concert at Carnegie Hall in 1971. “ ‘I Can’t Get Started’ heard as a Chopin nocturne, or ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ as a Rachmaninoff étude, may strike some as a trifle odd, but these — and everything on the program, in fact — were beautifully tailored to spotlight Mr. Shirley’s easy lyrical style and bravura technique.”
Donald Walbridge Shirley was born in Pensacola, Fla., on Jan. 29, 1927. His father, Edwin, was an Episcopal priest, and family lore has it that young Donald was playing the organ in church at age 3. His mother, the former Stella Gertrude Young, a teacher, died when Donald was 9. He studied music at the Catholic University of America in Washington.
He was married once and divorced. He is survived by a brother, Maurice, and a half-sister, Edwina Shirley Nalchawee.
Mr. Shirley made a number of recordings in the 1950s and early ’60s for the Cadence label, including “Piano Perspectives,” “Don Shirley Plays Love Songs,” “Don Shirley Plays Gershwin” and “Don Shirley Plays Shirley.” Later in the 1960s, he recorded with Columbia.
It was the founder of Cadence Records, Archie Bleyer, who insisted that Mr. Shirley be called Don, an informality that stuck with him throughout his career as a nettlesome reminder that he was unable to be known as the concert player he had always wished to be.
Jazz piano players, Mr. Shirley told The Times in 1982, when he was appearing at the Cookery in Greenwich Village, “smoke while they’re playing, and they’ll put the glass of whisky on the piano, and then they’ll get mad when they’re not respected like Arthur Rubinstein. You don’t see Arthur Rubinstein smoking and putting a glass on the piano.”
He added: “I am not an entertainer. But I’m running the risk of being considered an entertainer by going into a nightclub because that’s what they have in there. I don’t want anybody to know me well enough to slap me on the back and say, ‘Hey, baby.’ The black experience through music, with a sense of dignity, that’s all I have ever tried to do.”
MARY THOM, A CHRONICLER OF THE FEMINIST MOVEMENT
By JAVIER C. HERNÁNDEZ
Published: April 28, 2013
Mary Thom, a chronicler of the feminist movement and former executive editor of Ms. magazine, died Friday in a motorcycle accident in Yonkers. She was 68 and lived in Manhattan.
Women’s Media Center, via Associated Press
The Women’s Media Center, where Ms. Thom was the editor in chief,announced her death. Ms. Thom joined Ms. magazine in 1972 as an editor, rising to become executive editor in 1990. She was known as a journalistic virtuoso who shaped the writing of many of the feminist movement’s luminaries, including Gloria Steinem.
While she largely operated behind the scenes, colleagues described her as a zealous advocate who fought for equal pay in the United States and helped spread the ideals of the women’s rights movement abroad.
“She was a lodestone for the women’s movement nationally, and a center of trust, common sense and creativity,” Ms. Steinem said on Saturday.
Ms. Thom wrote several books, including a history of Ms. magazine, and coedited an oral history of Bella S. Abzug, the congresswoman and a leader of the feminist movement, titled “Bella Abzug: How One Tough Broad From the Bronx Fought Jim Crow and Joe McCarthy, Pissed Off Jimmy Carter, Battled for the Rights of Women and Workers, Rallied Against War and for the Planet, and Shook Up Politics Along the Way.”
While many stars of the feminist movement praised Ms. Thom’s work, critics were not always as generous. The Chicago Sun-Times called the book about Ms. Abzug “a bizarre, plodding, Friars Club roast.”
Ms. Thom arrived at Ms. magazine convinced of the need for more scrutiny of lawmakers and their views on issues like abortion and birth control. She developed a system of grading politicians that quickly became one of the magazine’s most popular features.
At Ms., she often stayed late into the night reading letters to the editor. “It was incredibly moving and exciting, to just get that kind of response,” Ms. Thom recalled ina 2005 interview. “And no one had expected it.”
Her former colleagues said she brought a pragmatic, self-deprecating viewpoint to the magazine, which some saw as too serious.
“It was a refreshing anodyne to a kind of glassy-eyed abstract sisterhood,” said Robin Morgan, an author and a founder of the Women’s Media Center.
Ms. Thom was born in Cleveland on June 3, 1944, and grew up in Akron, Ohio. Her mother was a homemaker and her father worked as an engineer for a steel company. In the 2005 interview, Ms. Thom traced her early interest in activism to influences like jazz and Shakespeare.
It was at Bryn Mawr, from which Ms. Thom graduated in 1966, that she was swept into the civil rights and budding antiwar movements. At one point, she helped lead a fast to raise money for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Ms. Thom never married, and her friends said her true love was her motorcycle, a 1996 Honda Magna 750. On it, she zipped around town — to dinners in the West Village, feminist talks, and back home to her apartment on the Upper West Side.
On Friday, she was riding on the Saw Mill River Parkway shortly after 4 p.m. when she hit a car, throwing her onto the road, the Westchester County police said. She was pronounced dead at the scene.
Ms. Thom is survived by a sister, Susan Thom Loubet of Albuquerque, and a nephew, Thom Loubet of Washington.
Susan C. Beachy contributed research.
FRANCOIS JACOB, GENETICIST WHO POINTED TO HOW TRAITS ARE INHERITED
Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
François Jacob, left, and Jacques Monod in 1971. They helped discover how genes are regulated.
By WILLIAM YARDLEY
Published: April 25, 2013
Dr. François Jacob, a French war hero whose combat wounds forced him to change his career paths from surgeon to scientist, a pursuit that led to a Nobel Prize in 1965 for his role in discovering how genes are regulated, died on April 19 in Paris. He was 92.
Thomas Coex/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
François Jacob in 1997.
The French government announced his death.
Dr. Jacob said he had been watching a dull movie with his wife, Lysiane, in 1958 when he began daydreaming and was struck with an idea of how genes might function. “I think I’ve just thought up something important,” he told her.
Seven years later, Dr. Jacob shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Dr. Jacques Monod and Dr. André Lwoff, his colleagues at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, for their discovery that cells can switch on and switch off certain genetic information. Their work, which focused on bacteria, increased understanding of how genes could be selectively deployed by an organism. “They’re all there in the egg. But how does the egg know when to turn from one type of cell type to another?” Richard Burian, a professor emeritus of philosophy and science studies at Virginia Tech, said of the question asked by Dr. Jacob and his colleagues. “There must be some kind of signal.”
Their discovery, considered central to the development of molecular biology, offered new insight into how people inherit traits, how they grow and develop, and how they contract and fight diseases.
“The discoveries have given a strong impetus to research in all domains of biology with far-reaching effects spreading out like ripples in the water,” Sven Gard, a member of the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine, said when the three men were awarded the prize, according to the Nobel Web site. “Now that we know the nature of such mechanisms, we have the possibility of learning to master them.”
François Jacob was born on June 17, 1920, in Nancy, France. He had begun studying medicine when World War II began. France was occupied by Nazi Germany’s forces in 1940, and Dr. Jacob, whose grandfather had been a four-star general in the French Army, fled to England by boat in 1940 and joined the Free French Army led by Charles de Gaulle.
He worked as a medical officer and fought with Allied forces in North Africa and in France, where he was seriously wounded in a German air raid. He received numerous high military honors, including the Cross of War and the Cross of the Liberation.
Dr. Jacob returned to medical school after the war, completing his studies in 1947, but damage to his hands from his combat wounds prevented him from becoming a surgeon. At a loss for what career to pursue, he was encouraged to try research and, though he had little training in it, he found a place at the Pasteur Institute in 1950. (He earned a doctorate in science at the Sorbonne in 1954.)
Working with other scientists at Pasteur, he quickly distinguished himself by identifying how bacteria adapt to drugs and bacterial viruses. It was a time of great discoveries in genetics. In 1953, James D. Watson and Francis Crick published their groundbreaking work on the double helix structure of DNA. At the Pasteur Institute, Dr. Jacob began working with Dr. Monod, and they soon had a breakthrough of their own. By means of a series of innovative experiments, they established that the transfer of genetic information could be controlled through two different types of genes, regulatory genes and structural genes, with the former controlling the expression of the latter.
“What mattered more than the answers were the questions and how they were formulated,” Dr. Jacob later wrote. “For in the best of cases, the answer led to more questions. It was a system for concocting expectation, a machine for making the future. For me, this world of questions and the provisional, this chase after an answer that was always put off to the next day, all that was euphoric. I lived in the future.”
Dr. Jacob expanded his research into other areas, including how cancer grows and spreads. He also waded into a debate about genetic superiority that arose when the Nobel-winning physicist William B. Shockley, who argued that race and heredity are important to intelligence, was among four Nobel laureates who contributed to a sperm bank intended to produce gifted children through artificial insemination. Dr. Jacob was amused at the notion, and he considered it misguided.
“For the group, as well as for the species, what gives an individual his genetic value is not the quality of his genes,” he wrote in Le Monde in 1980 in an article that later appeared in The New York Times. “It is the fact that he does not have the same collection of genes as anyone else. It is the fact that he is unique. The success of the human species is due notably to its biological diversity. Its potential lies in this diversity.”
Dr. Jacob became laboratory director at the Pasteur Institute in 1956 and four years later was appointed head of its new department of cell genetics. In 1964, he joined the Collège de France, where a chair of cell genetics was created for him.
Dr. Jacob married Lysiane Bloch, known as Lise, a pianist, in 1947. They had four children. After her death, he married Geneviève Barrier in 1999. Information about survivors was unavailable.
Dr. Jacob’s inquiries included matters moral and philosophical as well as cellular. He once wrote that he wanted to discover “the core of life.”
“What intrigues me in my life is: How did I come to be what I am?” he wrote in his 1988 autobiography, “The Statue Within.” “How did this person develop, this I whom I rediscover each morning and to whom I must accommodate myself to the end?”
DWIKE MITCHELL, PIANIST WITH A MISSIONARY ZEAL
By PAUL VITELLO
Published: April 18, 2013
Dwike Mitchell, a classically trained pianist, performed for 56 years as half of the Mitchell-Ruff Duo, a celebrated ensemble that even by jazz standards was considered unusual — and not just because its other half, Willie Ruff, played the French horn.
Dwike Mitchell, seated, and Willie Ruff, who together formed a duo known for their thousands of concerts and their travels.
What set them apart was their missionary zeal. From 1955 to 2011, their thousands of concerts at schools and colleges and in foreign countries where jazz was taboo doubled as music appreciation classes for the young and uninitiated, and came to define the duo at least as much as their professional work, which was formidable.
Raised in poverty and given their first musical training in the black church, Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Ruff “seemed to be under some moral persuasion to pass their experience along,” wrote William Zinsser, the author of the 1984 book “Mitchell & Ruff: An American Profile in Jazz” (originally called “Willie and Dwike: An American Profile”).
Mr. Mitchell, who died on April 7 in Jacksonville, Fla., at 83, was a virtuoso who worked with Lionel Hampton and Dizzy Gillespie. Billy Strayhorn, the composer of “Take the ‘A’ Train” and other songs made famous by Duke Ellington, wrote a piece for Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Ruff, “Suite for Horn and Piano,” one of the few he wrote for any artist besides Ellington after their long collaboration began.
Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Ruff, who doubled on bass and was also classically trained, met in the Army in the late 1940s, went their separate ways in pursuit of education under the G.I. Bill — Mr. Mitchell to a Philadelphia conservatory, Mr. Ruff to the Yale School of Music — and reunited in 1954 as members of Hampton’s band. The two struck out on their own in 1955, opening for major acts like Ellington and Count Basie.
They were never embraced by jazz critics. Some viewed their classical training as detrimental to their credibility as jazz artists. But their academic backgrounds propelled the introspective Mr. Mitchell and the kinetic Mr. Ruff to world fame in 1959, when Mr. Ruff, who had a part-time teaching job at the Yale School of Music, arranged for them to accompany the Yale Russian Chorus on a summer visit to the Soviet Union.
The duo performed an impromptu jazz concert at Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow during the trip, in defiance of state injunctions against the bourgeois decadence of jazz. Time magazine called it the first unofficial concert by American jazz musicians in the Soviet Union. (Benny Goodman and his orchestra gave the first official one three years later, in a deal between the State Department and the Soviet Ministry of Culture.)
They reprised the feat in the People’s Republic of China in 1981, demonstrating jazz techniques at conservatories in Shanghai and Beijing — openly this time. Headlines called it another first: the first jazz performance in China after the Cultural Revolution. Mr. Ruff, now a professor at Yale and curator of the Duke Ellington Fellowship, which he helped create in 1972 to bring well-known jazz musicians there to teach, said in a recent phone interview that Mr. Mitchell was “my main musical inspiration.”
He said the cause of death was pancreatic disease. Mr. Mitchell, who lived for many years in Manhattan when he was not on tour, moved to Jacksonville last year after becoming ill. He had no known immediate survivors.
Ivory Mitchell Jr. was born on Feb. 14, 1930, in Dunedin, Fla., a small city on the Gulf of Mexico where his father drove a garbage truck. He got his first piano, a discard his father retrieved from a curb, when he was 3. By the time he was 5 he was picking out chords by ear and accompanying his mother, Lilla, when she sang solos for a church choir.
He wanted a name less obvious than Ivory for a piano player, but could not settle on one. His mother came up with Dwike, a compression of several family names, he told Mr. Zinsser.
His mother left his father when Dwike was 8. An only child, he found refuge in music.
In a blog essay posted on the Web site of The American Scholar before Mr. Mitchell’s death, Mr. Zinsser said Mr. Mitchell’s approach to broken-down pianos (which musicians sometimes encounter on tour) illustrated his approach to life. “I learned long ago that it does no good to complain,” Mr. Zinsser recalled Mr. Mitchell telling him. Instead, listen to the keys and put their flatness or sharpness to use. “You say, ‘What does it do?’ ” said Mr. Mitchell, sounding an imaginary clinker on a piano. “ ‘Will it do anything? Let’s check it out.’ ”
FROM THE ARCHIVES