Relly Raffman was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1921. By the time he entered Dartmouth College in 1939, he had been performing as a jazz pianist since the age of fourteen. At Dartmouth, he was pianist, arranger, leader, singer, and saxophonist of the Barbary Coast Orchestra. His Dartmouth education was interrupted by four years in the U.S. Navy in World War II, during which he had a distinguished career as a carrier pilot, flying more than 75 missions and receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross and three Air Medals.
After receiving his Dartmouth B.A. in 1947, he formed the Relly Raffman Trio and was active in the lively jazz scene of the southeastern Massachussetts area. His jazz activities expanded to New York City while he was at Columtia University earning his Master's Degree.
When, in 1950, Raffman arrived at Indiana University to begin work on a Ph.D. in theory and composition with Bernard Heiden, he was doing a complete flip-flop, as he later described it, from jazz to "serious" music. However, it was a flip-flop that integrated jazz into the serious music he would write.
His career was interrupted a second time, during the Korean War. After serving three years as a flight instructor, Raffman joined the staff at Clark University (Worcester, Massachussetts) in 1954, established the Music Department, and served as its first chair. From 1972-1977, he was the chairman of both the Music Department and of the newly-created Department of Visual and Performing Arts. In 1966 he was named the first Jeppson Professor of Music, a position he held to the time of his death in 1988.
During his 34 years at Clark, in addition to teaching the traditional theoretical courses he was, at various times, conductor of the Chorus, the Madrigal Group, and conducted several opera performances. In 1971, he inaugurated the Jazz Studies program and organized the Jazz Workshop, writing many big-band arrangements for the group.
Relly Raffman has fourteen published compositions and thirteen in manuscript; among the latter are a cantata, a musical, a one-act opera, and chamber music for various combinations. His last commission, "Fur Eliot," was written for guitarist Eliot Fisk, who worked closely with the composer in adapting the work for the guitar.