When people mention Kermit Ruffins, they rarely use his last name. They just say, “Hey, we’re going to hear Kermit tonight” or “We’re heading to Kermit’s place later.” Like one of the trumpeter’s and vocalist’s mentors, the late bass drummer “Uncle” Lionel Batiste, Kermit makes folks feel like they are a part of his family. Or, to paraphrase vocalist Lloyd Price, “He’s got personality, walks with personality, talks with personality.”
So it comes as no surprise that Kermit’s smiling face lights up one of this year’s three French Quarter Festival posters. Only a few other musicians—clarinetists Pete Fountain and his protégé Tim Laughlin, trumpeter Connie Jones and bluesman Coco Robicheaux—have held that place of honor in previous editions.
Ruffins has performed at the French Quarter Fest too many times for him, or most anyone else, to exactly remember. One of his first appearances, when he was in his early 20’s, was playing on a Bourbon Street stage with the legendary guitarist/banjoist/vocalist Danny Barker. “I love the Bourbon Street stages. They’re more intimate.”
Naturally, the small bandstands that line the famous street wouldn’t accommodate the huge crowd that he and his band, the Barbeque Swingers, draw each year. As has long been the custom, they command the expansive lawn stage at Woldenberg Park.
At one point during this interview, held over a couple of beers at Frenchmen Street’s Marigny restaurant, it became apparent that music had barely been mentioned. “Everybody knows my music,” says Ruffins, who’s got plenty else going on. His place, Kermit’s Treme Speakeasy on Basin Street, where he mans the kitchen and plays two nights a week, celebrates its first anniversary in April. Beyond his weekly gigs, Kermit has been busy trying to open up the Mother-in-Law Lounge, which he began leasing back in 2011. Of course, there’s no Kermit without the music and the release of his new album on Basin Street Records, We Partyin’ Traditional Style, is comin’ right up.
So it’s been a year since you opened up the Speakeasy. How does that feel?
Every time I tell somebody, ‘Come to my restaurant,’ I’m in disbelief. I’m like, ‘What did I just tell that person? That I’ve got a goddamn restaurant?’ I still don’t believe it. Every time it scares the hell out of me when I say it. When I think about everything I’m doing each day, it scares me that I might not be able to get up in the morning and do it.
Last night Robert De Niro was in there and LL Cool J. We told nobody they were coming because we thought it would be too much. Saturday night Snoop Dogg’s wife was there and Mia X came in and the great R&B singer Monica. It’s turned into the place where the stars go—thank God! I wondered what I was going to do in that old age—it’s all coming together and without poker machines. I hate those damn things.
What’s the biggest surprise about running the Speakeasy?
It’s a lot, a lot of work and a lot of fun and it’s so balanced. I’m so excited that I finally got a day job. I love to use that line. It’s the first day job I ever had in my life. I gotta get up and do stuff. I got to make a list every morning and take inventory every day. That’s so much fun. I even go in there some days and mop the whole floor just for the fun of it. It’s meditation, it feels so good. You put the chairs up and you get the feel of the place; it’s almost like playing music. Actually, it’s just like playing music. Anything that you love that much, you don’t mind doing that hard work.
One thing I really, really like about it is that I can wake up tomorrow and say, ‘I don’t want to do this no more,’ and just turn the keys over to whoever comes in first. That helps out a lot.
You called for a meeting at the Speakeasy after the City closed down the music at Mimi’s in the Marigny and St. Claude Avenue’s Siberia club in late September. How did that come about?
I was just going through Facebook and I saw this guy’s post that said: “I’ll be damned if I’ll let the City shut down all these clubs and stop the street performances. And I got upset after I read it. So I posted up a meeting at my place about the City Council or whatever. Sure enough, Channel Four was at my restaurant at 5 o’clock in the morning—it wasn’t even sunlight yet—and announced, “They’ve got a big meeting at Kermit’s Speakeasy and he promises to feed everybody.”
The mayor called me real pissed and said, ‘We got your place open with K-Doe’s and now you want to do this to me? Man, what’s going on?’ I said, ‘Really I don’t know what’s going on, I just called a meeting because I wanted to help the musicians.’ [Mayor Landrieu replied] ‘You’re turning against us.’ He couldn’t get in contact with me so he had [pianist] David Torkanowsky call me and he said, “The mayor really needs to talk to you, Kermit.’ And I’m laughing my ass off in the truck. I know what he wants to talk to me about. He wants me to come to the office. I’m thinking to myself, ‘I’m drinking at noon; you’re stopping me from having my Bud Light.’
It was a crazy coincidence that as soon as the City Council gave me the zoning permit [for the Mother-in Law], I saw that post on Facebook two days later and I called the meeting. They must have thought I just waited but it was all a coincidence.
The meetings [led by the Music and Cultural Coalition of New Orleans “MACONO”] are still going on every Wednesday. Jimmy Anselmo is always there because he’s trying to fight to get his club [Jimmy’s] back open. They’re trying to help anybody that has problems with the City—music permits, street permits, live entertainment.
What’s happening with the Mother-in-Law? What’s taking so long after the zoning permit issue was issued?
Money. You can’t file for a liquor license and entertainment permit if you owe back taxes. You might think I’m rich, but I’m not so the money just wasn’t available for me [to pay the $3000 outstanding taxes on the Speakeasy]. So we caught up. All the paper work is in. All my daughter Tawanna—she’s my right hand man—has to do now is put the legal notice in the paper and then after that it takes 35 working days.
They want me to fix the sidewalk, but I think that’s a City job, so I’m fighting them on that. We have an inspection coming up. When they come in, they’ll probably say you need to paint this yellow instead of black. It’s all this little bitty stuff like that. We may make it for Jazz Fest.
So you’re going to be appearing in HBO’s Treme again this upcoming season?
I’m in the last episode, of the last one. It’s at Sidney’s when Obama won. I kept saying if Obama wins the Saints are going to win the Super Bowl. I kept telling everybody.
Treme has had the best positive effect that ever hit New Orleans music and business. It really helped. They always ask me, “How can we get traditional music back in the mainstream?” “Put us on TV every week”—that was my answer every time. We need to have our own show on VH1, MTV or BET. Now we can do that thanks to Treme because more people would watch it. They’ve seen New Orleans music, they know how we live, they’ve seen this beautiful city under a big microscope. They’ll watch a show like that now—not before. The ratings would have gone straight to the bottom.
You have a new album coming out, We Partyin’ Traditional Style that’s filled with classic New Orleans jazz and with local players noted in that genre. Why now?
I’m setting myself up for when I get older. Every CD I do from now on will be traditional. I’ve done all kinds of stuff already. So when the time comes when I can’t get up and sing, “I get a feeling…” and all that jumpin’ around and stuff, I can play, “Da da da [singing the notes of “Just a Little While to Stay Here.”]
That damn trumpet whips my ass. It’s the most physical thing you can do is jump on that stage for two hours and play hard and strong which got me where I’m at because I was playing hard and strong and having a lot of fun. I know I ain’t going to be able to keep doing that. I hate doing a show at 9 o’clock at night with a passion. If the show is not at 6, I’m really pissed about it. I don’t want to waste my days. I want to wake up at 5:30 and be full of energy.
Some of the songs that I’ve been told are on the album, like “Careless Love,” remind me of what you might have learned from Uncle Lionel.
Exactly. Uncle Lionel and the Olympia Brass Band. I just pulled out all the songs that I fell in love with as soon as I started playing brass band music. All I did is go right back to where I started. I went right back to Jackson Square. Uncle Lionel taught me a lot of words. It’s simplicity at its best. When I listen to the album, I’m still a little bit upset that I was too fancy. I was so excited with Lucien [trombonist Lucien Barbarin] sitting next to me, I started playing kind of hot.
What can you tell us about your French Quarter Festival set?
Everybody up there is wearing white on that day. We always try to do something special.