The Treme district is soggy under a lifeless gray sky on this chilly Sunday afternoon in February, but the sunny disposition of Kermit Ruffins refuses to be dampened.
The neighborhood’s unofficial ambassador is standing in the drizzle on Treme Street while a camera crew circles him. Ruffins is one of seven locals chosen to star in a documentary about New Orleans and Mardi Gras for a French television station. The New York-based husband-and-wife filmmaking team commissioned by the French to shoot the program had sought “people who could take us through a story,” says Susan Todd. “We were looking for something that felt like [New Orleans]. Kermit is our Virgil. Kermit’s music will bring images of the city alive.”
Today, that image is one of unrelenting dreariness. At the filmmakers’ request, Ruffins reprises a mournful “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” several times on his trumpet; as if on cue, the low moan of a riverboat on the opposite side of the French Quarter sounds a dirge-like reply. All the world—and especially Treme Street—seems to be feeling down.
But not Kermit. He is doing double media duty this afternoon: between takes, he poses against the wall of a dilapidated slave quarters for an OffBeat photographer. The weather sucks, but Ruffins is basking in the attention.
“I feel like I’m getting ready for the movies!” he says, beaming.
As Ruffins saunters back to the warmth of the nearby Little People’s Place to wait out an especially persistent shower, he can’t help bleating out a few upbeat bars of “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” for the benefit of no one in particular.
Kermit Ruffins is about to emerge from a self-imposed Big Easy cocoon. For two years, the former member of the globetrotting Rebirth Brass Band has laid out, sticking close to home save the occasional weekend junket for a gig or two. During that period, he spent quality time with his four children, the youngest of whom is not yet three, making them breakfast, picking them up from school (“they know who I am now,” he says. “If I had been traveling with the Rebirth, they wouldn’t”). He hung out in Treme. And his swing jazz group, the Barbecue Swingers, jammed until they became a band.
“It got the band real tight. Two years ago, we weren’t half as tight as we are now.
“At first I would call a song and we’d play it even if we knew it or not—kind of a shedding-type thing. That’s when I used to say it was Kermit Ruffins’ jam session—and I meant just that. We were just jammin’. Until I woke up one morning and said, ‘OK, we know all our music, we’re the Barbecue Swingers.’ We’re swingin’ now.”
To the dismay of Justice Records, the Houston-based label that signed Ruffins three years ago, his touring hiatus coincided with the release of his solo debut for the label, World On A String. Justice would have preferred he tour to help promote that album of swing standards, which boasted guest musicians like Ellis Marsalis and the late Danny Barker. In an effort to get as much mileage as possible out of World On A String, the company delayed the release of Ruffins’ second album—which was recorded over a year ago—until last month.
But now that The Big Butter & Egg Man is out, Ruffins says he is chomping at the bit, ready to hit the road with the Barbecue Swingers. Already a month-long tour of Europe with trumpet legend Doc Cheatham is booked for this summer.
“I’m just anxious to see what is going to happen,” says Ruffins. “I’m anxious to see what happens with Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers on the road. It might turn out to be one of the biggest things to ever happen to me, and New Orleans entertainment. There’s a lot of cats out there, but I’m quite sure no one is doing what I’m doing. Nobody knows yet—but they about to get a good taste of it.”
Although Kermit Ruffins is generally associated with Treme and the percolating brass band scene there, he is a son of the neighborhood by marriage only—his mother-in-law is the proprietress of the Little People’s Place. Ruffins and his family make their home in the Lower Ninth Ward, on Fats Domino’s side of the Industrial Canal, the hood where Kermit grew up.
He was given his first trumpet by his mother in the eighth grade, which led to his participation in school marching bands (he was able to try out several, as he attended four high schools during his difficult adolescent trip through academia). It was after he teamed up with the Clark Senior High band captain, Philip Frazier, that the seeds of Rebirth were sown.
It was around this time, in his 17th year, that Ruffins discovered Treme and its cultural and musical heritage. “I’m really disappointed nobody dragged me on the scene when I was five,” he says. “I’m surprised nobody in my family thought to take me down there.
“It’s like a whole other world once you cross Franklin Avenue,” he continues. “As soon as you cross Franklin, people are really interested in jazz. Here in the Lower Ninth they can really understand the second-line thing, but if I were to stand outside and play some bebop or New Orleans stuff, they don’t even want to hear that.”
Ruffins found a musical home in Treme. The brass band revival was just kicking off, and Frazier, Ruffins and the rest of Rebirth found themselves in the vanguard. Rebirth went from regular slots in Treme clubs to record four albums for Rounder Records, and tour the globe. The band scored a regional hit with “Do Whatcha Wanna,” now a brass band staple. Their memorable performances were many, including the infamous Jazz Fest set two years ago that was stopped by a severe lightning storm that shut down the whole Festival.
Rebirth put Ruffins on the map; as one of its primary members, he helped revitalize, expand and funkify the brass band subgenre of New Orleans music. There were many good times along the way. Ruffins still chuckles about the night in New York when the band members piled into two cabs after a gig and offered $50 to the cabbie that got his car to the hotel first. “That was a wild ride,” cackles Ruffins, shaking his hand. “We laughed so hard, we got sick.”
Thus, his decision to leave Rebirth last year was not an easy one. The band’s incessant touring was tough on his young family. But he could have decided to sit out road trips and play with Rebirth locally, as he did for a time.
The central part of his decision to leave Rebirth was artistic. Simply put, Ruffins wanted to sing and swing more than he could in Rebirth.
“I enjoy that stuff so much, just to be able to sing those words and tell that story,” he says of the standards. “If I ever would sing with the Rebirth, it would be ‘Wonderful World’ or the ‘Back O’ Town Blues’ thing. [Now] I have a hundred tunes that I can sing.
“At one time [with Rebirth], I had a lot of control as far as calling the tunes. But then we started getting younger cats in the band, and we started making more instrumental songs that really hit hard. ‘Leave the vocals out, man! Let’s put a few chants in.’ No more vocals, no more learning old tunes—it just totally stopped. And I really wanted to swing. That had a little bit to do with me leaving. A lot, actually.”
Ruffins and Frazier went to great lengths to assure everyone the split was amicable. “Me and Phil sat down and talked about this, as soon as I knew I was really gonna leave. I remember standing on the corner telling him, ‘The main thing we have to do, Phil, is not let other people make this into a negative thing.’ This is a real positive thing.”
And so it is. Frazier contributed tuba and Rebirth’s Roderick Paulin played sax on The Big Butter & Egg Man. Ruffins often turns up at Rebirth gigs around town (“My wife has trouble with me staying home and not going to see the Rebirth. I can’t stay away”). He does not join them on stage, however. “The stage is crowded, with two trumpet players up there already. And if I ever hit the stage with the Rebirth, it’s an automatic trumpet battle. I’d try to blow those guys out of the sky, and then regret it the next day, ’cause I got a sore lip, or my diaphragm hurts or my neck hurts. I just can’t help but jump up there and start playing the high, high notes right away.
“[Rebirth trumpet players] Glenn [Andrews] and Kenny [Terry] are real good friends of mine, and they know that whenever we get together, we start going at each other’s heads like we’re out our minds. I always tease them,” he continues, laughing. “‘I’m corning up there one night—y’all better get ready.'”
When Kermit Ruffins sits in with the Jazz Hounds at the Palm Court Cafe on Wednesdays, he is the only member of the group likely to slap a Snoop Doggy Dogg tape into the deck for the drive home (he listens to hardcore rap occasionally after a trad jazz gig “just to balance it off”).
Other than that—and the fact that, at 30, he is decades younger than all the other musicians—he fits in seamlessly with the traditional ensemble, rising to his feet with the others as each number concludes, donning a tie and sportcoat to play for the mostly white audience that sips champagne and munches cheese sticks.
During a break one Wednesday, his bandmates for the evening pay tribute to their young trumpet player.
“I think he’s going to be one of our stars later on,” declares Walter Lewis, the Jazz Hounds’ 80-year-old pianist and resident raconteur. “He started with A-B-C. Now he’s gotten around the middle of the alphabet.”
“You’re a great little cat,” chimes in drummer Ernest Elly, the youngest of the bunch but still 20 years Ruffins’ senior. “Keep doing what you’re doing. That feeling is there.”
Both parties gain something from the cross-generational musical mix. “I want to play their stuff, and they want to play mine,” says Ruffins. “I want to play old traditional stuff, and they want to play what I call modern day traditional New Orleans jazz.” He wants “Pennies From Heaven,” they want “If You’re A Viper.”
Ruffins’ affinity for the old style was not acquired overnight. For years, his was a familiar face at Preservation Hall and the Palm Court as he studied at the knee of the veteran players (all the while hoping to be called up to play).
Tapes and videos of the greats from the past have left their mark on him. He lifted a segment of the spoken-word intro to Big Butter & Egg Man, the part urging listeners to “flip your fedoras and let’s swing out,” from an old Nat King Cole tape.
One of the giants from the past seems to have made more of an impression on Kermit than most. When World On A String came out, Ruffins was pegged as “a young Louis Armstrong” by many observers. The gravelly vocal style Ruffins employed throughout the album, to say nothing of such obvious but unavoidable similarities in personality and choice of instrument, made such comparisons easy.
For his second album, Ruffins made more of an effort to establish his own identity. He used his own band—drummer Jerry Adams, bassist Kevin Morris and trombonist Corey Henry, plus pianist Dwight Fitch—rather than rely on a one-off all-star band. “I was thinking that it was time for me to form my own band. I knew these other guys were working, and I wouldn’t be able to get them when I wanted. So I got the younger guys that are available, and were always with me anyway.”‘
The Big Butter & Egg Man contains four originals, twice as many as his debut (he’s hoping to have eight on the next one). He sings mostly in his natural voice, which is considerably smoother than Armstrong’s. “Even on the first record, when I did ‘Glory of Love,’ after I heard the strings overdubbed, I wanted to go back and sing it without the gravel-type voice. But the cat from Justice liked the gravel thing a lot better. So we ended up using that even though I went back and sung it real smooth. I really wanted to get away from that then.”
He did not totally abandon Satchmo-isms. Both The Big Butter & Egg Man‘s title track and “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” were done by Armstrong. By remaking them, Ruffins meant to tie in to Armstrong’s hometown rather than the performer himself. “I figured by doing that, it speaks to New Orleans. It means a lot to stick to some of that New Orleans stuff, instead of just playing straight ahead.”
If his next three records turn out as he plans, his singing and playing will appear even more naturally N’Awlins. He wants to do big band records, and says Justice is backing the idea.
“They asked me what I really, really wanted to do. I said if I really had my choice, I’d be a big band. When I was learning songs, I used to rent big band tapes. I always loved it with a passion. When I was on the road with Rebirth, I caught all the big band shows I could—Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton.”
(He is immensely proud of the time he finagled his way onstage with Hampton. “He had a concert at [now-defunct jazz club] Charlie B’s. I just went there real dressed up with my horn. Before you knew it, I was up on stage.”)
As Kermit envisions it, longtime New Orleans vets Wardell Quezergue and Ed Frank chart out the arrangements. He’ll sing the riffs, they’ll write ’em down. “I haven’t wrote any music down on paper since high school. I used to write out some of the scores for the marching band. Almost every time, the parts were real good except for my part.”
Although he cites Natalie Cole’s lush Unforgettable as one of the best big band records, his project will have a distinctly more earthy N’Awlins feel.
“I told Wardell that for the new record, I’m going to be singing a lot of what I call New York riffs. More straight-ahead, bebop riffs with the big-band horn parts. Just give me that good ol’ New York feeling, and I’ll put all the New Orleans in the world in there when I play and sing.”
And the Kermit Ruffins Big Band will subscribe to his own brand of dress code. “I’ll probably have the whole big band dressed like me—jeans, t-shirt with a blazer. Real nice blazer. Maybe a baseball cap for everybody. It depends on the event.”
The sight of a camera crew in Treme no longer causes that much of a stir, as more and more cultural documentarians and others come calling to sample the ambiance.
As Kermit plays for the camera on Treme Street, a car pulls up alongside. The driver thrusts his chin at the camera.
“Commercial?” he asks nonchalantly.
“French TV.” Ruffins’ response is acknowledged with a nod.
The night following Kermit’s shoot, another camera crew is stringing lights in Little People’s Place, working on a documentary about Treme.
The neighborhood has experienced its share of growing pains, with the outset of gentrification and increased interest from outsiders. A long-simmering debate over live music in residential neighborhoods that has pitted the Little People’s Place against some nearby residents may reach some sort of resolution this month at a civil court hearing scheduled for the 17th.
More and more tourists are finding their way to the music joints, either on their own or on the recommendation of locals. And with the parking lots for the temporary casino in the Municipal Auditorium abutting Treme to the west and north, even more attention and visitors will be deposited at Treme’s doorstep.
Kermit Ruffins, at least, sees good things in Treme’s future. “It’s going to turn out to be the old French Quarter. I think it’s going to keep its jazz a lot longer than the French Quarter.”
He has benefitted from his association. His likeness has turned up all over as a symbol of the scene: in a recent National Geographic feature about the Crescent City, superimposed over an aerial shot of the city for the lead image of a CD Review article on New Orleans music, making a cameo appearance in a video with Boyz II Men, the R&B supergroup.
“After 12, almost 13 years of hanging around here, I have to remind myself of where I grew up.”
Ironically, the area’s success has backfired for one of its instigators. With Rebirth, Kermit helped spark the brass band revival that is the lifeblood of the Treme scene. But the popularity of that music is hindering Ruffins’ efforts to get a weekly gig in Treme for the Barbecue Swingers. At least one owner of a Treme music club has declined to give the Barbecue Swingers a slot, believing the swing jazz won’t draw a crowd; for now, he is sticking with an all brass band line-up.
Kermit, of course, is undeterred. If the court rules in Little People’s favor, he can always play there. When Trombone Shorty’s opens up again, he figures they will have him. And he and the band have a successful weeknight gig elsewhere—Thursdays at Vaughan’s, deep in the Bywater. Capacity crowds turn out for this gig that grew out of playing at a birthday party for the owner’s father. Kermit purposely maintains a loose atmosphere there, inviting any players who show up to join him. “A lot of cats are really uptight about anybody pulling out a horn on their gig—which I can understand. But ever since I started the jam session, whenever I see someone with a horn I say ‘Pull out your horn, man. The more, the merrier.'”
The ever-genial Ruffins has learned to roll with what life dishes out. A few years back, when his main gig was playing for tips in the French Quarter, his drummer was Shannon Powell. But one day Powell showed up and said he was leaving—Harry Connick Jr. had invited him to play in his big band. Ruffins was ecstatic for his drummer. And he admits that at the time, he too would probably have jumped at the chance.
But not now. Powell’s replacement in Kermit’s street band was Jerry Anderson, who would become the Barbecue Swingers’ drummer and Ruffins’ long-running foil. That band is up and running. It is Kermit’s, and it is his future.