Kermit Ruffins: Home Boy

When the idea of a lunchtime interview is floated to Kermit Ruffins, he immediately suggests the Little People’s Place as a rendezvous point. It is easy to understand why.

One wall of the cozy Treme establishment is adorned with photos of Ruffins clowning during a performance at the ‘92 Jazz Fest. His Monday night Little People’s jazz jams are among his favorite gigs.

The bar’s proprietor is his mother-in-law. He knows all of the faces that pass through on this slow Friday afternoon. And World on a String, Ruffins’ fine new CD of New Orleans-style vocal jazz, is featured on the house jukebox.

Kicked back with a couple of Buds fetched from the cooler by his wife, the front door open to admit a beautiful April afternoon, Kermit Ruffins is home. And thus, he is happy.

Too happy, some worry. Ruffins loves New Orleans deeply. “I appreciate every little detail of everything,” he says, a huge, involuntary smile betraying the depth of that sentiment. “There’s so much…it’s really hard to put it in words.”

The late Professor Longhair loved New Orleans, too. Loved it so much, says Allison Miner, his former manager, that he hated to leave it. And that in part prevented the piano genius from reaching the wide audience his talent deserved.

Miner now manages Ruffins (and the Rebirth Brass Band, which Ruffins co-founded and continues to front). Kermit Ruffins, she notes, shares a birthday with Professor Longhair (December 19).

After he returned from a recent European tour with Rebirth, Ruffins announced that he would not be joining the band when it went back to the Continent this summer, preferring to stay in town with his new wife and four young children [days later, his wife Leshianne finally convinced him to go, she says, by persuading him that the income from the trip could help renovate the couple’s Ninth Ward home].

This was not to be a retirement from the road, said the 28-year-old Ruffins, just a break after seven straight summers away. “There’s not too many gigs that I’ll turn down [because of the] traveling,” he promises. “This is the first time I ever did that. It’ll probably be the only time. I know I have to get out there and work. I don’t think I’m really gonna hurt nothin’ by this; I can do interviews over the phone all the way to England [laughs].”

For the time being, the trumpeter and vocalist’s schedule is full. In mid-April, he and Rebirth set out for a string of dates in the Northeast. And Ruffins is appearing at the Jazz Festival with Rebirth on Saturday, May 1 (he’ll also be with them at numerous club gigs) and with his big band on May 2.

Still, an artist willing to take a hiatus from touring just after his solo debut is issued must give the people at Justice Records, Ruffins’ label, cause for concern.

“If I really believed that Kermit had reached the point of no return,” says Randall Hage Jamail, the president of Justice, “then you’re damn right I’d be concerned, because his music is one that must be communicated live. That’s where the fans are going to come from.

“I think he wants more than to be a local hero. I think he’s wise enough to know at this point he needs to go out and win fans around the world. I love the LP, but you can’t set up satellite links from Little People’s.”

When Kermit Ruffins was in the eighth grade, his mother bought him and his brother their first trumpets, so they could play in the school band. “I learned a lot of marches, and marches are so related to New Orleans tradition, you couldn’t even believe it,” says Ruffins. “I feel like the marches I took in high school really helped a lot as far as the little technique that I have.”

Although he excelled at band, Ruffins was not the most successful high school student; as he puts it, “I was a little bad in school.” He was tossed out of two high schools and then dropped out of a third. He was sitting at home with his trumpet when his dad’s cousin, the principal at Clark Senior High, convinced Ruffins to give school another go. “After that, I had no trouble,” he says.

“We used to fumble around with second-line stuff in class: ba-da-BAAA-da, especially the Mardi Gras numbers. I used to go to all the basketball games, pull out my horn right before the game started, and, without asking the teachers or anybody, play ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ Just take over the whole basketball game. I was always trying to jump out front, at bug-a-loo dances, everything, just to be out front.”

His urge to be at the center of attention found a legitimate outlet after he met Philip Frazier, the Clark marching band captain, who was looking to form an outside group. “We hooked up a band for this teacher, to go play at a little teachers’ ball at the Marriott,” recalls Ruffins. “After we played—they ran us out quite fast, ‘cause we were tearin’ up the place—we went down to Bourbon Street, and put down the hat. Actin’ crazy, straight out of high school—no idea what we were getting into. Put down a trumpet case, made a few bucks, no trouble—it was packed on Bourbon Street.

“Right after that, we took the money and went to Popeye’s and ate some chicken. The whole band slept at Phil’s house, like 13 cats. ‘Say, man—we gonna do that tomorrow!’”

They did return, on many nights, enjoying the idea of being paid to practice on Bourbon Street. Soon they progressed to hustling gigs in Treme clubs (but still playing for tips), and went about building a sound and a following. Eventually Rounder Records came calling, and so far has released three Rebirth albums.

Of the original gang, only Ruffins, Philip Frazier, his brother Keith, and Reginald Steward remain. They and the newcomers have developed into a formidable force, capable of whipping an audience into a frenzy that borders on dangerous. When Rebirth celebrated the release of its Take It to the Street last fall at the Louisiana Music Factory, a French Quarter record store, the level of ecstasy reached critical mass as dancers waved malt liquor bottles in the air and leapt for the ceiling.

But Ruffins has another jones, one that cannot be satisfied while riding full-throttle with Rebirth—a fondness for the more traditional, quieter sounds of swing jazz. He would often drop by the Palm Court Cafe, hoping the old-time jazz vets would let him sit in. Long before the folks at Little People’s Place were his in-laws, he convinced them to let him bring in a swing band on Monday nights. Via video, he sat at the feet of the great old masters.

“I watch a lot of old videos, stage performances from Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Count Basie. I learned a lot watching those. I was listening to a Nat King Cole tape, and a cat jumps on and says, ‘OK, we’re gonna bring you back to one of those good ol’ tunes that seems to follow us everywhere we go, so flip your fedoras and swing out like the rest of us’—and I actually get on stage and say the same thing!”

He had no prospects to document this interest on record until a Justice Records rep slipped him a business card after catching a Ruffins gig during last year’s Jazz Fest. Kermit never called; Justice did, and, after Randall Jamail had scouted Ruffins at the Little People’s Place, made him an offer. They told Kermit to call when he was ready to accept. He waited a few weeks, and then decided it was time.

“I contacted my lawyer, and we found out that we could work out a way that didn’t interfere with Rebirth—each one scratches each other’s back. And hell, man, the money that these cats’ offered…I done bought me a nice house down in the Lower Ninth Ward—before I even recorded a note, I paid my first house note. And I always wanted to do a solo album. I even had the band picked out for when that happened.”

That band included the venerable banjoist Danny Barker, bassist Walter Payton, trombonist Lucien Barbarin, clarinetist Doreen Ketchens, tuba player Anthony Lacen, vocalist James Andrews, and Shannon Powell, the monster drummer from Harry Connick, Jr.’s band. Jamail recruited Ellis Marsalis to tickle the ivories and help select the material for Ruffins’ solo debut.

They came up with a collection of standards that includes “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” an instrumental “Georgia On My Mind,” and a batch of sentimental numbers (“When My Dreamboat Comes Home,” “Girl of My Dreams,” “The Glory of Love”).

Ruffins was homesick during a 12-day stand in Martinique with Rebirth when he reworked the arrangement and lyrics of “Christmas in New Orleans” to become “Monday Night In New Orleans,” a loving tribute to the staples of Big Easy life that kicks off World On A String (“cats will pull out their horns/swing out a few songs” after feasting on “big juicy pig tails in a pot of red beans”).

“A lot of these tunes, I’ve been fiddling around with for years, and can’t find anybody to play ‘em with. With Rebirth, when it’s time for us to hit, it’s good ol’ funk originals—that’s how we make it up.”

The tracks that were laid down last September at Ultrasonic Studios, dominated by Ruffins’ bold trumpet work and sunny vocals, owe much more to Louis Armstrong than George Clinton.

Listeners “probably could tell I listened to Louis a helluva lot,” says Ruffins. “Even with my playing—even though I can’t play half the stuff Louis played. But the attack…when Louis solos, he acts like it’s the end of a song—you know how you go out real strong? I see it so many ways.”

“It was like a helluva fairy tale,” says Ruffins of the year that gave him his wife and a solo album. Unfortunately, these two events came to fruition in the same week in March: the weekend after his record release party, he got married. Two days later, he left for Europe with Rebirth. A desire to spend time at home is understandable.

“I figure this [was going to be] a rest vacation that I never took in ten years of Rebirth. Even though I’d be home, I’d still be advertising and pumping it, playing in the Quarters. I really want to get out to Jackson Square, play the Square with Tuba [Fats] and the guys, sell a few tapes, save my money, lay out, and just be in the city.

“I think a little rest, bein’ home, is real important. I figure it’s just as important as selling records and making money. The money will always be there. But this life is so short. Ten years of that, eight years of this…every little break really counts, even though I enjoy the hell out of [playing music] a lot.

“If I could hit the road, really make some big money and be able to take the family along, it would be a lot easier in the future. And I know that’s not business-like, but all the big-timers do. And you know how long it takes to become a big-timer. [laughs] I put in 10 years so far and I have lots more dues.”

It is difficult for him to pinpoint exactly what causes the warm feeling that overcomes him whenever his hometown is brought up.

“It’s really hard to explain. It’s something about being home. Even before I met my wife and had the children that I miss so much now, even when it was hard to see what I missed down here…Just being able to go home.

“If I really had my way, I’d be playin’ Preservation Hall every night or something. I can’t wait for that. If I could do that, where all the tourists just come on down and hear you…”

He is not ready to don the white shirt and black slacks of the Quarter trad player just yet. “I really want to travel with a swing band. That’s one of my top priorities. Have the topnotch cats playin’ behind me and really swingin’ ‘em out: [he sings] ‘ALL of me…’ I see that, I see it soon.”

But would he move to New York City, as Harry Connick, Jr. did, to find a worldwide market for his brand of retro swing?

“No way, man. I don’t think I’d ever do that. If I really had to move there, if they said, ‘Kermit, you got to move to New York,’ I’d probably end my whole career right there.

“Money is good, but just the bare necessities—a little bit more and I’m over-excited. It doesn’t take too much, not at all, to get me nice and happy. I figure that’s what really counts. I’d be in New York probably cryin’ my eyes out in one of them motels: ‘Man, I could be at home, laughin’ my ass off.’”

He is, and, on a flawless Big Easy afternoon at the Little People’s Place, he does.