When Louis Armstrong left New Orleans to go to Chicago in 1922, he joined up with his mentor, Joe “King” Oliver, and from there he went on to become one of the most influential, revered musicians of the twentieth century. But what if he didn’t leave? What if he had stayed in New Orleans? It’s hard to imagine a world without Louis Armstrong, but it’s interesting to imagine how Louis would have lived, worked and played in New Orleans.
If you’ve ever wondered what that would be like, look no further than trumpeter Kermit Ruffins. There is perhaps no one in New Orleans who so truly embodies the Satchmo way of living. When I met with him at his bar/home/headquarters, Kermit’s Treme Mother-in-Law Lounge, he was cooking lunch in a big skillet, sipping on a Bud Light, and exuding that infectious kind of positivity that Louis was so famous for. While he does often travel for gigs in Houston, Atlanta and New York, he clearly relishes being home. When he’s not at the Mother-in-Law Lounge, or on a gig at the Blue Nile or the Little Gem, he likes to bar-hop around the city listening to live music. He laughs easily, loves cooking, gives generously, and certainly isn’t shy about his love for New Orleans and Louis Armstrong.
Can you tell us a little bit about Louis and the birth of jazz in New Orleans?
I’m positive that anybody that loves jazz knows about the birthplace of jazz here in New Orleans. The only true American art form is right from here. Literally six, seven blocks from where we’re sitting. Which is crazy. Just imagine those young guys, just like today, so many young guys make music in every high school in every corner of this city. Imagine Louis and them back then, doing the same thing, and coming up with this form of music that just spreads around the world and everybody just started following along and then it evolved into a lot of other stuff.
It must have been an exciting time!
Just imagine how the city was rolling back then, with the railroad tracks coming down Basin Street and the Iberville Projects were the red light district and a young kid roaming around the streets with a pistol in his hand and the card games and the prostitution and the drugs. The music is just starting to happen because Africans were taking the European instruments and doing something totally different. It had to be one of the best pastimes ever just to sit behind that instrument and to let out all those feelings and love for life. It’s a real spiritual thing.
You think playing jazz is a spiritual thing?
Oh yes. I always tell young musicians to learn ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ and play with it as much as you want. Play around those chord changes. And that’ll bring you along the way for anything that has to do with jazz. Just because it’s a church song, it’s the most popular song in New Orleans, and it just kinda brings you to the point where jazz kinda evolved. To where it all started with church music.
What, to you, makes Louis a unique player?
To have that spiritual feeling within him to come up with the riffs and the attitude and a love for the trumpet and the craft without even knowing what he was doing is just so incredible. I always look back on that and I think, ‘What was he thinking? How can he pull those tricks out of the hat?’ When Louis went to Europe they wanted to examine his horn to see if he had some kind of trickery going on because those notes was never heard of. It was in-between notes. I mean there’s an A and a B, but he was playing notes in-between. They thought, ‘How the hell does he do that? How can this be possible?’
Can you tell us a little bit about the tribute?
For the last three years I’ve been doing a tribute to Louis at the Economy Hall Tent and then this year we’re doing a Tricentennial tribute to Louis. Actually right after I walk off stage from doing the Louis Tricentennial tribute at the Cultural Exchange Pavilion, I’m going over to the Economy Hall Louis tribute.
Have you thought about what you’re gonna play and who you’re going to play with?
I’m always doing Louis every night of the week. The first 45 minutes of my regular show is traditional New Orleans Louis stuff, then I do some of my own material. He always starts off with ‘Sleepy Time Down South.’ Then he goes into ‘Ole Miss.’ I like to jump into that right after. I always bring Corey Henry in with me. When I first started my thing after the Rebirth, I noticed that Corey was a young trombone player that was really playing. We sat down and we copied everything Louis and Jack Teagarden ever did. If you close your eyes for just a minute, it’s pretty close. I’ve got Shannon Powell, David Torkanowsky, Corey Henry, Kevin Morris on bass, and me. We can tear that stuff up!
Other than his Jazz Fest appearances, Kermit Ruffins invites everyone to lunch (noon) and dinner shows (6 p.m.) at the Mother-in-Law Lounge on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of festival week.