New Orleans loves to have a good time when it’s not supposed to. Take the “Blue Monday” jam session led by Bob French at Donna’s, for example. Or the ReBirth Brass Band’s sweat-soaked Tuesday night funk fests at the Maple Leaf. Well, pencil in a new one: Sunday afternoons at Kermit Ruffins’ Jazz & Blues Hall.
This spring, Ruffins—the popular trumpeter, singer and amiable bandleader—opened up his cozy little joint at 1533 St. Philip Street (an address which also, oddly enough, serves as the title of his recently released CD) in his beloved and exceedingly jazz-rich Tremé neighborhood. This falls in line with a noble tradition of famous New Orleans jazzmen, such as Al Hirt and Pete Fountain, opening their own clubs in town, but Kermit’s place is—literally and figuratively—a far cry from Bourbon Street.
A large blue and white trumpet painted on the front glass door marks the small corner establishment, which was formerly the Caldonia club. Kermit has added a few nice touches, but has also retained the down-home feeling of a neighborhood bar. A few posters of Kermit and Louis Armstrong adorn the mustard yellow walls. The ceiling sparkles slightly with glitter. A washboard hangs in a corner behind the bar. About seven tables sit in front of a rather small stage, which is only slightly raised from the floor. Towards the back, a comfy red leather sofa and easy chair sit beside an illuminated computer screen. (This area apparently doubles as Kermit’s office and a distinctly New Orleans “Internet café.”)
The club has been featuring a regular weekly rotation of classic local talents like ReBirth, Walter “Wolfman” Washington, Sista Teedy and, of course, Kermit’s band, the Barbecue Swingers. In June, Kermit wisely choose to fill the Sunday 4 p.m. slot with himself, drummer Shannon Powell and piano wizard Henry Butler—an irresistible combination.
We arrived during torrential rain, the remnants of Tropical Storm Allison, but the club was dry and comfortably crowded (about 50 people) with a healthy mix of tourists, locals and neighborhood regulars. A grinning Kermit greeted us near the entrance, reassuring us that even though we were an hour late, music hadn’t begun yet; they were still waiting for Butler to arrive.
Around 5:30 the band kicked into a rousing “Bye Bye Blackbird” without him, amidst jokes that the blind Butler was probably late because he got lost driving himself over—the same kind of jokes Butler himself is fond of making. Powell beamed his prodigious smile (like Buddha with a touch of the Devil) from behind the drums, seeming to revel in each frolicsome beat, while bassist Chris Severin and special guest conga player Ben Stewart fortified the juicy pocket. The piano slack was picked up by a surprisingly adept player named—if I understood Kermit correctly—Marcel Richards. Dressed in a dirty gray-black jumpsuit, he looked like he had just gotten off his blue-collar job, but he tickled the keys with swinging elegance. The small upright piano against the back wall was missing its covering, so the felt hammers were clearly visible as they danced joyously across the strings.
The modest sound system proved well-suited to the intimate room, as did the simple light rig (consisting of a single red and green light), as Kermit exuberantly trumpeted and sang through Nat Adderley’s “In the Bag” and “Basin Street Blues.” He then delivered a surprisingly swinging arrangement of WAR’s soul classic “The World Is A Ghetto,” at one point spicing up a sinuous solo with a playful reference to circus clown music, managing to pull it off without sounding corny.
During this song, Butler was greeted with cheers as he finally walked in. He took his place at the keys for “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” and, during his solo, tore into the song like a hungry man into a juicy steak, stretching the melody with a series of scorching runs and rhythmic excursions. Impossibly, Powell’s smile got broader.
Butler is indeed a joy in this context. He stretches with almost frightening inventiveness, but he doesn’t go so far as to lose the thread of continuity. He’s too grounded by Powell’s groove and Kermit’s earthy lyricism.
The band continued to dazzle on “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” “Pennies from Heaven” and “The Preacher.” At the set break, Chef Kermit unveiled the outcome of his cooking endeavors earlier that day: six piping-hot chafing dishes filled to the brim with spicy pork chops, barbecue chicken, chicken necks and sweet potatoes—all complimentary for the audience and musicians. As I filled my plate with mouth-watering soul food, someone played an extremely fitting tune on the Wurlitzer juke box: Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong singing their famous version of “Heaven.”
Go to Kermit’s to remind yourself why you live in New Orleans, or why you visited. (Note: while this show started late, it’s my guess that music on Sundays usually starts closer to 4. Of course, nothing is set in stone in New Orleans.)
LIL RASCALS ON TOP?
On Thursday, June 7, the Lil Rascals defeated the Soul Rebels at the Maple Leaf in the final round of Superfly Productions’ New Orleans Brass Band Showdown, a dubious victory considering that the tournament held over three Thursdays included a field of only two other competitors, New Birth and Algiers, one of which, Algiers, was disqualified due to a no-show on May 31.
Still, the final round competition was fierce and entertaining. Soul Rebels rocked the crowd with a raucous, pop-influenced sound, sampling melodies and lyrics from Black Sheep, Shaggy (“Picture This”) and other eclectic sources, including something eerily similar to the ESPN Sportscenter theme. The Lil Rascals responded with a powerful combination of thumping syncopation, blasting horns and infectious original lyrics which, together with the timing of the audience vote—immediately following the Rascals’ performance—sealed the victory.
Regardless of the questionable circumstances surrounding the win, the Rascals proved themselves worthy with a long set following the competition that highlighted funky original material from their recent Buck It Like a Horse release and caused the racially diverse crowd to work up a healthy sweat on the dance floor.
Superfly plans to stage another Brass Band Showdown in the fall with an expanded format.
The Lula Elzy New Orleans Dance Theatre celebrates its tenth anniversary with a concert on July 14, 8 p.m., at Dillard University’s Samuel DuBois Cook Theatre. Since 1991, the Elzy troupe has presented over 15 concerts featuring original choreography set to Duke Ellington’s compositions, such as “Nutcracker Suite.” For the July 14 concert, they will dance to Ellington favorites performed by musical director/saxophonist Clarence Johnson III and a 15-piece jazz orchestra, including Clyde Kerr Jr., Michael Ray, Ronnel Johnson and Larry Sieberth, along with guest vocalists Germaine Bazzle and “Lady” B.J. Crosby. A number of special guest dancers, including Kevin Gaudin, a native New Orleanian now on tour with the Broadway musical Swing, will also perform. The concert is a tribute to legendary New Orleans big band leader/composer Wardell Quezergue. Call (504) 828-8441 for tickets/information.
At press time, tickets were still available for the August 4 concert at UNO Lakefront Arena honoring Louis Armstrong’s 100th birthday and entitled “Satchmo to Marsalis: A Tribute to the Fathers of Jazz.” The concert, featuring Ellis Marsalis, all four of his musical sons—Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason—and one of his famous students, Harry Connick Jr., will benefit the Jazz Studies Program at the University of New Orleans. It’s only part of a weekend full of Armstrong related events, including the Louis Armstrong Centennial Conference and the free Satchmo Summerfest in the French Quarter. For information regarding the concert and conference, call (504) 280-6680; regarding the Summerfest, call (504) 522-5730 or (800) 873-5725.
Anxious Sound presents Sabir Mateen (saxophones, flute, clarinet) with Ben Karetnick (drums) at Zeitgeist on Friday, July 27, at 8 p.m. Mateen, a former Sun Ra cohort, is a mainstay at Manhattan’s creative music haven the Knitting Factory, and recently appeared on a Yo La Tengo recording.
Saxophonist Rob Wagner has been turning a lot of heads of late with his remarkably fluid, elastic trio featuring drummer Kevin O’Day and veteran bassist James Singleton. Catch the trio at DBA on Frenchmen Street on July 3, 9 and 30, plus at the Dragon’s Den July 31.