Kermit Ruffins, New Orleans' Beaming Musical Ambassador
Many people say that going to New Orleans feels like being in another time. In fact, the city's current slogan for its tourism TV spots, which Rocks Off caught just this morning, is "you're different here."
Listening to Kermit Ruffins, who plays House of Blues Friday night, has that effect too. Besides a voice that is the spitting image of Crescent City icon Louis Armstrong, the jazz served up by the lifelong New Orleans resident and his Barbecue Swingers is as Louisiana as dirty rice.
He's not a bad chef, either, owning his own bar, Sidney's Saloon, in the Treme, where he can often be found behind a ten-foot "baaaaaad barbecue grill." That neighborhood has been his home for many, many years and is the subject of The Wire creator David Simon's post-Katrina HBO drama; Ruffins appeared as himself off and on throughout the recently concluded first season.
Rocks Off caught up with the congenial trumpeter last week while he was "taking it easy," which evidently doesn't happen very often. "I've got a party tonight, and I'm playing at the Blue Nile club tomorrow night," he said. "I'm working almost every night."
Rocks Off: How many different neighborhoods in New Orleans have you lived in?
Kermit Ruffins: I've lived in maybe three: The Lower Ninth Ward, then I lived in the Bywater, then I moved to the Treme.
RO: How long did you spend in each one?
KR: I was born and raised in the Lower Ninth Ward, literally two blocks away from where the levees broke [after Katrina]. I lived there until I was about 16 or 17 years old, then moved to the Bywater for about three years, and then I went to school in the Treme since junior high school, where I started the Rebirth Brass Band. I've stayed in the Treme since then.
RO: Are you from a musical family?
KR: My uncle played trumpet, my mom's brother, and he would come by my house almost every Saturday and let me play on his trumpet. Right about 14 years old, my mom got me and my brother a trumpet. My uncle played with Irma Thomas.
RO: Was it your uncle who made you want to play the trumpet?
KR: That was definitely the first time I'd ever seen a trumpet. And the smell of that brass was so beautiful. I just couldn't wait to have my own trumpet, and sooner or later I got one.
RO: If someone who had never heard much or any New Orleans music asked you to make them a CD, what five songs would you start with?
KR: That's a good question. I would probably start with "Do What You Wanna," which is an original tune I wrote with the Rebirth, a real Mardi Gras tune. I would have them listen to an Olympia Brass Band tune called "Mardi Gras In New Orleans," which leads into another tune that's called "Tuba Fats."
I would definitely have them listen to "Scorpion," by Louis Armstrong. And another favorite of mine, I would say, is Louis Prima, "Banana Split for My Baby and a Glass of Cold Water for Me."
RO: You started the Rebirth in junior high? How did that come about?
KR: I met Phil Frazier, and we decided to start a brass band for a teacher's party down at the Sheraton Hotel. We played the party and on our way back, we were walking home and took a turn down Bourbon Street. Some guy yelled, "Play us a tune!" We started to play and they put all this money in our hats, so we decided we were going to do that every day of the week.
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RO: When you went solo, your first album (1992's World on a String) came out on Houston's Justice Records. Do you have any other ties to Houston besides that?
KR: No, that's the only tie I have. I was playing Jazzfest and this guy [Justice founder] Randall Jamail - Randall's a good friend of mine; he really helped me out during the storm, me and my family, when we came to Houston. He said, "Let's make some records." We did about three or four records for Justice Records.
RO: How long were you here after the storm?
KR: I think all of four or five months. I got lucky and started playing at Sammie's every Thursday and at the Red Cat Jazz Café every Friday and Saturday.
RO: Do you prefer to eat before or after you play a show?
RO: What is your favorite post-gig meal?
KR: I would say gumbo. Real light and real, real good at 2 or 3 in the morning.
RO: How did you get to know David Simon?
KR: I'm not exactly sure. My manager told me we spoke maybe four or five years ago about this project. Then I got to know him real good after the storm, because he wanted to meet with me right away, in February of '06, to let me know that we spoke before and this project we had been talking about was actually going to happen.
He came to my house and told me that the project was going to happen real soon, but in the meantime he wanted me to come play a party for his son down in Baltimore. We played that, then he called me back to play a private party for his wife.
RO: Now that Season 1 of Treme has finished airing, what are your thoughts?
KR: Oh, I loved it. I've never been so proud and so excited about doing anything in so long. It's a big boost for the musicians and the music, and for the city. It's a way of life down here that's kickin' well now. The music is hotter than it's ever been - so many kids are cutting this music right now. This music is gonna be here forever.
RO: What has it been like in New Orleans these past couple of months since the BP oil spill?
KR: Oh, man. It's real frightening, you know. We just don't know what's going to happen. That hole in the middle of the earth, you can't plug it up. I'm just looking for one of those great scientists to come up with something real fast, because it's horrible, man.
This could last for years, you know, which would be a total, total disaster for the whole Gulf Coast. That stuff could wind up in the Mississippi River. It's worse than Katrina.
RO: Last question - where were you and what were you doing when the Saints won the Super Bowl?
KR: I had a Super Bowl party at my bar, and by 11 that morning we had the biggest tailgate party going on. Right after the Saints won, I had the Rebirth Brass Band playing right outside, and I was shooting bottle rockets into the sky for about 45 minutes.
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