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Interviews

Kermit Ruffins: Swingin' and Smilin'

By Published: June 30, 2009

With its foundations in the varied genres of jazz, funk, hip-hop and R&B, Rebirth's style was so rich and diverse that it was nearly impossible not to move steadily to the beat they were throwing down. Take 1989's Feel Like Funkin' It Up (Rounder Select), for example. From the heavily-syncopated title track to the Crescent City's party anthem "Do Watcha Wanna," it was hard to drive down the streets of New Orleans without hearing something from that disc playing somewhere. Even Michael Jackson's "Shake Your Body Down to the Ground" was given a heavy dose of new brass band funk. Like pied pipers, Rebirth played and a new generation followed and listened. In fact, they listened so much that they are still listening and even playing it today.

Kermit Ruffins"And then [there were] so many, so many brass bands following [us] all the way up to today. And it's crazy how many brass bands they had back then (not too many; they just kind of died off) and once the Rebirth came along and showed that it was cool to do it—you didn't have to wear a traditional uniform with a shirt and tie—you could wear a nice tee shirt and some jeans and play other music besides the traditional music—which the Dirty Dozen made us realize—and we just made a whole new generation. And when they saw us having all that fun, making all that money—I mean almost every high school has a brass band in it right now. There's so many brass bands coming up right now, the city is just rolling with all the young cats playing in them. The youngest is called the Baby Boy Brass Band so you know how young they are."

For nearly ten years, Rebirth was at the heart of the brass band scene in New Orleans and at the center of spreading the brass band gospel to the world. And while Rebirth grew, Ruffins continued to grow as an artist by observing those who had gone before him.

"At one time I was just so hooked on the old black and white videos of Miles Davis

Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
, Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
, Count Basie
Count Basie
Count Basie
1904 - 1984
piano
, Lionel Hampton
Lionel Hampton
Lionel Hampton
1908 - 2002
vibraphone
, Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
1917 - 1993
trumpet
, Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
1901 - 1971
trumpet
—actually me and the Rebirth were just hooked on those videos at one time. We'd sit down and drink a 40 oz after we'd do our show and watch Louis Armstrong videos over and over again, seeing something different and hearing something different every time. And I went crazy! There's a video called Jump and Jive and I just can't seem to find it. If anybody finds it, tell them to please send it to me. If you watch that video, it'll tell you exactly who I am. I just went crazy with that stuff, man."

After an amicable split in 1992, Ruffins launched a solo career with the Justice Label release of World on a String (1992). That recording was special, not only because it underscored Ruffins' talent, but it also featured the considerable talents of many of New Orleans' greatest musicians and teachers. Danny Barker

Danny Barker
Danny Barker
1909 - 1994
banjo
[banjo], Ellis Marsalis
Ellis Marsalis
Ellis Marsalis
b.1934
piano
[piano], Walter Payton [bass] and Lucien Barbarin [trombone] all contributed to the recording, and it served to help bring the New Orleans tradition to a new generation. Classics like "Rosetta" and "Girl of My Dreams" found new music fans to court and in many ways continued a love affair with the next generation of New Orleans musicians. Just as New Orleans' musical elders passed their passion on from generation to generation, Ruffins himself was doing the same thing.

Kermit RuffinsNew Orleans has always been an incubator for musicians, but there is something about trumpet players from the Crescent City. From the mythical Buddy Bolden

Buddy Bolden
Buddy Bolden
1877 - 1931
cornet
to the modern players of today like Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis
b.1961
trumpet
, Terence Blanchard
Terence Blanchard
Terence Blanchard
b.1962
trumpet
and of course Ruffins, New Orleans seems to find its voice in the sound of the trumpet. For Ruffins, it all started with Pops. When asked about that New Orleans trumpet thing, Ruffins responds like a man who has put some thought into the answer to that question.

"We've got Trombone Shorty playing that trumpet and trombone; not to mention Irving Mayfield. I mean, these cats are swinging! [But] I would definitely have to say Louis Armstrong—every time I think about it; it has to be Pops. That stuff is so fresh up to today. I mean, it's incredible. I play it on my jukebox almost every day. I mean that "When You're Smiling"—the way he took that solo on there—that music is just so happy. And in those times and days, I don't know how he was able to accomplish that. But I guess that's the way he let out his frustration, you know? I guess he said, 'I'm going to enjoy this, no matter what they say or do about me.'"



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