Kermit Ruffins: Swingin' and Smilin'
That attitude seems to permeate New Orleans, a city afflicted by one of the most catastrophic events in recent United States history. Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent levee breaches left the city devastated, and much of its culture, including music, was feared to be lost forever. Generations of residents were torn from their homes and the city's musician population was taken away from the place that had nurtured its very birth, growth and development. But, as Ruffins reflects, music helps to shape New Orleans' unique perspective and may yet prove instrumental in its continuing rebirth.
"Only New Orleanians could handle Katrina. I mean, [if] you're from somewhere else in the world and something like that happens to you, most people [would] totally crack up. Our perspective on life is just so different from anywhere else in the worldthe majority of us anywayespecially the musicians. The musicians just rub off to the people and the people rub off to the musicians to the point where we both bring each other a good life."
That good life is bringing music and people back to the Crescent City, and according to Ruffins, musicians can always find work. "New Orleans always had a lot of working musicians. Even if you can't find work, there's always Jackson Squarewe call it the Front Line, you know. It's always a way to make money playing music and make a living."
And as musicians find enough work to make a living, they bring with them businesses. "We're just blessed like that. You know, there's a lot more clubs opening up, hiring a lot more bands. It's a lot of live entertainment around the city that you don't even know that's going on in the small mom-and-pop barswith R&B, along with jazz, too. I mean, in just in a couple of blocks alone of St. Bernard [Avenue] is about six or seven bars, and all of them have live entertainment from time to time. And that's in the neighborhood. And it's coming up more and more. Everybody's opening restaurants, clubs, and the brass bands are working their butts off at a lot of weddings, birthday parties. It's really good for the musicians in the city, and it's getting better for sure. The music's getting better too. Not so much that the old stuff is not good; I mean, cats are doing more technical stuffmore reading, more writing than ever before."
Ruffins is as busy as anyone in this city of busy people. With the opening of his own place, Sydney's Saloon, Ruffins has contributed to the renaissance that is occurring in the city's Tremé neighborhood. Long the home of artisans and musicians, Faubourg Tremé is one of New Orleans' oldest neighborhoods, and early in the city's history, it was the main neighborhood for free people of color. It remains an important part of the city's African American and Creole culture. It's also Ruffins' adopted home and the place he's loved since high school days. Today he marvels at its comeback.
"I was lucky enough to get in the Tremé when I went to Clark Senior High School. Once I went to Clark Senior High School, I just moved to the Tremé; I never went back to the lower ninth ward. I just never thought I'd walk down the street on Robertson through the Tremé and see so many nightclubs and so many people partying on a Tuesday at one o'clock in the daytime. I just could not believe that was going on. Bar after bar after bar after bar."
Ruffins keeps a schedule that would bring most mortals to their knees, but as with any person with a passion, you can sense the joy he gets from just being Kermit. He works constantly, frequently appearing at clubs around town but managing to keep a significant road schedule as well. Yet, with all of his own performing, Ruffins finds the time to take in live music as well.
"Normally I work about five days a week, sometimes four. And if I gotta work, I get up first thing in the morningI'm one of them early risersso I get up right about 8 in the morning, try to get all of my chores done before 11, eat me a big lunch, lay out the rest of the day. Three hours before show time, [I] do a lil' bar hopping, drink a lil' beer, go listen to some live music, cause there's plenty live music down here in New Orleans on any given day. You can hear about 20 bands if you want, you know. If you're able to do it, you can actually see 20 bands easily on any given night. Then I go to work and swing out, whether it be Vaughn's on a Thursday night or Bullet's Sports Bar every Tuesday night. And I play the Rock and Bowl quite often, down at Mid-City Lanesmost of the time on a Saturday. That's normal. And every Friday at Blue Nile, and almost every Friday I'm home at my new place. I just opened up Sidney's Saloon at 1200 St. Bernard Avenue. The combinationmusic, food and family is real big down here in New Orleans, that's for damn sure." He adds, "If I'm off, I light up the grill, do a lil' barbequing and be home by six or seven o'clock and then it's time for bed."