Kermit Ruffins: Swingin' and Smilin'

Tod Smith By

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Kermit RuffinsThere's a rebirth occurring in New Orleans music, and trumpeter/vocalist Kermit Ruffins finds himself front and center. While the post-Katrina recovery has meant many things for the Crescent City, in a number of ways it's been musicians who have taken the lead in bringing the city back to its traditions. Prior to the storm, many musicians and fans of the traditional New Orleans sound spoke despairingly about the musical future for the city that many considered to be the place where jazz got its start. Musicians found it increasingly difficult to sustain a career in their chosen field, and many abandoned their beloved home for apparently better opportunities.

Yet Kermit Ruffins stayed. New Orleans is his muse and it provides the fuel for a creative fire that started years ago when he first discovered the music he so loves today. But more than that, Ruffins is an entertainer, and he knew early on that he could make a living doing what he loved, in the city he loved.

Ruffins recalls, "Way back when I was a kid, when I first saw people like Michael Jackson, I said, man, I wish I could do that. My uncle Percy [Williams] used to come by my house (my mom's brother who plays with Irma Thomas on trumpet—he had a band called MG Funk] and he would come by my house almost every weekend and let me play on the trumpet a lil' bit, and before I knew it, my mom and dad bought me a brand new trumpet when I was about 14 years old."

There's something about New Orleans that grabs young musicians. Perhaps it started with Louis Armstrong at the Home for Colored Waifs or maybe even earlier with a young Buddy Bolden as he listened to the marching bands celebrating both life and death in the streets of the city. Wherever it started, the tradition lives on, and a young Ruffins found an education system that nurtured and encouraged musical development.

"Right away I went to school at Lawless Junior High in the lower ninth ward and joined the band. Man, when I tell you I had so much fun learning to play that thing [trumpet]—it's just as much fun today as it was when I first got it. And just opening up that horn case and smelling that brass and that valve oil—that smell of that band room; the feel of the band room; the uniforms; marching in all the Mardi Gras parades year after year after year and then finally graduating and going to Clark Senior High School in the Tremé. [I] joined that band and met Philip Frazier. That summer, we went by Philip Frazier's house and started a band which became the Rebirth."

The Rebirth Brass Band is a New Orleans institution. And with its 1982 founding, Ruffins along with brothers Philip and Keith Frazier brought new life to the brass band tradition. For generations, brass bands had provided the sound track for New Orleans' unique cultural celebrations. From funerals to Mardi Gras and nearly every event in between, brass bands provided the city with a unique, pulsating beat that seemingly filled every neighborhood street, alley and walkway. Dressed in their traditional hats, vests and ties, brass bands were an important part of the cultural fabric in a city that prided itself on tradition. Before Rebirth hit the scene, many younger musicians felt that the tradition had run its course. That is, until a brass band came along that paid homage to the old while creating a new, exciting sound that captured the ear of a new generation.

"We should take total responsibility [for] how the music changed from us listening to the Dirty Dozen and the Olympia Brass Band. We would study that stuff constantly, every day, all day—all their material—and that's how we came up with our style."

Like many that had gone before them, Rebirth found their early success in the streets of the city. "We were walking home from playing a party for all the teachers at the Sheraton Hotel and we took the shortcut home through Bourbon Street and a guy said, 'Hey play us a tune.' And we played a tune and they give us all this money. So the next day we said, hey man, we going back and do that again. And before you know it, we started learning all those old traditional tunes and going out there every day playing for tips—eight of us making about 60 to 70 bucks a day—which is kind of hard to believe in 1983 for a kid right out of high school, 16 or 17 years old. So we were convinced that that's what we were going to do for the rest of our lives; I know I was, for sure. Before you knew it, we were traveling the world—playing every festival in the world: Montreux, Switzerland; Vienna Austria; Nice; Amsterdam; the World Travel Fair in Tokyo. The list goes on and on. I can't remember all the festivals. For about 8-10 years in a row, we played all those festivals every summer."

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, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong—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 [banjo], Ellis Marsalis [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 to the modern players of today like Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard 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.'"

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 world—the majority of us anyway—especially 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 Square—we call it the Front Line, you know. It's always a way to make money playing music and make a living."

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