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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."

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