Kermit Ruffins: Shake and Bake
By: Jim Welte
There's only one thing that New Orleans jazz man Kermit Ruffins handles better than a trumpet - a barbecue. And if that barbecue happens to have a smoker with a handle shaped like a trumpet? Fuhgeddaboutit.
Ruffins' barbecue, so big that it's attached to a hitch hooked onto the back of his pickup truck, is often parked outside of the gigs he plays all over the Crescent City, and is a sight to behold. It is the latest in a string of Ruffin family barbecues, and a brand new replacement for the one set inside the back of his pickup truck. In fact, Ruffins' cooking skills date back farther than his musical career, which began when he picked up a trumpet at the age of 14.
With New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in full swing, Ruffins is showcasing his culinary and musical skills all over this fine city. He's played Jazz Fest for at least the past 25 years, and this year he'll perform sets with both his own Barbecue Swingers band and as a guest with the Rebirth Brass Band, which he founded in 1982 with then high school classmate Philip Frazier. On Jazz Fest's first weekend alone, Ruffins played his longstanding weekly Thursday night gig at Vaughan's Lounge, and then a Friday night record release party for his latest album, Livin' a Treme Life (out April 28 on Basin Street Records), at the House of Blues. He played at halftime of the New Orleans Hornets' NBA playoff game Saturday afternoon before darting to the fairgrounds to join Rebirth as special guest for their set. At any one of those shows, one of the aforementioned barbecues might be parked right outside, serving up sausages, turkey necks, nutria or whatever the flavor of the day might be.
To hear the 44-year-old Ruffins tell it, cookery has been a family ritual since long before he was born. Growing up in the city's Lower Ninth Ward, the Ruffins family would wake up almost every Saturday at 4 a.m., head down to Hopedale, LA, and fish all morning long. They'd return with a heap of crabs and fish and head straight to the backyard to prepare a feast for later in the afternoon.
I always had a lot of hands-on experience with the outdoor barbecue, and my grandmother would have me chopping up onions and all kinds of stuff after we got back from fishing," Ruffins says.
But, while Ruffins can work a barbecue, he owns the stage, blowing his horn brightly and singing originals and classics in his trademark raspy tone, spreading his infectious charm in every direction. Ruffins' musical quest began in 1978, when his parents bought him a trumpet in the hopes that he would join the school band and stay out of trouble. He did just that, and two years later, he joined the vaunted Joseph S. Clark Senior High School marching band, where he met Frazier. Before long, Rebirth was born, playing on the streets of the French Quarter and at parties and clubs all over the city.
A decade later, the group was seven albums deep and had toured the world over. Their oft-chanted mantra, Ain't no party like a Re-Birth party, 'cause a Re-Birth party don't stop," could be heard in clubs across the world. But Ruffins wanted to stretch out a bit and find his own place within New Orleans' rich musical history, and left Rebirth to start his own band, the aptly titled Barbecue Swingers.
Ruffins' group released a widely lauded debut, World On A String, in 1992, and juggled a series of local gigs that continue to this day, in particular a Thursday night residency at Vaughn's Lounge. Ruffins' workmanlike approach, playing an average of four shows a week, is steeped in the New Orleans tradition established by the likes of his idols Louis Prima and Louis Armstrong, role models that reveled in the super-charged dynamic between a band and its fans.
I always tell guys when they first start their own bands, 'Just keep three to four gigs a week no matter what, even if you're not getting paid at some of them,'" Ruffins says. It keeps you sharp, and there's nothing like the live show."
On his latest album, Ruffins honors Treme, the neighborhood he calls home. Although he grew up in the Lower Ninth (one block from the infamously decrepit levee), Ruffins is deeply tied to Treme. His paternal grandfather was a picture framer in the neighborhood, and Rebirth was born in Treme as well.
Despite being adjacent to the French Quarter and one of the most historically rich neighborhoods in America, Treme has flown under the radar. That's about to change, as The Wire creator David Simon is in the midst of filming episodes of a new show called Treme that centers on the neighborhood. Ruffins is serving as a consultant on the show and is also one of its main characters, basically playing himself. Ruffins is playing a bandleader named Kermit who is dealing with the disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
This is my first time doing something like this, and I'm really proud," Ruffins says. I haven't been this excited in so long. I've been on big stages all over the world but this thing is way over the top for me."
The role isn't much of a stretch for a musician who himself went through the same plight. Ruffins and his family spent four months in Houston following Katrina, but returned to the city with a promise to restore its pride and in turn its rich musical tradition.
Not surprising coming from the warm and charismatic Ruffins, Livin' a Treme Life is about as jubilant an album as you'll hear in 2009. It features classics like High Heel Sneakers" and Song for My Father," brass band numbers like Didn't He Ramble" and I Ate Up the Apple Tree," the latter a staple of Dirty Dozen Brass Band sets in the early 1970s when Ruffins was first getting hooked on music. The album also features a few giddy originals, in particular, Hey Naa," as in, Hey Naa you're lookin' good, we gonna party 'til the sun come up."
In April 2008, Ruffins got himself a place to make sure the party doesn't end until he says it does. He bought Sidney's Saloon on the outer edges of Treme, and it has quickly become a regular hangout for both local musicians and Treme neighbors. He plans to change the name to Kermit's Jazz Saloon, and you can bet the barbecue will be serving all sorts of tasty treats.
This is going to be one hell of a Jazz Fest," Ruffins says.
Kermit Ruffins performs this week and weekend in New Orleans with shows tonight (4/28) at Bullet's Sports Bar, tomorrow (4/29) night at LA Music Factory, Thursday at Vaughan's, Friday (5/01) at The Fairgrounds and Saturday night (5/02) at the legendary Rock 'n' Bowl. Details available here.