10/27/10 By Lee Mergner
Kermit Ruffins: Happy to Talk
New Orleans trumpeter and singer talks about music, food and the impact of the Treme series on HBO
Kermit Ruffins is walking and talking. He’s speaking on the phone about his new album Happy Talk and other matters, while he makes his way through the French Quarter of New Orleans, heading for a soundcheck. At least a half dozen times, he has to interrupt the conversation to respond warmly to people greeting him. He invites a few to his gig, telling them “Come on by!” I tease him that he might as well run for mayor of the city. He laughs and says that if elected, it would be a very short term. “If I do become mayor one day, I’ll be fired right away, because I’ll be having festivals three times a day,” he says. “I’d have stages set up all over the city with free concerts that never stop until midnight. Yea, I’d be out of there within a day.”
Perhaps it’s better that Ruffins stays out of politics, despite a rising Q rating thanks to a recurring cameo role on Treme, the acclaimed HBO television series produced by David Simon, who also created The Wire. Ruffins is unabashed in his appreciation for what the series has done for the city and the music. “Thank God for David Simon. David told me about six years ago that he was trying to do this TV series. Then that damn Katrina happened.”
Ruffins is a consultant to the series and he says he takes that role very seriously and is often suggesting story ideas to the writers and producers. “I just jot down ideas and hand them to the writers,” he explains. “Or if I get an idea in the middle of the night, I might leave it on their voice mail. Some story that happened after the storm.”
Although he’s quick to acknowledge the way Treme has affected New Orleans and the local music scene, Ruffins sees the series as having a larger impact on how jazz is perceived in American culture. “I’m interviewed a lot and they always ask me, ‘What can we do to get this music like it used to be before R&B and other music took over?’ Jazz used to be the only music in the world with hits. I always answer, ‘Put it on TV every day. Put the music on TV every day.’ And sure enough, it happened.”
Ruffins, who first started in the music world as a street musician in various brass bands, was a founding member of the Rebirth Brass Band. He was just 17 in the summer before his senior year in high school when he formed the group with some friends. The group had more of a street feel and Ruffins believes that contributed to their influence later among younger players. “Thanks to the Rebirth and the Dirty Dozen, all these young musicians have formed brass bands because we made it look a little cool, compared to the old guys wearing the old uniforms. And we started playing different music. And the younger guys jumped all over it like nothing. There are so many brass bands in the city it’s ridiculous.”
A completely self-taught musician, Ruffins is a little jealous that the younger musicians have received better musical training, at least formally, than he did. “There are so many music schools with kids being taught the real way to play, compared to when I grew up, when I didn’t have piano lessons. I learned how to read music, but I never learned about chord changes and theory and all that. These kids now are learning all that at nine, ten or eleven years old.”
Nonetheless, the trumpeter and singer revels as the host of a spirited engagement at Vaughan’s every Thursday night. I asked Ruffins to describe the weekly scene at the gig, which is one part concert, one part dance party and one part BBQ. “Imagine coming up to this place, looks like this ‘needle’ in the heart of the 9th Ward, a real neighborhood area,” he starts. “You see all these people standing outside and inside, lined up and waiting to see the show. Tourists, locals, musicians that aren’t working that night are all hanging. The red beans and rice is brewin’ in the back. Right at show time, the band cranks up nice and strong and everybody’s dancing their butts off for about an hour and forty-five minutes, maybe two hours, for the first set. Right at the break, some good old fresh red beans and rice is always guaranteed. Sometimes I’ll bring my barbecue grill and smoke it out, depending on the weather and how I woke up that morning. We have that long break, what we call the meet and greet break. Hanging out with everybody. Then we do a second set that goes about 2:00 or 2:30 am.”
In New Orleans, music and food are like religion, it seems. And with his BBQ gigs, Ruffins gets to preach the gospel in both areas on a regular basis. At first in response to the question of who the best cook is in his family, he struggles to choose. “Between my auntie and my mom, both of them cook their butts off,” he says. “I think I’m the best cook overall as far as wild foods, Italian food, seafood, barbecue...” And Ruffins explains that he learned from more than the women in his family. “I hung out with a lot of chefs down here in New Orleans. They gave me a lot of tips. I hung out at Maximo’s Italian Grill all the time. They taught me how to cook with that high heat. Sear it and pop it in the oven with the olive oil and red pepper and garlic.”
Ruffins also struggles at first to name his best dish as a cook. “Probably a good pot of gumbo or a good pot of beans,” he says eventually. “But my favorite grill food is quail. I can put like 50 quails on my grill. I have a grill that’s about 12 to 15 feet long. I got it from Atlanta about a year and a half ago. I could even put about 70 quails on that thing if I want.”
Ruffins says that because of the area’s rich diversity, the barbecue style of New Orleans is not easily categorized. “Everybody’s so different down here in New Orleans when it comes to barbecuing, to the point where it’s hard to give it one unique thing. But I think that that the hot sausage on the grill is a New Orleans thing. I think I kinda kicked that off. Nobody was putting hot sausage on the grill until about 15 years ago. There was one guy out there – me – barbecuing every Sunday at the second lines only because I had my kids on the truck and I just wanted to make sure they had a bit to eat. Before you know it, now we have 20 trucks lined up doing barbecue before second lines.”
In recent years, Ruffins has moved his own music beyond that of brass bands, performing a more swinging and traditional style of jazz, perhaps more aligned to those of the second lines. On the new album, Ruffins leads his group, the aptly-named Barbecue Swingers, playing an assortment of pop covers, standards and originals, all with a classic Bourbon street sound. He says that the seeds for this shift were sown many years ago, not just on the streets of New Orleans, but on the small screen. “I was hooked on those black and white videos of Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, Dizzy, Monk. Me and the Rebirth guys would watch that stuff all day long. All of a sudden I was in Europe on stage in Nice watching Miles Davis perform and watching Lionel Hampton and watching Ray Charles. Around 1985 through 1987 I was watching them on videos and then in 1989, I was sitting next to them on a tour bus going to the show.”
Since Ruffins left Rebirth, he has built a solo career based on his own talent and personality. He says that he didn’t know he’d be successful, but that he knew he was ready to try to put his own stamp on traditional jazz. “I figured if you want something real bad, because I wanted to do what I was seeing in those black and white videos and be able to do what I was seeing in the French Quarter in New Orleans [with the traditional jazz bands]. All those great trumpet players in their suits and ties, with the string bass and drums and the piano. I knew it would be a good chance because no young kids would be thinking like that. I really wanted to do that more than anything. I’d be playing for tips outside on Bourbon Street, I’d always be staring at those guys inside with the suits on playing that traditional music. I was already hooked on that music along with the brass band music. It just seemed more controllable almost. This is something I could do for a long long time. I just kinda jumped on it.”
Listening to the current album with its mix of swinging trumpet and ebullient vocals, it’s obvious that Louis Armstrong has been a big influence on Ruffins, who doesn’t deny the power of the New Orleans-born singer/trumpeter who took his music all over the world. “Nobody will ever be able to play on that technical level again. I definitely admire his spirit as being super happy onstage and being excited to perform. I think that’s what happened with him. He knew exactly what he was doing. He played on the highest technical level ever, and he played with the most spirit too, so it’s crazy.”
During a visit to Armstrong’s house in Queens, Ruffins noticed that the legendary trumpeter and he share an obsession with documenting their own lives in music. At home and on the road, Armstrong would record his thoughts and memories on reel-to-reel tapes. “I’m crazy like that with videoing,” notes Ruffins. “I have stacks of videos. I can totally understand how he’d record like that.”
Also, very much in the spirit of Armstrong, Ruffins last year released a Christmas album, that included a track called “All I Want for Christmas (Is the Saints in the Super Bowl)” in which he begs the hometown team to make his holiday bright. It turns out that the song initially was about something entirely different. “That tune was called ‘Let’s Take the Party to My House.’ Something crazy about Santa Claus wanting reefer. And Mark Samuels [of Basin Street Records] was, ‘Kermit, we want to make sure this is a family record.’ It was the middle of July or August and the Saints were about to start training camp. I was watching TV and they were showing the Saints training camp and I said ‘ah-hah!’ So I sat down and in about five minutes I had the words to the song. I got back to the studio, two hours after I wrote it and I told the producer Tracey Freeman, who is a big Saints fan like me, ‘Tracey, I got something for you.’ We watch all the games together. Everybody was excited. I said, ‘What if they win?’” And, of course, they did, dispatching the Indianapolis Colts in a Super Bowl upset that sent the city into an epic celebration.
So, Nostradamus, who you got this year? “I think the Saints are going back again. All our best players are on the bench and about seven weeks from now they’ll be out there in cold flesh. They’ll be the freshest team in the league. All our starters will be brand new.” Well, hope springs eternal.
Food, music, football, family…Ruffins lives and breathes the city and confesses that he finds it hard to stay away from The Big Easy for long stretches. In fact, the longest time he was away was after Katrina when he went to Houston for four months. “I came back in January 2006,” he explains. “I wanted to get right back because my wife was going to have a baby in April and we wanted to make sure we had the baby in New Orleans.” He goes on to explain that one way he makes sure that he’s not away too long is by charging a premium on gigs outside his hometown. “And if they say, yes, then I go. I’ll be glad to go as often I can, but when we tell them my price, everybody turns us down.”
Given the impact of Treme, that out-of-town premium may soon cease to be an obstacle for more extensive touring outside the Big Easy. Who knows? Maybe he’ll even be able to bring those big old barbecue grills with him. Now that would be a tour to follow.