Kermit Ruffins: A People Person
It’s a Wednesday afternoon in New Orleans and trumpeter Kermit Ruffins is holding court at his corner bar, Sidney’s Saloon. He’s awaiting the delivery of some nutria—large rodents found in Louisiana’s coastal wetlands—and a couple of raccoons that he’ll cook up and offer to anyone who happens by. In the year since he acquired the spot on the fringe of his beloved Treme neighborhood, it has become headquarters for community events, Saints games and celebrations of all kinds. That’s because in this city, the always-affable Ruffins is more than a trumpeter, vocalist and bandleader. He is New Orleans.
“It will be the biggest nutria party in years and years,” Ruffins exclaims with his usual enthusiasm. “We love coming out here on any given day and throwing the biggest barbeque ever. It starts with like four people and then the text messages start going and cell phones start ringing.”
True to his personality, Ruffins makes his latest CD, Living a Treme Life (Basin Street), personal. Every selection has a story behind it and a reason for its presence. “I wanted it to be real, real neighborhood-ish, and at the same time pick some tunes that reach out to the world,” he explains.
Having started his career in 1983 with the ReBirth Brass Band, Ruffins, 44, kicks off the album with two classic brass-band numbers, “Didn’t He Ramble,” complete with the dirty slide of Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, and “I Ate Up the Apple Tree.”
“When I was thinking about the Treme back in the day, those two songs came to mind right away,” Ruffins says. He smiles at the memory of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the Dirty Dozen Brass Band ruled the streets and tore up “Apple Tree” at the tiny (and now infamous) club, the Glass House. “We were hooked on the Dozen,” he acknowledges, referring to himself and the other members of the ReBirth.
Ruffins knew he had to include “I Can See Clearly Now” on the disc after hearing it performed during the Democratic National Convention. “I started playing it at my very next gig,” he recalls.
For many, sharing the experience of election night with Ruffins at Sidney’s Saloon was a given. He and his band, the appropriately dubbed Barbeque Swingers, set up on the sidewalk in front of his club while giant pots of oil bubbled in preparation for a fish fry. As the sun went down, “I Can See Clearly Now” became the anthem of the night as folks hugged each other in anticipation. Though the menu changed from fish to red beans on Inauguration Day, a similar scene blossomed. Again, the audience rose to its feet as Ruffins, with a smile apparent in his voice, sang the familiar “It’s going to be a bright, bright, bright sunshine-y day.”
“I knew I was going to throw two big parties. I’ve never been so excited in my life,” Ruffins says.
It’s easy to imagine people from other parts of the country wondering what the rock ’n’ roll classic “Hi-Heel Sneakers” has to do with New Orleans. Because it was played and recorded by the much-beloved Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen and the Chosen Few, all of the city’s brass bands perform it in recognition of the big man. Just a few days before the nutria party, the ReBirth Brass Band bounced the tune down the street with the Treme Sidewalk Steppers Social Aid & Pleasure Club parade. After four hours, the procession headed “home” to Sidney’s Saloon where it would disband.
Ruffins arrived back in New Orleans just in time to video the Sidewalk Steppers’ entire parade. “I couldn’t miss that,” proclaims Ruffins, who had been in Baltimore playing a private party for writer/producer David Simon. Ruffins is working with Simon as a consultant and actor on his new HBO series, Treme, which begins shooting in the spring. “I get to play myself,” Ruffins says.
The trumpeter penned three originals for the disc, including two signature swinging numbers, “Good Morning New Orleans” and “Hey Naa.” Ruffins’ horn holds a certain sweetness of tone as he opens the finger-snapping “Good Morning.” Onboard is an all-star rhythm section with drummer Herlin Riley, pianist David Torkanowsky and bassist George Porter echoing the feel-good flavor. “Hey Naa,” a phrase that’s now heard all over town, carries a similar vibe.
Originally published in April 2009