Whether he’s barbecuing outside his bar, sitting in with Jon Batiste and Stay Human on The Late Show, performing in films and TV series or entertaining crowds at music halls around the world, Kermit Ruffins keeps busy — all while personifying the laid-back nature of New Orleans.
Heavily influenced by Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway, the singer and trumpet player started out in the streets of the French Quarter in the early ’80s. In high school, he co-founded the Rebirth Brass Band, a group that helped revolutionize and rejuvenate the second-line culture of New Orleans. After 10 years, he amicably split with the band and went solo — a risky move at a time when there weren’t many young musicians playing traditional jazz.
Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers have since been widely embraced as a New Orleans institution with a lasting influence on the city’s musical direction.
Ruffins joined us in the Gumbo Kitchen for a conversation about life in New Orleans.
What are your earliest memories of music?
Being five or six years old, growing up in the lower 9th Ward, every Saturday we would hear the Commodores and Earth, Wind & Fire, playing the LPs. We grew up with a lot of R&B.
Was there jazz in the house at the time?
There was no jazz in the house at all.
So how did you eventually fall in love with the music of Louis Armstrong.
Right about 1981 or 1982, I went to high school in the Tremé. The second I got there, I noticed a lot of second-line parades going up the street at any given time. Me and Phil Frazier, we decided to start the Rebirth Brass Band. We started studying the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and the Olympia Brass Band, and we played in the French Quarter for tips. One day I heard Louis Armstrong on the jukebox — I was about 18 years old and had no idea about Louis — and I just lost it.
Your first solo record World on a String came out in 1993. That was a completely different sound. Did you get any flack or grief, or were the guys in Rebirth supportive?
Very supportive. When I left Rebirth, I had a talk with Phil Frazier … and he said go ahead and do your thing. I was lucky enough to meet a guy out of Houston, Randall Jamail, and he decided he wanted to do records after he saw me on stage. He let me handpick all those great guys: Tuba Fats: Danny Barker, Lucien Barbarin, Doreen Ketchens, Shannon Powell, Walter Payton, and not even to mention Ellis Marsalis, who just passed away. It was an honour to choose all those guys. It was a blessing.
People always ask me what it is about New Orleans that I love so much, and I’m never able to really put it into words. I’m never satisfied with my answer. Do you find it hard sometimes to explain the love of the city?
That’s an easy thing to explain. It’s a blessing that I grew up in New Orleans. I can’t imagine living anywhere else in the world. I wake up and I think about that. I’m 55 years old, and I still wake up excited about growing up in New Orleans.
I get the impression that if someone came along and said, “I want you to move to New York and play jazz,” you’d almost rather give it up than leave New Orleans.
I’ve travelled so much. I really don’t want to do it again — unless it’s an awful lot of money! I get a lot of phone calls, and I just get this ridiculous fright.
Your gigs at Vaughan’s with the Barbecue Swingers have become legendary. You’d barbecue before the gig, right?
Yeah, one time the gig was going so late that I just started barbecuing for the band so we could have a little snack during the break. We were drinking a lot of good ol’ cold beer. One thing led to another, because I always was hands-on in the kitchen because, since the lower 9th Ward with my grandmother and grandfather, my mom and dad — they were all great cooks. I decided to get a bigger rig and cook for the whole audience. When I start cooking, I hate to stop.
The HBO series Treme, you were in that playing yourself. How close did they get to capturing the feeling of New Orleans?
David Simon is a genius. When I read over my script, I had to look over my shoulder because I thought somebody was following me. It was so accurate to the point where my script read, “You’re smoking a reefer and you’re barbecuing, and somebody comes to borrow some money from you.” It was just amazing. He nailed it. I wish we would’ve had more seasons. The music budget was the biggest on HBO … Everything about that show was so special. The restaurants, the streets, everything. It was crazy. People are still watching it.