Kermit Ruffins, New Orleans' Beaming Musical Ambassador
Many people say that going to New Orleans feels like being in another time. In fact, the city's current slogan for its tourism TV spots, which Rocks Off caught just this morning, is "you're different here."
Listening to Kermit Ruffins, who plays House of Blues Friday night, has that effect too. Besides a voice that is the spitting image of Crescent City icon Louis Armstrong, the jazz served up by the lifelong New Orleans resident and his Barbecue Swingers is as Louisiana as dirty rice.
He's not a bad chef, either, owning his own bar, Sidney's Saloon, in the Treme, where he can often be found behind a ten-foot "baaaaaad barbecue grill." That neighborhood has been his home for many, many years and is the subject of The Wire creator David Simon's post-Katrina HBO drama; Ruffins appeared as himself off and on throughout the recently concluded first season.
Rocks Off caught up with the congenial trumpeter last week while he was "taking it easy," which evidently doesn't happen very often. "I've got a party tonight, and I'm playing at the Blue Nile club tomorrow night," he said. "I'm working almost every night."
Rocks Off: How many different neighborhoods in New Orleans have you lived in?
Kermit Ruffins: I've lived in maybe three: The Lower Ninth Ward, then I lived in the Bywater, then I moved to the Treme.
RO: How long did you spend in each one?
KR: I was born and raised in the Lower Ninth Ward, literally two blocks away from where the levees broke [after Katrina]. I lived there until I was about 16 or 17 years old, then moved to the Bywater for about three years, and then I went to school in the Treme since junior high school, where I started the Rebirth Brass Band. I've stayed in the Treme since then.
RO: Are you from a musical family?
KR: My uncle played trumpet, my mom's brother, and he would come by my house almost every Saturday and let me play on his trumpet. Right about 14 years old, my mom got me and my brother a trumpet. My uncle played with Irma Thomas.
RO: Was it your uncle who made you want to play the trumpet?
KR: That was definitely the first time I'd ever seen a trumpet. And the smell of that brass was so beautiful. I just couldn't wait to have my own trumpet, and sooner or later I got one.
RO: If someone who had never heard much or any New Orleans music asked you to make them a CD, what five songs would you start with?
KR: That's a good question. I would probably start with "Do What You Wanna," which is an original tune I wrote with the Rebirth, a real Mardi Gras tune. I would have them listen to an Olympia Brass Band tune called "Mardi Gras In New Orleans," which leads into another tune that's called "Tuba Fats."
I would definitely have them listen to "Scorpion," by Louis Armstrong. And another favorite of mine, I would say, is Louis Prima, "Banana Split for My Baby and a Glass of Cold Water for Me."