Primary Instrument: Trumpet
New Orleans is the only place on the planet that could have produced native son Kermit Ruffins. Whether he's blowing trumpet on a Louis Armstrong classic or one of his own hot numbers, Ruffins embraces the tune with the true spirit of the city. Ruffins' music, like New Orleans itself, swings hard with a big heart as it remembers tradition and the importance of good-timin fun. Born on Dec. 19, 1964 (sharing the birthdate with New Orleans' legend Professor Longhair!), Ruffins is a modern hipster in possession of an old soul.
There's a knowing grin on Ruffins' face and a smile in his voice and trumpet when the stylish leader steps out with his Barbecue Swingers. Formed in 1992, the band is aptly named as it reflects the two things for which Ruffins is highly noted--hot jazz and a smokin barbecue. The smell of sizzling sausage browning on the grill set up in the back of the trumpeter's gleaming red pickup truck usually greets folks heading for Ruffins' shows. Meanwhile, inside the club, Ruffins brushes his own spicy sauce on uptempo favorites like 'swing This! the title cut from his 1999 disc on Basin Street Records.
Ruffins learned to cook by his grandmother's side, chopping onions at the kitchen table, while observing her techniques at the stove. As a musician and chef, he believes that the arts of music and cooking share many qualities.
Music is real real good for the soul and so is food super good for the soul, declares an enthusiastic Ruffins. It's a spiritual thing too, he adds. I mean when you put both of them together, I think you have the biggest party ever. And that's what New Orleans is famous for, putting that good food on the table at the same time while they have the hottest band in the city on stage.
Ruffins first gained recognition with the ReBirth Brass Band, one of New Orleans' hot young ensembles that helped shake up the traditional music. He and high school classmate, tuba player Phillip Frazier co-founded the group in 1982. Ruffins' strong musical presence and warm personality soon made him a crowd favorite. It was with ReBirth that Ruffins' talents as a composer emerged, contributing what would become brass band classics Do Whatcha Wanna and Put Your Right Foot Forward. Like so many New Orleans trumpet players before him, Ruffins the musician also became Ruffins the vocalist.
Every trumpeter I saw was singing, explains Ruffins of adding vocals to his musical repertoire. I guess it's because of Louis Armstrong. So I thought Id better start singing.
Ten years of blowing on the streets and around the globe and recording seven albums with the ReBirth honed Ruffins' chops and style for his future solo career. Because of his ever-growing popularity, he had also established a ready- made audience of fans who followed him on his new venture.
I think playing with ReBirth really exercised my chops as far as my lips, because we had to play strong all the time, agrees Ruffins, who is also skilled at reading music. I think it made playing with the swing band a lot easier. When I put up my horn to play the lead part with the smaller band, it comes across real strong. Playing the lead with ReBirth, that really helped me as far as playing the melody, he continues. I turned out to be the melody man. With a chuckle, the trumpeter remembers the advice given to him the late great banjoist/guitarist Danny Barker. He would always tell me, Just play the melody, none of that funny stuff.
In 1992, Ruffins made his recording debut as leader with World on a String on the Justice label. For this important first album, the trumpeter put together an all-star cast of New Orleans musicians including pianist Ellis Marsalis. In Ruffins' creative hands, classics like Rosetta found new young audiences while receiving approving nods from his elders. While there was only one original on the debut, Ruffins' fluid pen was in greater evidence on his sophomore disc for the label, 1994's The Big Butter & Egg Man. Songs like his Ill Drink Ta Dat and The Undertaker Man stood with distinction alongside Louis Armstrong's 'struttin with Some Barbecue. Sporting just the right attitude, Ruffins made Stuff Smith's If Youre a Viper his own and audiences continue to demand it at all of Ruffins' shows. Following up on the popularity of the tune, he wisely revamped the classic Light Up on his 1996 release Hold On Tight (Justice).
Finding success leading his own swinging combo, Ruffins had another dream to fulfill. After seeing a video of Cab Calloway's big band, Ruffins' vision was to someday stand in front of an orchestra. It brought tears to my eyes, remembers Ruffins, and I said, I wanna do that, I wanna swing with a big band!
On October 28, 1995, Ruffins' 17-piece ensemble made its debut at a big band festival held in a church auditorium. Filled with young talented musicians from New Orleans, the orchestra was impressive with its tight arrangements and, of course, its sense of swing. In the Jazz Tent at the 1996 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Ruffins and his big band knocked out what could be perceived as a tough audience. Ruffins' huge talent and natural charisma as a bandleader quickly won over any potential cynics in the crowd.
Meanwhile, Ruffins' bebopin and swingin combo was digging in as an established group with a solid core of musicians ready for the next venture. In the fall of 1997 the band took the stage of Tipitina's, a legendary Uptown New Orleans club, to record in front of an adoring audience. The resulting The Barbecue Swingers Live was the first release by an eager new hometown label, Basin Street Records. Ruffins was truly in his element with the crowd demonstrating its approval for the new material like Ruffins' 'smokin with Some Barbecue. Tracey Freeman got the call to produce the trumpeter's second release on the Basin Street label, 1999's groovin Swing This! It moves from the very traditional Bogalusa Strut to Ruffins' hilarious Hide the Reefer.
New Orleanians display their love for Ruffins nightly by packing the house at every appearance. In recognition of his talents and contributions to the community, Ruffins has received a steady stream of awards for his recordings and performances from GambitWeekly's Big Easy, OffBeat magazine's Best of the Beat and New Orleans Magazine's Jazz All-Stars.
Ruffins is an eager player and active in the New Orleans music community. If he isnt gigging with his Barbecue Swingers, hell often pop up at local clubs to sit-in with friends. When a fellow musician passes, Ruffins is there in his black and whites' blowing in tribute as part of a traditional jazz funeral procession. It's not unusual to find Ruffins hanging out with the older musicians he respects so much seeking their guidance and soaking up their stories.
The most important thing is how much I love the music, declares Ruffins with unabashed sincerity. From the time I wake up in the morning, Im just all hyped for the gig late that night. The suspense of waiting for that gig every day of the week like that is so exciting to me. It's crazy. You just have to know much I love this New Orleans style music.
As Ruffins invitingly announces at the start of a tune, All aboard!