With a new CD, a part in Treme and a documentary on the horizon, Kermit Ruffins’ career heats up
Kermit Ruffins is quintessential New Orleans. Like red beans and rice on Mondays and fish during Lent on Fridays, Kermit is on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Whether you catch him at Bullet’s, a blue-collar bar on AP Tureaud Avenue, early in the week or two days later at Vaughan’s, a watering hole deep in the Bywater, Kermit’s zest for life and barbecue makes New Orleans a very special place to live.
Ruffins, who is celebrating his 45th birthday this month, is a trumpeter, band leader, businessman, Treme resident, cultural icon and, most importantly, a child of New Orleans. With the release of his new CD, Have a Crazy Cool Christmas, on Basin Street Records, a recurring role in the upcoming HBO series Treme, a documentary about his life filmed by James Demaria and fans flocking to his shows every week, Kermit Ruffins is on the verge of global domination.
An ode to the holiday season, Have a Crazy Cool Christmas includes classic holiday songs, many special guests, including Trombone Shorty and the Rebirth Brass Band, but in typical Ruffins style, it also features songs with the flavor of New Orleans. One of the best tunes on Have a Crazy Cool Christmas is “A Saints Christmas,” an upbeat tune where Kermit wishes for the Saints to be in the Super Bowl. Although recorded in July, “A Saints Christmas” is the song of the season. “That wasn’t a song that was recorded when the Saints were 7 and 0 or something like that,” states Mark Samuels, president of Basin Street Records. “It was before the preseason of what seems like a very special year.” For the traditionalist, the CD also features holiday staples like “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night.” “Kermit loves Christmas, and people love to hear him play these tunes,” adds Samuels whose collaboration with Ruffins began in1998 when Samuels recorded The Barbecue Swingers Live at a packed Tipitina’s.
With a playing style that is full and aggressive yet supersmooth, Kermit honed his trumpet-playing chops while leading the Rebirth Brass Band, which he co-founded with Philip Frazier in 1982. Seminal in its artistic direction, the Rebirth Brass Band shook up the traditional jazz scene: The elders were not so keen on the street-influenced sound of the young secondline bands. Fast-forward 20 years later and Kermit Ruffins and his swinging sounds have influenced many up-and-coming trumpeters. “Kermit is an institution because of his personality, his talent and the honor that he gives the greats of the past,” adds Samuels.
Kermit embodies the ambassadorial spirit of the great trumpeter Louis Armstrong, which is infused with an infectious joie de vivre. To the delight of thousands, his recent marriage to Karen James was onstage during his show at the French Quarter Festival. With his huge pickup truck hitched to a custom-made barbecue grill, Kermit smokes his ’cue on movie sets, at nightclub gigs and most recently at the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra’s Barbeque and Brass Porch Party on Tulane University’s campus where he served as chef.
Thoughts of great food danced through my head as I interviewed Kermit and we discussed his new CD, his quest to make the perfect gumbo and his preparations for the holidays.
NOL: What comes to mind when you think about the holidays?
KR: I think of food, music, kids, all of my Christmas dishes, my family. I think of getting up on Christmas morning, staying in your pajamas,
laughing, Christmas music blasting, kids running through the house.
laughing, Christmas music blasting, kids running through the house.
What are some of your holiday traditions?
As a kid I remember putting cookies and milk out for Santa Claus, and in the morning we would find half-eaten cookies. We swore that Santa had come. Now I do this with my 3-year-old daughter.
Also, my family always looks to me to make the gumbo. I learned how to cook from my grandmother, who was the head chef at Lawless Sr. High School. I would spend all day with her while she cooked for the students.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward, and for Christmas, my daddy would show up with all kinds of wild food like turtle, rabbit, raccoon. Recently, for the Saints games I made snapping turtle with piquant sauce. It’s just something I grew up with. We had a canal right in the middle of the road, and we’d catch live blue crabs, and we would sell them to the old ladies in the neighborhood.
Sounds like fun!
Oh, we had a ball growing up as kids. We would hang out on the same two streets all day. That was my routine until my Uncle Percy gave me a trumpet when I was 14 years old. Soon after, I met Philip Frazier, who started a second-line band. After our first rehearsal, we went out to Bourbon Street and started to play for tips. We would play for older people at their parties. I liked playing so much that I stayed over at Philip’s more than my old neighborhood. This is the band that became Rebirth Brass Band.
How is the old neighborhood now?
We lost our family home during Katrina. Nothing is going on in my old neighborhood. There are maybe two houses left and it’s five blocks away from the Brad Pitt Make It Right homes. I am working on a documentary about my life, and we just shot in my old neighborhood.
Why did you decide to record a Christmas CD?
I love Christmas, and I wanted to make a CD that would last forever. I have some classic tunes, but I also have some cool new stuff like “A Saints Christmas,” where we tell Santa that “All I want for Christmas is the Saints in the Super Bowl,” which features Herlin Riley and Neal Caine. Rebirth Brass Band is on two of the tunes. I do a great version of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” with Michaela [Harrison], and we recorded “The Drummer Boy,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”–all the greats.
What are some of your other upcoming projects?
I have my documentary, and I am in Treme, the new HBO series by David Simon. Plus I am planning my 45th birthday pajama party on December 19 at House of Blues.
Treme is a big deal, what character do you play?
I play myself! The show is based on our lives one year after the storm and how the musicians, the chefs and everyone got their lives back.
How did you get on the show?
About five years ago, David Simon walked up to me and said that he wanted to do a story about New Orleans. At the time, I did not realize that he wrote The Wire, and he invited me to Baltimore where they shot it. I got to meet all the real people in Baltimore. Shooting Treme is really just a blessing.
As I wrap up my conversation with Kermit, I am left with thoughts of cookies for Santa Claus, snapping turtles in piquant sauce and the Saints in the Super Bowl. Now this is a crazy cool Christmas!