People outside New Orleans say trumpeter Kermit Ruffins is Louis Armstrong reincarnated, straight up. That Cheshire Cat grin, that rolling, wide-legged gait, that raspy, warmly infectious, from-the-heart-and-belly laugh. Those bravura fortissimo C runs, the way he nervously pumps the trumpet’s valves when he lays out. The way his puckish, gravelly-voiced take on Armstrong’s classic “On The Sunny Side of the Street” swings-sways-strolls every last note of Big Easy joy out of the old warhorse like nobody else but Satchmo himself could. Other people say, “Yeah, but that’s all he is.” They’re right...and so wrong.
Kermit Ruffins does have more than a little Louis in his soul, no doubt, but his mind dreams of Barbecue Swingers, Rebirth Brass Band, Count Basie, Earth, Wind and Fire, and phat hip hop beats, and his heart sings of his New Orleans: Vaughan’s, Ray’s Boom Boom Room, Joe’s Cozy Corner, Tuba Fats, “Uncle” Milton Batiste, Danny Barker, Jackson Square, sweet, smoky barbecue; his hips and legs shimmy-shake Congo Square, his feet tap ’n’ shuffle pure second line rhythm.
Truth be told, to really know who Kermit Ruffins is, to truly comprehend what makes him so sui generis amongst the greatest jazz and world music brass players currently happening comes down to two words: “New” and “Orleans.” Not the Mardi Gras/Jazz Fest New Orleans, the real New Orleans. The pre-Katrina one: blocks of shotgun houses, Father James LeDoux giving Sunday (African) Mass at St. Augustine Catholic Church (a huge, black Egyptian ankh hangs in the balcony), the Lafitte Projects, the Big Chief “Tootie” Montana, the Uptown Ol’ South noblesse oblige one, Sixth-Seventh-Ninth Ward bars/lounges, the carry-out-in-the-middle-of-vacant-lot, WWOZ-AM. The post-Katrina one. But most importantly, you must dig the historical/spiritual genesis to revelation one…
Throughout Africa, there is a belief that the name given a child will determine who they are and what it is hoped they will become. Some cultures choose a revered historical figure or ancestor, some the day of birth, others an exalted characteristic (humility, spirituality). In Kermit Ruffins’ case, it was the same thing, but slightly different. Born in New Orleans on Saturday, December 19, 1964, he was named after his paternal grandfather, who was a picture framer in Treme. Ah, but here’s the kicker: Professor Longhair, the greatest New Orleans piano player that ever lived—hell, one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, period–was born on the same day!
Esther and Lloyd Ruffins raised their brood (three sons, one daughter) in the Lower Ninth Ward on Jordan Avenue, one block from the levee. As a child, Kermit was exposed on a daily basis to the city’s rich musical culture–on the house radio and stereo, at funeral and second line parades, Mardi Gras and in the bars with his mother. Destiny? Not yet; little Kermit was more into baseball, football, fishing, and running the streets. Then one day, Kermit’s Uncle Percy came by the house and gave him one of his trumpet mouthpieces. Bingo! He fripped and frapped on that chunk of brass until noise became music. The following year, Destiny finally came a’ knockin’…
“One day when I was 14, I came home from school and there was a trumpet my parents bought for me,” recalls Kermit. “They got it just to get me in a band and out of trouble. So I joined the band at Lawless Junior High. I took my first trumpet lessons from the band teacher, Herman Jones. He also taught Corey Henry (now the trombone player in Ruffins’ Barbecue Swingers), Jesse Davis, a great New Orleans saxophone who lives in New York, Brian Scott who plays trumpet in the Little Rascals Brass Band, and Julius Magee who plays tuba with the Dirty Dozen.” That summer, Kermit attended Lawless’ band camp and studied under his father’s trumpet teacher. He got so good that he was promoted from third to first trumpet chair in the school ban