While much has been made of his vital role in the founding and shaping of the ReBirth Brass Band, Kermit Ruffins has become a capable and talented bandleader, writer, singer and musician in his own right. While ReBirth and Kermit were once considered synonymous, the amicable split prompted tremendous growth for both operations; ReBirth continues to roll, allowing their music to take them on reckless thrill rides into the funky netherworld, while the romantic Ruffins has stopped rambling in favor of structure and swinging out. After leaving ReBirth, Ruffins formed the Barbecue Swingers, was signed to a solo deal by Justice Records and released three CD's that have become jukebox staples in the Crescent City.
Though Ruffins works with a core group consisting of Corey Henry (trombone), Emile Vinette (piano), Kevin Morris (upright bass) and drummers including Shannon Powell and Jerry Anderson, his records have featured many legendary and unsung heroes of New Orleans jazz. All three albums have been extremely well-received in the local market and have led to successful tours around the world.
The first, "World On A String" (1992) hints at the Louis Armstrong influence - and comparisons - that would become more prevalent in the projects to come. Ruffins dusted off traditional jazz standards such as "When It's Sleepy Time Down South," "When My Dreamboat Comes Home," "Honey Chile," and the title track, suggesting that the trumpeter had at last settled down and slipped comfortably into easily digestible jazz. He did far more than that, however; he helped bring traditional jazz outside of the wonderful but Euro-touristy Preservation Hall and delivered it to a youthful, hip crowd who was bored with what their college campus radio stations had to offer. His debut album featured trad jazz giant Danny Barker (banjo), modern jazz bassist Walter Payton and jazz patriarch Ellis Marsalis on piano, and many musicians from the Treme neighborhood where he was nurtured: Doreen Ketchens (clarinet), tubist Anthony "Tuba Fats" Lacen, and Lucien Barbarin, whose fabled family helped to shape jazz in its embryonic stages, on trombone. While folks came in droves to see Kermit play and made his record a top seller initially because of his association with ReBirth, he quickly served notice that he was about swinging now, and the crowd happily stuck and swung out with him.
In 1994 he released "Big Butter & Egg Man," another obvious homage to "Satchmo". The title track and "Struttin' With Some Barbecue" are performed in a lighthearted style, as is the traditional "Little Liza Jane." Kermit also asserts his (and Satchmo's) marijuana philosophy in "When You're A Viper." More importantly however, was the presentation of four original tunes which began to underscore his composing skills: the rousing "I'll Drink Ta Dat," and "Out In Left Field," "The Undertaker Man," and "Leshianne," a tribute to his beautiful wife. While not as star-studded as his debut, Kermit employed former band mate Philip Frazier on sousaphone to great effect. Around this time Kermit came to know and perform with wunderkid Delfeayeo Marsalis and perhaps it was through his input and influence that Kermit began a foray into modern jazz.
The final record for Justice, "Hold on Tight," (1996) is probably the most heralded in his hometown. It has won numerous awards and garnered a few kudos for Ruffins himself as an entertainer. Featuring such ditties as "Pennies From Heaven," "Lily of the Valley," and the self-penned title track, he also shows more of his personality with frivolous numbers like "Ding Dong The Wicked Witch Is Dead" from the Wizard of Oz and again asserts his "thank you for pot smoking" stance in "Light Up." While sticking close to the core Barbecue Swingers lineup, Ruffins did fill things out with octogenarian Walter Lewis for some ivory tickling, and former ReBirther Roderick Paulin offered fine modern saxophone stylings. The last tune on the CD "Smokin'" definitely points to the cool jazz that should be forthcoming on his next effort although at this time his obligation to Justice Records has been fulfilled and he has opted not to continue with them.
Probably the most encouraging quality that Kermit Ruffins possesses is that he constantly shows a willingness to grow and experiment. Any given Thursday night at his standing gig at Vaughan's one will find the finest professionals and up and comers in the world showing up to sit in. University of New Orleans music students, established "new traditionalists" such as Leroy Jones, modern jazz biggies such as Wessell "Warmdaddy" Anderson and jazz guitarist Mark Whitfield, churchifying r&b pianist Davell Crawford, Lincoln Jazz Center beat keeper Herlin Riley and even Pulitzer Prize winning Wynton Marsalis have all taken turns on the bandstand, elevating free spirited jazz standards to another realm. The capacity crowds keep coming back for these spontaneous lessons in modern jazz as they never know which "who's who" will show up next or what hybrid of jazz will be performed.
The Kermit Ruffins Big Band, a seventeen to twenty piece ensemble that plays out on special occasions, is just another dimension of jazz Kermit has explored. Comprised of popular homegrown brass band musicians and up & coming modernist jazzers, this crew performs mostly BBQ Swingers material and other standards. Kermit's willingness to take on and coordinate such a monstrous enterprise is impressive, and his recruitment of legendary composer and arranger Wardell Quezerque to guide the Big Band is a testament to Kermit's increasingly serious approach to his music, not to mention his reverence for those who came before him.
Proud of his humble roots and contributions to New Orleans music, Ruffins is not an artist one could anticipate stagnating. His popularity has only increased over the 14 years he has played professionally and his growth as a musician has been a pleasure to witness. Like his role model Louis Armstrong the youthful trumpeter is destined for a prolific, lifelong career in music. Kermit is bound to continue pleasing the crowds with his ideas and innovations and long time fans would do well to hold on tight for what is sure to be an exciting ride ahead.
- Kermit's profile was written by Nita Ketner