It takes all of 30 seconds.
Whether listening to a track on his newest CD, engaging him in conversation or hearing his voice on an answering machine message, one word springs immediately to mind to describe Kermit Ruffins.
The 44-year-old New Orleans native lives it, plays it and sings about it, and nowhere is it more evident than when he discusses his craft the swinging, good-time jazz that lured him in as a teenager and continues to whet his appetite even three decades and 10 solo recordings later.
“You definitely pick that up from me. Thats definitely the way I live, man,” he said. “From the time I wake up in the morning, Im itching for my next show to happen. It cant get here fast enough for me. I think thats the basic ingredient of New Orleans music. Our traditional music. Its really just happy music. A lot of other jazz players are very technical and concentrating on studying hard.
“We study hard, too, but what we most want to do is just get up there and experiment with the tunes that weve been playing for years and years.”
At this point in his career, in fact, having fun at work is a prerequisite.
“Thats really the only way I can do it anymore,” Ruffins said. “I do occasionally play a straight-ahead gig like a business meeting or a private party once in a while, where all theyre asking me for is background music, but Id rather get people up and dancing than just having dinner and listening. Id rather be in one of the New Orleans clubs, and Ill only take gigs in places that have a dance floor. There are places around the city that I played for years, but now I wont do it because nobodys dancing.”
The mandate for fun in performing traces back to a musical role model Louis Armstrong.
Though he grew up in a decade when Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and Madonna were at the top of late-teen playlists, Ruffins still vividly and emotionally recalled the moment when Armstrong a New Orleans icon became the be-all and end-all of his musical universe.
“When I started out playing, it was down on the streets in the French Quarter for tips, and wed sit and watch all the guys in suits going inside to play in the clubs,” he said. “I was watching one day when, all of a sudden, I heard one trumpet on the juke box. I was 19 or 20 years old, and it was Louis doing a solo on When Youre Smiling.
“I was so overwhelmed that I went that day and bought all the CDs of his that I could find. I started to watch videos all the time, and from then on, whenever my friends got together to play, wed be drinking, eating barbecue and watching Louis Armstrong.”
A visit earlier this year to “Satchmos” former home in New York since labeled a national landmark and transformed into a Queens College museum was similarly life-changing for Ruffins, who eagerly, and humbly, accepts any comparisons to his idol.
“I really cant put into words what that meant,” he said. “You look at the stairs out front where he would give lessons to neighborhood kids, and then you go through the house and see his rooms and press buttons and hear his conversations, it was so powerful for me. I was very choked up.
“Thats someone who really, really led one of Americas true art forms. He was really the cherry on top of New Orleans music. And now I see it being passed on to younger kids, and for me to have a role in that and to maybe do the things he did is so spiritual to me.”
Ruffins legacy-in-progress includes co-founding the Rebirth Brass Band in 1983. Rebirths creation was inspired by The Dirty Dozen Brass Band which was credited with bringing influences of funk and contemporary bebop into New Orleans style brass bands.
In 1992, he founded the Barbecue Swingers, a traditional jazz quintet that mixes music with another of his true loves, food.
That combination helped create his first release for Basin Street Records The Barbecue Swingers Live recorded at Tipitina’s in New Orleans on Nov. 14, 1997.
And now, hundreds of shows and barbecues later, prolonging the status of jazz in New Orleans is among Ruffins pet projects.
He consistently plays at venues that cater to the younger set and is often visible in the audience at local sporting events and other activities where some of the citys youth are performing.
“You can go out on any given night and see 30 or 40 bands playing,” he said. “All over the city, whether its at the schools or somewhere else, kids are still excited about this kind of music because its the tradition thats been handed down and its what theyve been listening to for years.”
His own school-age efforts as a performer, however, were something less than wholly endorsed.
“They made me take off my band uniform at a football game when I started playing that second-line music,” he said. “But things like that werent going to stop us. Wed be in school and itd be time for lunch and wed go straight to playing, we didnt even eat. We could usually get in two good songs before the principal shut us down.” Ironically, some three decades later, Ruffins has become one of the citys signature symbols.
He’ll play himself in an upcoming HBO series named “Treme” for the neighborhood and lifestyle essential to its musical and cultural history. The area was also inspiration for his most recent CD, “Livin a Treme Life” his seventh for Basin Street Records released in April.
The pilot episode produced by David Simon, creator of “The Wire” was shot in early 2009. Production for the remaining episodes of the first season began in November 2009, with a scheduled launch in April 2010.
Simon said “Treme” would reach beyond music to explore political corruption, public housing controversy, the crippled criminal-justice system, clashes between police and Mardi Gras Indians and the struggle to regain tourism after Hurricane Katrina.
“Every day, everyone would be working, making phone calls, hauling, building things up,” he said. “Then at night, when the city went dark and youd stop work to get something to eat, there was always a band playing on a porch. And for three hours, you could forget everything that happened.”
The CD, which includes 12 tracks blending original and cover material, reviewed well.
“Kermit Ruffins is one of the prime reasons why New Orleans is mending post-Katrina, bringing his good-time music to the people as an entertainer,” said All Music Guides Michael G. Nastos on Billboard.com, “As a trumpet player and singer of heritage jazz, soul, and popular music, he’s uplifting the spirit of Crescent City dwellers who are slowly but surely rebuilding their neighborhoods. This CD further defines that role.”
To cap off a busy year, the perpetually swinging Ruffins expects an early November release for his first holiday recording, which also features a blend of traditional staples and new songs all delivered via Ruffins playful lyrics and powerful rhythms.
“I always wanted to do a Christmas record. Its my favorite time of the whole year,” he said. “Every year around the holidays we do a party at the House of Blues and, as soon as one ends, Im always looking forward to the next one.”
And somewhere, the “next” Kermit Ruffins can take notes from a contented mentor.
“I sit back all the time,” he said, “and it amazes me to think, Man, we did it. We made it.
– Lyle Fitzsimmons