**Celebrating the music of New Orleans for Mardi Gras week**
As part of their 2018 series marking the tricentennial of the city of New Orleans and highlighting “300 people who have made New Orleans New Orleans”, The Times-Picayune, the city’s local newspaper, ran a feature on beloved local trumpeter and vocalist Kermit Ruffins which began, “If, by some stroke of divine animation, the city of New Orleans were given human form, one has to think it would look and sound a whole lot like Kermit Ruffins.” Man, I love that description. Yeah, Kermit does seem like the appropriate embodiment for the city, it’s totally unique culture, it’s talent, it’s joy, and for damn sure, it’s attitude.
It’s funny for New Orleanians who’ve seen him since he was a kid to think that now at age 54 Kermit has reached elder-statesman status in town. Growing up in New Orleans’ historically musical and culture-rich Treme neighborhood, Kermit started playing trumpet in 8th grade and then co-founded the Rebirth Brass band while still in high school, where they often busked around the French Quarter for tips, long before they’d revitalized the city’s entire brass band ethos, establishing themselves as one of the modern musical institutions of New Orleans, and playing all over the world.¹ After nearly a decade with Rebirth, Ruffins went off on his own, and in 1992 formed the group he still fronts today, Kermit Ruffins & The Barbecue Swingers, a more traditional jazz quintet, and without question one of the most consistently compelling acts in New Orleans or beyond, chiefly because of their rambunctious and charismatic leader.
I’ve seen Kermit live on many occasions – from Brooklyn to Atlantic City to all over numerous spots in New Orleans. Once on a late Sunday afternoon, at his own short-lived joint on Basin Street, Kermit’s Speakeasy, I brought my friends Duck, Kap, Cek & Hoosh and we joined Kermit and his crew pre-show for some barbecue and Saints football watching – neither greatly surprising as Ruffins, as his band name would indicate, is a renowned barbecue enthusiast, known to fire up his grill outside many of his shows, and is also an unapologetic, die-hard Saints fan, no doubt still pissed about the non-pass interference call against the Rams that cost the Saints a trip to this year’s Super Bowl.
But that seems to be about the only thing that could possibly piss Kermit off: His beaming smile is ever-present, the only thing as likely to be in his hand as his trumpet is a Bud Light, and when he beckons “All aboard!” on stage, it always portends a party. Jon Pareles, prominent music critic for the New York Times, wrote of Kermit, “Mr. Ruffins is an unabashed entertainer who plays trumpet with a bright, silvery tone, sings with off-the-cuff charm, and never gets too abstruse² in his material.” That same attitude was readily on display when Kermit, portraying himself, appeared as a recurring character in David Simon’s 2010-2013 HBO series “Treme.” In one particularly memorable scene, a friend (played by Steve Zahn) is trying to convince Kermit to seize an opportunity to meet Elvis Costello, who’s present outside one of his shows, but to Zahn’s growing frustration Ruffins demurs:
Zahn: Could you stand there telling me that all you wanna do is get high, play some trumpet, and barbecue in New Orleans your whole damn life?
Ruffins (after a long pause): That’ll work
I laughed my ass off at that line (and especially with his delivery), because to me it so perfectly encapsulated Kermit, his lifestyle, and in the broader context, his hometown, the one known to many as The City That Care Forgot. Kermit, as well as anyone, knows New Orleans life, and knows he’s already got it made, just like it is. And tellingly, he’s been equally clear with how he wants to be sent off someday whenever his life comes to an end in his blessed city. His 2002 song ‘When I Die (You Better Second Line)’ contains this sterling example of “Kermitude”: “You better strike up the band every day of the week / parade my soul up and down the street.” That’ll work, Kermit.
Our clip features Kermit & his oddball group of Swingers in a 2012 rendition of his 2001 song, predictably on a familiar subject, ‘Drop Me Off In New Orleans’, performed within the famously mobile “Jam in the Van” at Bonaroo. Kermit, as always, arrives in impeccably good cheer and with a Bud Light in hand, and throughout his singing, scatting, trumpet-blowing, goofing, and distinctive band introductions, somehow still maintains a carefree 7-minute grin. I bet you will too.
¹My son’s band, Tundrastomper, actually had the good fortune to open for them twice for shows in New York City.
²I had to look up ‘abstruse’ and found that in choosing that word – defined as “Difficult to understand; obscure” – Pareles had arguably himself been abstruse.
“That’ll work” scene from “Treme”
Kermit has hit the big time in at least one recent way, dueting on ‘Bare Necessities’ with none other than Bill Murray in Disney’s 2016 remake of “The Jungle Book”