Kermit Ruffins needs only two words to hype a New Orleans barroom for one of his weekly shows, and this, his newly adopted slogan, sums up what this Big Easy ambassador is all about. If he isn’t busy playing himself in the HBO Series Tremé, cooking soul food at his restaurant Kermit’s Tremé Speakeasy or promoting the rights of New Orleans music venues, the trumpeter/vocalist is undoubtedly on a stage doing what he does best—entertaining people and having a good time. But he did not come by his gifts easily. He watched videos of Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway until the tape wore out, busked the streets of the French Quarter and apprenticed on stages with local legends “Uncle” Lionel Batiste and Danny Barker.
While still in high school, he co-founded the Rebirth Brass Band – a group that revolutionized the brass band community in New Orleans with songs like “Do Watcha Wanna” that have become anthems.
But after less than a decade fronting the band and touring the world, Ruffins tired of the road. He missed the culture at home so much that he traveled, like fellow New Orleans icon Fats Domino, with cooking equipment and prepared his favorite foods in hotel rooms far and wide.
He made a bold and risky decision to leave Rebirth and go solo, having no guarantees the public would embrace his new direction. At the time there were very few young musicians playing traditional jazz. Nearly all the backing musicians on his first album were decades older.
Now, Kermit Ruffins and the BBQ Swingers are a beloved institution – a must-see for every New Orleans visitor and a favorite of local critics and music lovers. As he’d helped spur the formation of new brass bands in his 20s, he’s since influenced the city’s musical direction in the 21st century.
On his newest album, We Partyin’ Traditional Style!, Ruffins recruited the finest in traditional New Orleans Jazz to assist him with some of his favorite 20th century classics such as, “Jeepers Creepers” and “Over the Waves.” He shows his support for a younger generation of musicians singing a duet of “All of Me” with vocalist Mykia Jovan. Ruffins boasts his own raspy voice and pays tribute to one of his biggest idols with “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” a song frequently regarded as Satchmo’s own theme song. The album triumphantly closes with the anthem of New Orleans, “When the Saints go Marching In,” adding (along with his 2009 single, “All I Want for Christmas is The Saints in the Superbowl”) to his New Orleans Saints-supporting repertoire.
Every year Ruffins ebullient attitude and love of his hometown music firms his reputation as the New Orleans idol. Dedicated to preserving and passing on the tradition of jazz, he is often compared to his own hero, Louis Armstrong.
On his likeness to “Satch” Kermit says, “That’s someone who really, really led one of America’s 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.
” Whether he’s slinging Bar-B-Q, adding to his collection of fedoras, or playing at one of his five regular weekly shows in New Orleans, Kermit Ruffins does it with joy and passion. It’s an attitude befitting of any true New Orleanian, and it can be summed up in two simple words: We Partyin’!