I’m embarrassed to admit that I sought out Kermit Ruffins’s St. Philip Street Jazz And Blues Club when I was in New Orleans last year. I had already heard Astral Project and Charmaine Neville on two successive nights at Snug Harbor, and I was ready to try another club. Well, after I crossed Rampart Street in the dark, the walk became stranger and stranger. The school on the right side of the street was marked "No Gun Zone," a sofa crossed the sidewalk, domestic arguments could be heard from open doors, and tires squealed as a car tore around the corner. I changed my mind, crossed St. Philip Street, and crept as quickly as I could along the fence confining Louis Armstrong Park. Within minutes, I was again in the relative safety of the French Quarter, if "safety" is the appropriate word for streets filled with all kinds of aggressive people offering selective favors (at negotiated rates) to tourists and conventioneers. The next day, someone confirmed that I had wandered into "The Projects." I never did get to hear Kermit Ruffins play that night.
But Kermit Ruffins has done a favor for his enthusiasts, as well as for those who enjoy New Orleans jazz for the sheer fun of it. For, in terms of fun, Ruffins is right in the tradition of Crescent City musicians who would be just as happy playing for an audience of one, as for an auditorium of a thousand, as long as he is able to spread his cheer through the sounds of his trumpet.
In many respects, Ruffins is a direct descendant of Louis Armstrong, not only in his licks and vibrato, but also in his scat singing, as on the song "Big Easy." A song like "When I Die (You Better Second Line)" is a direct reference to the New Orleans funeral parade, complete with call and response and street-march strut, the loss mixed with rapture. Ruffins’s is an untrained voice that’s completely suited to the New Orleans clubs, where having a good time is as important as complex technical skills. So, "Palm Court Street" exists as much for the opportunity to get a crowd to clap and dance as for passive listening, especially when the lyrics encourage listeners to "swing your butt," not once, but twice. And then to "swing it to the left, swing it to the right."
Ruffins’s regular band, the Barbecue Swingers, comprise what one would expect of a New Orleans band, minus perhaps a clarinet player. Corey Henry on trombone especially adds a vocalistic character to the group that grabs the audience’s attention. When an all-out rag is called for, as on "Tiger Rag," the Barbecue Swingers waste no time jumping into the fray before they come out swinging. On some of the numbers, like "Skokiaan" and "Stardust," Ruffins adds strings for a fuller effect, but none of his energy or extroversion is diminished; rather, those characteristics are enhanced when Ruffins comes in with his assertive and round tone.
As the good times roll, it becomes evident why Ruffins admires Louis Jordan as well. While Ruffins’s lyrics aren’t quite as witty as Jordan’s, or as tongue-twisting, the primary rule of rollicking entertainment is consistent throughout Big Easy.
This is particularly true when Ruffins recruits his daughters, Christina and Neshia, not only to sing on "Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner," but also to write the lyrics: "I wish I had my own sweet shop. I’d be eating taffy and lollipop. Maybe drink a six pack of soda pop, if I had my very own sweet shop." Papa Ruffins takes the second chorus: "You better eat your breakfast. Eat your lunch! Eat your dinner too. No more candy. No more cake. Nothing but some good soul food!" Then Ruffins ends Big Easy
with his first attempts at rapping, supported soulfully by Denon Smith and Henry on background vocals, and no doubt leaving the audience clapping for more.
It’s my understanding that Ruffins’s club at 1533 St. Philip Street is no more and that he’s performing once again on Thursdays at Vaughan’s. But Big Easy
lets us hear what we’ve been missing from Ruffins and his supporting cast of characters, including the Barbecue Swingers, B-3 organist Davell Crawford, vocalists Juanita Brooks and Albert Weston, banjo player Detroit Brooks, saxophonist Eric Traub and sit-in drummer Herlin Riley. At a time when fellow New Orleans native Wynton Marsalis is accused of taking the spontaneity and originality out of jazz and making it presentable for the more refined Lincoln Center audiences, who would just as soon attend a ballet or an opera the next night, Kermit Ruffins bases his music geographically in the city and squarely in the tradition where jazz began.