New Orleans-based trumpeter, bandleader, singer, and songwriter Kermit Ruffins is an ever-inventive musician who projects a warmth from the stage. He's got charisma, so as a consequence, he and his bandmates in the Barbecue Swingers are not in danger of overexposing themselves in their native Crescent City. Ruffins, born in 1964 in New Orleans, reminds many people of a sort of modern-day Louis Armstrong, though he's far from becoming the international ambassador of goodwill that Armstrong eventually became. Fortunately for fans of contemporary New Orleans music and the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Ruffins, a mainstay of both arenas, was picked up and marketed and distributed by the Crescent City-based Basin Street Records, which has issued a steady stream of very well-recorded albums by Ruffins and his Barbecue Swingers into the 21st century.
He formed the Barbecue Swingers in 1992. Ruffins initially signed with Justice Records in Houston, Texas, in the mid-'90s, releasing Hold on Tight for that label in 1995. His releases for Basin Street Records include Big Easy in 2002, 1533 St. Philip Street in 2001, Swing This! in 1999, and Barbecue Swingers Live in 1997. Interestingly, Ruffins was not raised in a jazz- or blues-centric environment. Growing up, he listened to popular black music on the radio, groups like the Commodores, Al Green, and all the groups that received airplay on black radio stations in the South in the 1970s. He began playing trumpet as a young teenager, but didn't discover the possibilities of jazz and blues until, at the age of 19, he first heard Louis Armstrong. For tips with a school buddy in Jackson Square, a touristy area of New Orleans close to the Mississippi River, he began playing songs by Armstrong and other classic jazz figures associated with New Orleans. With several of his fellow students from high school, Ruffins started the Rebirth Brass Band. That band led to Kermit Ruffins & the Barbecue Swingers.
While Ruffins projects a certain warmth on-stage in a small club in New Orleans, and freely jokes with his bandmates and his audience through the course of a show, his studio outings offer glimpses into his abilities as a bandleader and songwriter. Ruffins writes about what he knows. He'll pick up a phrase he overhears in New Orleans and turn that into a memorable song. One example of this is his song "When I Die, You Better Second Line," a phrase he'd heard the old men at Joe's Cozy Corner repeat numerous times through the years. Ruffins is famous at home in New Orleans for his frequent barbecue bashes at the bars he and his band perform in. Weather permitting, he'll set up his grill on the sidewalk in front of a club and serve bar staff, bandmembers, and patrons some barbecued chicken or beef during the breaks between his usual three sets. Hence the name Barbecue Swingers. As of yet, Ruffins hasn't figured out a way to take this aspect of his show on the road. Ruffins had his own club for a short time in New Orleans, but was forced to close it after tourism fell off sharply after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S.
In recent years, Ruffins and his band have been able to take their act out on the road on summer weekends, playing at festivals in Florida, California, Colorado, New York City, and Cape May, New Jersey. At these events, they've been able to sell more compact discs than they would at home in New Orleans. Live shows from Ruffins & the Barbecue Swingers are what it's all about. Until he puts his trumpet to his mouth, he said, he has no idea what he'll play on any given night. But through years of performing in New Orleans and other places, he's learned to be a careful reader of his audience. He'll work with his band to deliver the kind of music he figures a given audience is in the mood for. In truth, Ruffins became kind of a goodwill ambassador for post-Katrina New Orleans, bridging traditional Crescent City jazz with a fresh, contemporary feel in albums like 2013's We Partyin' Traditional Style, and doing it all with both reverence and joy. ~ Richard Skelly & Steve Leggett