Jazz Times’ take on the blindfold test gives musicians a a chance to respond before and after they’re told what’s being played for them — this is from the magazine’s October 2014 brass issue.
For more than 20 years, trumpeter Kermit Ruffins’ name was synonymous with the raucous, legendarily late-night Thursday gigs he performed with his BBQ Swingers at Vaughn’s in New Orleans’ Bywater neighborhood. Since retiring from that residency last summer, he’s proudly courted a quieter lifestyle, sticking to early set times and focusing more on the traditional New Orleans jazz he fell in love with as a teenager.
Last year, he released an album of early jazz classics. Eschewing his usual addition of funk and R&B elements, he played straight-forward versions of tunes like “All of Me” and “When the Saints Go Marching In” with some of the city’s top traditional jazz players. (He also reigned in his proclivity for clowning around – except for the jokey title: “We Partyin’ Traditional Style.”)
Ruffins — who co-founded the Rebirth Brass Band in 1983 before quitting a few years later to play more traditional music — is currently working on plans to record a new album with the Louisiana Philharmonic. We met for this listening session on a storm-soaked summer day at his Treme club, Kermit’s Mother-in-Law Lounge. Revitalized and renamed for its new proprietor following the deaths of its original owners, R&B singer, Ernie K. Doe, and his wife, Antoinette, the club’s sound system was pumping out soul grooves for a handful of patrons when I arrived. We conducted the session in a rental apartment above the club, where Ruffins dipped into a bucket’s worth of ice cold Bud Lights and sang or scatted whenever a tune moved him.
1.) Dr. John and the Dirty Dozen, “When You’re Smiling,” from “Ske-Dat-De-Dat …The Spirit Of Satch.” Dr. John, piano, vocals; Gregory Davis, trumpet; Roger Lewis, baritone sax; Kevin Harris, tenor sax; Terence Higgins, drums; Efrem Townes, trumpet; Kirk Joseph, tuba. Recorded in 2013.
BEFORE: Who is that? “When You’re Smiling” with a Latin groove. There’s a lot of wah-wah. I have that song on my list for my next CD with the symphony. That’s not James Andrews? No it’s not James. Dr. John. Who’s that playing on trumpet? Is that the tribute to Louis CD? I played at BAM with Dr. John and I played on his last record.
AFTER: I should have figured that out. Couldn’t tell. That trumpet solo doesn’t sound like any of the Dirty Dozen. It had to be Efrem [Townes]. I’m doing that song with the symphony on my next record.
2.) Preservation Hall Jazz Band, “Love Song of the Nile,” from “Jazz at Preservation Hall, Vol. 2,” from the “Preservation Hall Jazz Band 50th anniversary box set. De De Pierce, trumpet; Louis Nelson trombone; George Lewis clarinet; Billie Piece, piano, vocal; Papa John Joseph, bass, Abbey Chinee Foster, drums. Recorded in 1962, re-released in 2012. Anniversary Collection.”
BEFORE: That sounds traditional. Beautiful clarinet there. I’ve heard this lady sing 1,000 times on WWOZ. Old-school, that’s that doghouse music. Sounds like Preservation Hall. Nobody plays like that but the Hall. That’s a funky band, too. It sounds old but it sounds modern. A lot of that good stuff always sounds like it was made yesterday. The drummer sounds so fresh as far as the recording.
AFTER: It’s my favorite music, for sure. I’ve been going in that direction because I know I’m getting older. I’ll make 50 this year and I don’t want to record nothing that’s real hot because when I get older I’m not gonna be able to play it. So I’m recording all traditional stuff, stuff that I grew up loving first. I would have never guessed DeDe Pierce. That was way before my time. I never met those guys. I would go see the Olympia Brass Band on Sundays with Tuba Fats. The lady piano player and her husband, he’s a trumpet player. I thought it was another tune. But I can listen to that stuff all day. I wake up to that stuff every morning, listening to WWOZ. That’s my getting stuff done music.
3.) Miles Davis Quintet, “Basin Street Blues” from “7 Steps to Heaven.” Miles Davis, trumpet; Ron Carter, bass; Victor Feldman, piano; Frank Butler, drums; George Coleman, tenor sax. Recorded in 1963.
BEFORE: That’s Miles. I saw Miles twice in Nice. Beautiful. Is that the intro for “Love for Sale?” [Singing] Dab dobo dee. I’d have to hear the bass on that again – if I don’t hear the bass I don’t have the slightest idea what’s going on. I wish I had the patience to play like this. The guy is just so patient. “Come Rain or Come Shine?” No, it keeps fooling the hell out of me.
AFTER: Wow. He’s playing the rrrrreal “Basin Street Blues.” It’s sad we can’t find this late-night anymore, somebody playing like this, midnight til three. It would be great if somebody would reinvent that. Boy, it would be nice if someone would start at midnight and stick to this groove. It’s so hard to get people out nowadays that late that’s true to the music. You get a bunch of knuckleheads, no real jazz players. This is how it would sound – real laid back nightclub, midnight to three. That’s Miles’ style. I know he was living that life, too. All the musicians back in the days would go on at midnight and refuse to stop. They stayed so true to the craft.
I’m hearing it now. Basin Street … is the street … It’s funny, I remember when Wynton Marsalis tried to walk onstage in Nice while Miles was playing, Miles stopped the band and said, “You can’t just walk onstage like that.” I think that was the first time I met Wynton. And then, I think it was at North Sea, I remember Dizzy Gillespie came out of the elevator and just fell down on the floor for about five minutes. Everybody was like, “Dizzy! Oh my god!” Then he jumped up! And he was like, [Kermit throws his hands up above his head and screams] “Aahh!” I’m like,“What is going on this lobby?” I didn’t know those cats were so hilarious.
3.) “Take ‘Em To the Moon, Rebirth Brass Band from “Move Your Body.” Phil Frazier, tuba; Keith Frazier, bass drum; Derrick Tabb, snare drum; Stafford Agee, trombone; Gregory Veals, trombone; Derrick “Kabukie” Shezbie, trumpet; Chadrick Honore, trumpet; Vincent Broussard, sax. Recorded in 2014.
BEFORE: That sounds like one of the young brass bands. That sounds like some stuff I started. The Rebirth. When we came along we changed the whole style of brass bands. That’s the Rebirth – once I heard Derrick Tabb in there. That’s one of the tunes I never remember hearing though. Old Stafford [Agee] on trombone right here. That’d be Chad [Honore] on trumpet. Sounds like at least two trumpet players trading eights or something. Yeah, I heard that on the jukebox downstairs just the other day, it’s all coming back now.
AFTER: It’s badass. Sounds like Derrick Tabb wrote that one and Kabukie [Derrick Shezbie] made the front part. I think Derrick Tabb invented the ending. I think the trumpets were trading, you take four measures, I take four measures, you just go around the solo then it saves the trumpet players’ lips. Makes the gig a lot easier – that’s what they do a lot on the road a lot when they have a lot of tunes and solos, they’ll start trading just to save lips.
4.) “Magnolia Triangle,” Stanton Moore from “Conversations.” Stanton Moore drums, David Torkanowsky, piano; James Singleton, bass. Recorded in 2014.
BEFORE: It’s a hot piano player but I can’t figure it out. It wouldn’t be Davell [Crawford] playing that straight-ahead. I love that timing though. Sounds like they’re switching time. It goes from 4/4 for a minute then switches to 6/8 but it might be deceiving though. That Herlin Riley? Shannon Powell? It’s so smoky. I know that’s not Adonis [Rose], Adonis is a lot faster than that. This is so precise. It’s not fallin’ off anywhere. Most drummers will fall off – just for one second except for Herlin.
Herlin’s the only cat I know that don’t fall off, just stays right there. Zero change when it comes out to Herlin he’s like a machine. It’s scary. I can’t tell if the piano or the drummer is the leader. Goddammit.
AFTER: Stanton! Oh I should have known that was Tork. I couldn’t figure it out. Tork played on so many gigs with me and so many CDs. But I would have never figured Stanton because I kept thinkin’ about brothers for some reason. Sounds like a brother [laughs]. Tork is always badass. He’s one of those guys that just is always super, it’s never to the point where, like some days I got good days and some days I just can’t play that damn trumpet to save my life. If I have a good day I try to repeat everything I did that day – the way I slept, what I ate, what I drank, the time I started drinking … Tork he’s always hot. Stanton is a badass.
5.) Shannon Powell, “Powell’s Place” from “Powell’s Place.” Shannon Powell, drums and percussion; Jason Marsalis, vibraphone; Roland Guerin, bass. Recorded in 2005.
BEFORE: Oh, that’s gotta be Herlin. Jason [Marsalis]? So melodic. Is this Shannon? Yeah, Jason on vibes. Is that the Ray Charles album? Is that an original tune?
AFTER: Shannon’s badass with the rim shots. He does that shit constantly. I can see his face without even being there. I love Jason too. When Wynton Marsalis played at the Saenger about a year ago, I hired Jason to get Wynton to come over there. But Wynton never made it [laughs]. I thought, “I’ll get his little brother to play at my joint right after the show is over,” but he went to Snug Harbor. That’s where his dad plays every Friday.
6.) “Black, Brown and Beige: West Indian Dance,” the Duke Ellington Orchestra from “Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, the Treasury Shows, Vol. 2.” Recorded in 1945.
Before: Oh, this is my kinda shit right here. Old big bands. Is that Duke? I was so hooked on black and white videos of big bands for a long time. That stuff’s amazing. That’s what I need to be doing now, to recap, come back and play that stuff nice and loud, watching get right back into the groove. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Commodores and Lionel Richie.
AFTER: Duke Ellington – that song sounds like he’s on a train ride. That’s how he traveled. They asked him, ‘Why do you travel on the train?’ He said, ‘The President travels on the train.’ And he was a hell of an arranger. There’s nothing like that today. That tune would be right for a Broadway show or something. And that is one well-rehearsed ass band I tell you. Jeez. Those trumpet players are so precise — and the sax.
7.) “Whistle For Willie,” Jason Marsalis from “In a World of Mallets.” Jason Marsalis, vibes, whistle, glockenspiel, marimba, tubular bells, xylophone; Will Goble, bass; Austin Johnson, piano; Dave Potter, drums. Recorded in 2013.
BEFORE: Whoa, is that a wooden flute? That’s nobody I know. That is beautiful. I want to Pandora that, see what the hell comes up then. I love his breathing, too. He’s suckin’ in –my whistle is better when I’m suckin’ instead of blowing out. I’m gonna try that one time. He’s humming in the background too, that is crazy. They call that body huffs when you’re playing the trombone, a lot of saxophone players do it too. Same type of playing but going a step or half a step above, where you play the horn at the same time you go ’woo’ with your vocals. It’s an incredible sound. That’s some bad shit, who was that?
AFTER: Jason? No goddamn way. I would have never guessed Jason. That’s what I get for not listening. It reminds me of one of my favorite musicians, Eddie Jefferson. The way he was hitting those riffs and that style of the band. He took the solos of Miles, Coltrane and others and put words to them. He did stuff like, [Ruffins sings] “Come reminisce with me, and think about the Bird. Remember everything he did and all the things you heard. Now don’t it just amaze you, get you down inside. To think of how he had to live and then the way he died. Life was so unkind, ‘cause now could have been his time.”
He’d take that horn solo and put words all the way through. [Singing] “There is a tune that really grooves you. here is a tune that really moves you. Oh yessiree, yessiree, I heard the word” … Crazy. Nothing can beat Eddie. There’s Louis and there’s Eddie. I mean that is just the most incredible stuff ever. The only way I know Miles Davis’ solos all the way through is because of Eddie.
8.) “Buzzin Around with the Bee,” the Lionel Hampton Orchestra from “Lionel Hampton and his Orchestra, The Complete Lionel Hampton 1937 – 1941.” Lionel Hampton, vibes and vocals; Cootie Williams, trumpet; Lawrence Brown, trombone; Mezz Mezzrow, clarinet; Johnny Hodges, alto sax; Jess Stacy, piano; Allen Reuss, guitar; john Kirby, bass; Cozy Cole, drums. Recorded in 1937.
BEFORE: Lionel Hampton. I love the old timers. I’m stuck on that. I’ve watched Lionel Hampton so much on old videotapes and then I saw him live in Nice. It was a blessing that I was young enough to really get out there and see everybody.
AFTER: Beautiful. I had a gig with the orchestra here in New Orleans and Lionel Hampton was on the date with me. He was real old, you know. It was a tribute to Louis, I think. Anyway, Lionel didn’t know what he was gonna play. And I had like three songs, “Sleepytime Down South,” “What a Wonderful World” and something else, I don’t remember. And Lionel heard me play – “What a Wonderful Wold” I think — and he came out of the dressing room and he said, “I’m gonna do that song.” So I no longer was doing that song [laughs]. It was a privilege to me you know, Lionel Hampton stole my song. That was the good old days. Lionel could get that.
9.) “Basin Street Blues,” Louis Armstrong from “Young Louis Armstrong, 1930 – 1933.” Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocals; Ellis Whitlock, Ziner T. Randolph, trumpet; Keg Johnson, trombone; Scoville Brown, George Oldham, alto sax; Albert “Bud” Johnson, tenor sax; Teddy Wilson, piano; Mike McHendrick, banjo; John Bill Oldham, tuba, bass; Yank Porter, drums. Recorded in 1933.
BEFORE: Louis. Yeah, Louis. I stole so much stuff from Pops. That’s just so classy. That true American artform. It was just so classy at the beginning you know? You could only pray and wish for that stuff to still be here – played like that and felt like that. That soul, for one, it’s just not here no more.
AFTER: It must have been tough for guys to feel like that, like Louis, in those days, and then play so incredibly well like he does here. It’s almost like how can you make such great music during those times? At the same time, it’s almost like he had to prove a point, like he’s saying, “hey we’re just as good as you,” without even saying a goddamn thing. A lot of those guys were excellent players and excellent human beings. What’s our motivation in today’s world? It’s there but it’s not something you can compare to those guys to be able to produce something so spiritual. To take some European instruments and invent something that’s so spectacular is amazing. My level of words just can’t even describe what my heart and soul feel when I hear that music.
Any jazz musician would love to come up in those times without all the pain that was going on for them back then. Because jazz was the shit. And now, today we have all this other music – there’s a lot of competition. But any jazz musician would kill to come up in the 30s and 40s with the attention and the popularity that jazz had at that time. At the same time, nobody would want to go back to the racism that was happening in those days. That music brought this country together when they were down. Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis? That was the beginning of, “Hey man, let’s stop all this bullshit about a superior race.” People like Frank Sinatra started saying,
“We’re not gonna perform here if Sammy can’t come in. We’re not staying at this hotel if Sammy can’t come in.” Music is one of the things in life and history that brings people together and makes people realize that we all are one. It’s important. I just wish that music could do what it did for the United States for the rest of the world right now.