I just returned from a long weekend in New Orleans, the second-greatest city in the U.S. South. One of my chief aims while in NOLA was to see Kermit Ruffins, an absolutely amazing trumpet player, co-founder of the legendary Rebirth Brass Band and, more recently, a regular star on the HBO series "Treme." Before I left Memphis for grad school, I used to make trips to New Orleans fairly often, and I both first discovered Kermit Ruffins and saw him play several times at Vaughan's Lounge back in the day. But this trip was my first return to the Crescent City since moving back to Memphis. My friends and I were lucky enough to be able to see Ruffins play at a great, medium-sized club on Frenchman Street called the Blue Nile, where we literally got to stand less than 10 feet away from the band. (The picture of Kermit Ruffins to the left was taken by me from just that position.) And, just as I remembered, he was nothing short of a-maaaa-zing.
Now, this will come as no surprise to readers of this blog, but I love, love, LOVE good music. In general, I've never really been a huge fan of jazz, though I have always considered Bebop, lounge standards, and New Orleans jazz as exceptions to that general rule. New Orleans jazz is all about the horns-- and for all of the love and respect I give to the Memphis horns sound, there simply isn't anything like New Orleans horns. And as horns go, there isn't anything quite like Kermit's trumpet. So, when Kermit finally took the stage at the Blue Nile, and we found ourselves right on the front row, I just didn't think it could get any better than that.
But it did.
Now rivaling my experience last year at B.B. King's for Greatest Music Experience EVER is my night at the Blue Nile with Kermit Ruffins. Just after his first set, my friend Elizabeth and decided we would try to go over and talk to Kermit while he was on break (eating boiled crawfish on the side of the stage), which was a surprsingly easy thing to do as it turned out. I immediately told Kermit all the things that star-struck fans do, including the fact that I used to watch him play at Vaughan's and that his version of "St. James Infirmary" was what made me fall in love with the song. He was just as friendly as his on-stage persona would suggest, and he chatted us up about New Orleans and Memphis and music and food. At some point, I returned to the bar for a refill and left Elizabeth talking to Kermit. Then, about 10 minutes later, one of Kermit's people came over and said he wanted to talk to me again. Whaaaa?
So I went back over behind the stage, where Kermit said to me: "Your friend says you can sing. Where do you sing in Memphis?" I told him that I sometimes sing at Wild Bill's, to which he responded with a smile and a "aaaaahhhh, yeah, Wild Bill's. That's some blues, right?" I said yeah, and told him he should stop in there the next time he's in Memphis. Then, Kermit asked: "You want to sing one with us tonight?"
[This space stands in for my utterly indescribable moment of simultaneous elation and panic. Really, there are no words.]
Of course I said yes, yes, YES!, I would love to sing one with him. He was so very nonchalant about it as he went back to munching on his crawfish and said: "Well, don't get too far from the front and we'll call you up later." I was just about to walk off when two things occured to me: (1) I don't sing jazz, I sing blues. And (2) why does he think I can sing? I mean, I'm just some chick whose friend says she can sing. (You would think that a girl needs a little bit more than the word of an anonymous, intoxicated recommender to get on stage with Kermit.) So, stupidly, I turned back and said to Kermit: "How do you even know I can sing?" He said: "Oh yeah, right. Well sing me something now. Sing some of St. James." So, I did. And that was that.
He did call me up in the second set, and I did get to sing a number with him. Yeah, that's right, I GOT TO DO A NUMBER WITH KERMIT RUFFINS! Here's my photo evidence.
In the end, Kermit Ruffins was just as kind and funny and talented and down-to-earth as I had hoped he would be. And, just as I expected, he played a mean horn all night long. It used to be the case that a lot of Memphis music included horns as well, but that's not as true anymore-- though random sax players still regularly sit in at Wild Bill's. It's too bad, really, because horns make everything better... kind of like a Hammond B3 or a pedal steel does, in my opinion. (Right outside of the Blue Nile there was an incredible, probably 12+ piece, brass band playing on the street corner. And I can attest that if one horn is good, twelve horns will practically make you want to quit your job and live in a box on Frenchman Street.) At any rate, my night with my friends and Kermit now counts as one of those things that, if I had such a list, I would PROUDLY and CONSPICUOUSLY cross off of my Bucket List.