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Celebrating and honoring the true spirit of New Orleans

9th December 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
Contributing Writer

Not Just Another Thursday Night – Kermit Ruffins and Vaughan’s Lounge
By Jay Mazza

(Threadhead Press)

Author Jay Mazza has the title right – there was nothing ordinary about the weekly, Thursday-nights gigs at Vaughan’s Lounge with the always-affable trumpeter/vocalist Kermit Ruffins. For 20 years, it was a scene the likes of which will doubtfully ever take place again.

To paraphrase the always- quotable Dr. John, it was the right place, at the right time involving the right people with the right free-wheelin’ attitude.

When it started, Ruffins was just steppin’ out on his own after great success with the Rebirth Brass Band. Vaughan’s co-owner and manager Cindy Wood, possessed a let it fly temperament that perfectly matched the bandleader’s laissez-faire, let’s have fun spirit. The result was what locals dubbed Kermit at Vaughan’s (or as one former doorman called it, Vern’s). It swung like crazy and provided much hilarity at the unlikely locale of Dauphine and Lessepps streets in the Bywater.

Obviously a frequent patron, Mazza captures the flair and uniqueness of Ruffins’ shows at the small, usually jam-packed, rather ramshackle corner bar through his own and others’ experiences. “Who is Mick Jagger?” Mazza hilariously quotes Ruffins asking Wood after hearing that the world-renowned leader of the Rolling Stones was coming in one night. Jagger was just one of the stars including trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Wynton Marsalis who found their way down to the Ninth Ward to get in on the action at Vaughan’s.

While the book, a quick read at 137 pages, certainly focuses on Ruffins and Vaughan’s, it tells a further story about the evolution of the city, its neighborhoods, its music, its vibe during this era. Many artistic folk, Bohemians or hippies, if you will, were still living in the French Quarter with the Bywater primarily a blue-collar working-class neighborhood. Vaughan’s seemed a million miles away to go hear music. But “they” came and eventually, when the Quarter became too rich for struggling artists to survive, folks moved down river with Vaughan’s becoming a musical anchor.

The musicians in Ruffins’ ever-evolving Barbecue Swingers also brought their individual influences and styles to an often new, young audience at Vaughan’s. Through extensive interviews, Mazza ties together how then-young upstarts like drummer Derrick Freeman struggled yet grew to respect his elder, the wise and wonderful bassist Richard Payne. The narrative tells how Kevin Morris, who followed Payne in the bass position, discovered a new world after joining Ruffins. The bassist, who remains in the band, had been playing modern jazz with greats like pianist Ed Frank, saxophonist Fred Kemp and drummer Smokey Johnson. Morris is quoted as remembering how veteran bassist Peter “Chuck” Badie, a Vaughan’s regular, would eyeball him when he wanted to sit in and play. Badie was among the late-night crew that included Mardi Gras Indian Chief Donald Harrison Sr. and club owner/Jazz Fest producer Charlie Bering who could usually be found holding court “after hours” at the bar.

Pianist Emile Vinette, another elder statesman in the early edition of the Barbecue Swingers, brought a wonderful element of modern jazz to Ruffins’ group. Vinette, as Ruffins tells it, would sometimes get frustrated when his young bandmates started clowning and the music got sloppy. The pianist would then, says Kermit, stare down the band and play some “thick” chords. While folks were literally ducking under trombonist Corey Henry’s slide, he remembers how much he learned musically during those many, wild and crazy nights that continued until the wee hours of the morning.

Kermit Ruffins at Vaughan’s Lounge joyfully documents the pure fun and totally New Orleans experience of spending Thursdays at the Bywater club. In doing so, it also throws in a big dose of history about the music, politics and philosophies that defined the times.

Jerod ‘Big Chief Rody’ Lewis

Jerod “Big Chief Rody” Lewis of the uptown Black Eagles Mardi Gras Indian gang was a big man with a big voice. He was a presence when he took to the streets and boomed one of his signature songs, “Noooo, no, no, no, no no, Joe don’t want to go.” Big Chief Rody, died on November 25, 2013 at the age of 49.

“I don’t know who that song was in reference to,” says his sister Yolanda Lewis who, like her brother Jerod, began masking in 1967 with the Black Eagles, which was led by their legendary father, Percy “Big Chief Pete” Lewis. Rody first entered the gang as a Chief Scout and the next year held the title of Little Chief. He took over the gang on the death of his father who passed on November 3, 1981. His older sister, Yolanda was named Queen of the Black Eagles her first year of masking Indian.

Yolanda remembers another of Chief Rody’s signature tunes that was dedicated to their father and mother, Curley, who died just three months after her husband on Mardi Gras night, February 23, 1982. “He’d sing, ‘Pete came early, Curley came early. I’m doing your duty.’”

“He loved singing – that was his passion,” says Yolanda adding that her brother improvised rather than wrote down the lyrics of his songs many of which have become Black Indian standards. When Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday grew near, he’d always sing, “I’m gonna tell you about a great man,” with the Black Eagle gang, in the traditional call-and-response style, responding by repeating King’s name between verses.

On entering the memorial service to celebrate Lewis’ life at the Abundant Life Tabernacle Full Gospel Baptist Church, a recording of Big Chief Rody singing, “No, no, no, no, no, no,” made the Chief feel nearby. On two screens, his image in his beautiful suits and with his family, loomed above those who came to pay their respects. “He don’t bow down, he don’t know how,” declared Cherice “Queen Ressie” Harrison, after making a presentation to the family from the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame. “You know there’s going to be a big Indian practice in heaven on Sunday,” she declared.

“He had a passion for clowning and cooking and singing,” says Yolanda. “He just adored his children. That was his world – his children.”

Lewis, who grew up in the Calliope housing project, was proud to have participated in the historic 1998 recording United We Stand, Divided We Fall, a CD by Indians of the Nation that brought together six big chiefs from across the city. Each was hand chosen for their remarkable vocal abilities. In recent years, he was also heard performing with the Mardi Gras Indian Orchestra.

A funeral service for Jerod “Big Chief Rody” Lewis was held Saturday, December 7, 2013 at Rhodes Funeral Home.

This article originally published in the December 9, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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