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Kermit knows it’s all about tradition at ‘Jazz at the Sandbar’

11th April 2016   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
Contributing Writer

It makes sense that when most people think of the University of New Orleans’ music department and its affiliated Jazz at the Sandbar series, modern jazz immediately comes to mind. After all, Ellis Marsalis, a renowned modern jazz pianist, established UNO’s highly regarded Jazz Studies department in 1989 that produced an impressive array of graduates who became well known in the genre.

The university, however, isn’t just for beboppers and post-boppers. It also offers instruction in New Orleans traditional jazz. Students taking part in its traditional combo classes, which are led by sousaphone player/bassist Matt Perrine, will be on hand to back guest artist, trumpeter/vocalist Kermit Ruffins at this Wednesday’s edition (April 13) of Jazz at the Sandbar, held at the Cove located on the university’s campus.

Kermit Ruffins

Kermit Ruffins

“I’m looking forward to playing with all those youngsters,” Ruffins enthusiastically responds. “The last time I did it (performed in the series), I was 28 or 30 years old and now I’m 51. People always ask me, ‘Is the music going to die?’ I say, ‘Man you wouldn’t believe the kids that are coming up and are on stage and can put me to shame at any given minute. It’s always going to be hot.’”

Actually, according to Perrine, this year’s crop of traditional students aren’t all “youngsters.” It’s a more varied group that includes a 60-year-old ophthalmologist on bass, a professional music teacher from Singapore on piano, a musician from Mexico on guitar, a member of a well-known New Orleans brass band on sax and, says Perrine, who will man the trombone, a very impressive freshman on drums.

Previous classic jazz guests at Jazz at the Sandbar include a list of stellar artists such as clarinetists Orange Kellin and Dr. Michael White, trombonists Lucien Barbarin and Craig Klein and pianist Tom McDermott.

“We would be remiss if we sent young musicians into the New Orleans music scene without some understanding of how to play traditional jazz,” says Perrine, who has been teaching the traditional class for six years now. “Every student is required to be in every combo before they leave so everyone is forced to put away their beboppin’ and develop something else. Also, if you are going to learn how to improvise, it is much easier to learn to improvise on “Bill Bailey” than it is on “Giant Steps.”

Ruffins is, of course, most often heard locally with the Barbeque Swingers, a group of musicians with whom he’s shared many a bandstand at many a venue both in New Orleans and while on tour. To hear him with artists he’s never performed with and in a venue that he hasn’t played in for a very long time should be interesting and invigorating for all concerned.

“It’s so easy for me to go with any band in this city for 45 minutes to an hour and really have a good session,” Ruffins offers. “Especially with a bunch of youngsters I have never met before. They are going to play the songs I call so it’s always fun to get up and out and feel a different kind of feel.”

Ruffins says that while at the Axelrad Beer Garden in Houston, Texas, a club where he is a partner and investor and performs every Wednesday minus the Swingers, he and the band mix it up a lot. “I email them a YouTube every week of stuff that I recorded with the Barbeque Swingers,” he explains. “Luckily Darrell Levigne lives there,” he adds of the pianist who, because he’s a New Orleans native, gets Ruffins’ style and knows the tunes.

The material the UNO combo works on, including tunes like “Milenberg Joys” and “Panama,” is primarily classic jazz that is right up Ruffins’ alley. “It’s mostly classic jazz – recognizable songs,” Perrine says. “I’m as interested in teaching about music as I am about teaching about traditional jazz. I want to make sure they have all the skills they’ll need no matter what style they end up playing.”

“Everyone is encouraged to sing,” Perrine adds. “I talk a lot about lyrics. If you learn the lyrics of a song, 20 years later when you’re on a bandstand and someone calls that song and you can’t remember it you can remember the lyrics. Then generally, you can remember the melody and if you can remember the melody, you can remember the chords.”

Perrine, an extremely talented and often called on musician on the New Orleans scene whose sousaphone or bass pops up all over the place in this city’s funk, brass band, jazz and beyond worlds has enjoyed his teaching experience.

“It is a way for me to keep my finger on the pulse of the young musicians coming out of UNO,” he offers. “Then it’s exciting to see those students in the work force as professions and know we might have possibly had a hand in that transition.”

Meanwhile Ruffins, who flies back-and-forth between his hometown and Houston, will spend all of April right here in New Orleans. He’s hosting what he’s calling a 4/20 (April 20) party at his Mother-In-Law Lounge and he promises to play – unlike at the Cove – “a bunch of reefer songs.”

“I told my band we are playing at 4 o’clock so they could be ready at 4:20 to hit,” he says with a laugh. From Monday through Thursday between the Jazz Fest’s weekends Ruffins’ is throwing a “Sweet Lunch Counter Party” starting at noon. He declares that the grill will be smoking and the pots boiling with different food every day.

“I put a huge stage in the backyard so it’s really, really nice back there,” Ruffins says while mentioning that if the weather is too hot, the music will be indoors.

Ruffins plays Jazz Fest twice. The first is on Friday, April 22, at 2 pm for a party-down set with the Barbeque Swingers at Congo Square. The trumpeter is back the following weekend to perform a Tribute to Louis Armstrong on Saturday, April 30, at Economy Hall. His band is loaded to the max with pianist David Torkanowsky, drummer Shannon Powell, trombonist Corey Henry and Kevin Morris manning the upright bass.

The Jazz at the Sandbar show begins at 7 p.m. UNO students and faculty are admitted free. General admission is $5.

This article originally published in the April 11, 2016 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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