The weight of history is piling into the present, spilling onto painted murals on the exterior walls and framed photographs of jazz legends within the crowded Mother-in-Law Lounge. Here at the famously vibrant New Orleans bar, which doubles as a live music venue and a shrine to local R&B singer Ernie K-Doe, another local hero Kermit Ruffins is preparing to open his weekly set.
The jazz trumpeter, vocalist and composer
The Treme neighborhood is the birthplace of jazz music, with many historians pointing to New Orleans’ cornetist Buddy Bolden as being the first champion of the genre in the late 1800s and early 1900s with his swinging and improvisational music. After the Jazz Age of the ’20s and ’30s, with bandleaders like Louis Armstrong moving jazz dominance up to Chicago, jazz continued to thrive and develop in New Orleans. The band that Ruffins started in his 20s, the Rebirth Brass Band, embodies this continued development. When it debuted more than 30 years ago, Rebirth fueled a brass band revolution. With the group, Ruffins toured the world, returning home to embark on a solo career, headlining a jazz quintet known as the Barbeque Swingers.
Nowadays, Ruffins, who played himself on the HBO series “Treme,” is a staple of the neighborhood. He often can be found barbequing outside or performing at his bar, where the welcoming space flows with a cadre of Ruffins’ musical friends who frequently join him in impromptu sets.
Inside the Mother-in-Law Lounge, Ruffins pays homage to one of his idols, Armstrong, with a large photograph. The lives of Armstrong and Ruffins intersect in more than one place: jazz, New Orleans, brass bands and outspoken advocacy for what Ruffins prefers to call “the reefer,” but what Armstrong called “the gage.”
In New Orleans, as with all romantic American cities, the past dances with the present and sometimes, as they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same. When Armstrong was arrested for cannabis possession in the 1930s, he became one of its earliest advocates. Today, in a state where cannabis remains inaccessible even to medical patients, Ruffins continues to advocate for a plant with a deep historical connection to the traditional music he brings to life.
After seeing Ruffins perform at the Mother-in-Law Lounge, I caught up with him over the phone the next day. The trumpeter was calling from Houston, where he also has a home, along with another bar, Axelrad, where he tells me there is a craft beer that “smells just like marijuana.” We spoke about the consequences of Louisiana’s anti-cannabis laws on black families, the first time he smoked marijuana, and just how much inspiration he’s pulled from an old CD of “reefer songs.”
One of your idols Louis Armstrong was arrested for cannabis possession and wrote the song “Muggles” about the gage. What are your thoughts on marijuana’s contributions to the history of jazz music?
I’m quite sure that back in the days when jazz was invented in New Orleans, marijuana was a big relief. You know what I mean? So far as the daily events of racism, I’m quite sure it was very important to have that joint at the end of the day — just going to the neighborhood and rolling a joint, sitting down and smoking and preparing for the next day to make money for your family or make music or what have you.
How does cannabis influence your art?
I might have started [smoking] at right about 15 years old. I’m 54 now and I don’t think I’ve missed a day of it since then. I’m positive that it had a strong influence when I started the Rebirth Brass Band in ’82. As far as writing tunes, it’s just been a big influence on the creativity of the music and the culture and just the change of the music — where it changed from the old brass band style to the style that The Rebirth came out with, which was just a little bit more peppy, more than anything, but the same music.
What was your first experience with cannabis? You said you were 15?
Yeah, right, about 15 years old.
What did you do, smoke with your friends or…?
If I remember clearly, I think a guy was growing it in the backyard next to my house in the Lower Ninth Ward and I think me and a couple of friends jumped the fence and snatched the plant. We didn’t realize what we were doing, it wasn’t even ready yet and we just chopped it up and smoked it. So I’m not sure that… umm.. [laughs] we got the effect that we thought we were going to get. But as far as we were concerned, we were high [laughs].
Many legendary jazz artists have songs about cannabis and you also have a song called “Hide the Reefer.” Was it important to you to write a song about cannabis and, if so, why?
Well, the main thing was my manager back in the day with The Rebirth, her name was Allison Miner. She started the Jazz and Heritage Festival along with Quint Davis and when she started managing me, the first thing she did was gave me a CD called “Reefer Songs.” That CD was the highlight of my life because we traveled the road so much in Europe, every summer for like 15 summers in a row, and we were always in vans, in trains, in vans and trains and vans and trains, you know? So, that was the soundtrack of my European tours when I first started traveling with The Rebirth Brass Band, my original brass band. Those tunes just gave me a drive, so when I finally broke away from The Rebirth and decided to go on my own, every CD I recorded I decided to do one of those reefer songs. Eventually, I wrote one of my own.
“Hide the Reefer” is a great one, too. It’s a classic.
Aw, thank you. There was a guy named Creeper who was a neighborhood guy. I think he served in the military for a long time. The Treme neighborhood had so many characters [back in the day]. I mean, just hundreds of characters walkin’ down the avenue on any given Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday right about noon. The whole neighborhood would help Creeper out with anything he needed. You know, give him money for food, give him a little reefer, a beer — whatever he needed — and he would sometimes have a real sloppy kind of mouth so nobody wanted to pass him the reefer. So, when he came up the street, we’d be like, “Hide the reefer, here come Creeper.” That’s the way that song evolved.
What is your favorite slang term for marijuana?
Reefer — I think because of the reefer song CD. I called it weed before that. My favorite joke is to say my wife left me for the reefer man… I sure miss him.
What are your thoughts on medical marijuana in Louisiana?
We better hurry up and legalize it. The state can use all that money and we can stop incarcerating people and losing lots of money and breaking up families. One arrest can lead a family into a bunch of money situations to the point where you can’t afford rent and you have to move in with your mom and that causes chaos, so it breaks up families. Within two or three months, it can totally destroy a family. What has been going on in America is poor black citizens, often because of marijuana charges, really can’t afford that. No family can afford that — to pay an attorney, to pay your bills, and get on probation for six months and then pay the city or the state $50 every week to get drug tested.
I mean, I went through that, to the point that I got busted for a little reefer and I had to go through it for six months and had to pay so much money for drug testing, so much money to the lawyer, so much money to the courts. I was lucky that I had a profession where I could afford to still take care of my family and not get tossed on the street, but it ruined so many lives back in the day.
The state really needs to release anybody that’s still in Angola [the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary] on marijuana charges, you know? It has to be reversed right away. Other than that, there’s going to be no justice. It’s so sad they’ve got elderly old men back there for a bag of marijuana that are still in jail. It just doesn’t make sense at all. I guess back then, nobody really gave a sh*t, but thank god that it’s changing.
What’s next for you? What have you got going on?
We’re hoping to put out a bunch of CDs and basically take care of family, friends and my neighborhood.
TELL US, did you know the history of marijuana was closely connected with the history of jazz?
Originally published in Issue 37 of Cannabis Now. LEARN MORE