Irvin Mayfield, 27, hosted the gathering at the swank new nightclub that perches on the 31st floor of the World Trade Center, adjacent to Ray's Over the River. Mayfield, who part-owns his namesake club, dressed in a suit and black suspenders, epitomizing the image of a successful young musician with a precocious talent and a casual thirst for the spotlight. The second to arrive was Maurice Brown, at 24 the youngest of the trio and the only non-native of New Orleans. Brown moved from Chicago to Baton Rouge in 2001 to study with Harold Batiste at Southern University, and soon started gigging in New Orleans. He now holds down Tuesday nights at Snug Harbor.
Kermit Ruffins, 40, entered the room a few minutes late, dressed in a pinstriped seersucker suit and fedora. The former leader of the ReBirth Brass Band ambled over to the couch, brandishing his trumpet case and a white washcloth in his left hand, and a suitcase filled with Bud Lights in his right. He sat the suitcase down next to him, popped a can and smiled widely, displaying a set of teeth permanently recessed in his mouth from years of hard trumpet blowing.
Every year on the last Saturday of Jazz Fest, Basin Street Records label-mates Ruffins and Mayfield square off in a Battle of the Bands at the Blue Nile; their good-natured rivalry spiced this spirited exchange with wisecracks and in-jokes. Brown joined in with the unique perspective of an outsider now on the inside. And even though we were 31 floors over the city, the towering presence of Louis Armstrong loomed over the afternoon's conversation.
GAMBIT WEEKLY: Irvin, you grew up here. Louis Armstrong's presence must have been strong for you.
Irvin Mayfield: He's a huge presence, bigger than music. Louis Armstrong is bigger than jazz. He's bigger than New Orleans itself. It's a certain thing that we see -- a glimpse of what we can be. Armstrong is like the Dalai Lama of New Orleans. He embodied the entire city.
I assume we have more trumpeters in the city of New Orleans than anywhere else. Somebody's momma plays trumpet (laughter). Everyone plays trumpet. This is a trumpet player's town, so if you want to play trumpet you've got to come here. Maurice has got that kind of personality where he wants to stand up in a place where he can make a name for himself where there's a lot of competition. He could have gone somewhere else like L.A.
Maurice Brown: Yeah, definitely, that's a big part of it. There are a lot of trumpet players here, a lot of competition. It pushes you to get better.
GAMBIT: Maurice, when did you first become aware of Armstrong?
Brown: My parents used to play a lot of music around the house, so I heard Louis Armstrong and King Oliver that way.
GAMBIT: Did those records give you an impression of New Orleans?
Brown: Yes. I definitely got an image in my head just listening to the music.
(Kermit Ruffins walks into the room.)
Mayfield: Well, we just finished, man. (Laughs. Mayfield and Ruffins swap jokes about a recent gig where Ruffins plotted to take Mayfield's trumpet.)
Mayfield: I heard you in the audience saying, "Everybody take a turn playing Irvin's trumpet."
Kermit Ruffins: You know how in high school the kids wanted to capture the other school's mascot? That's what we wanted to do to you!
Mayfield: I don't know what you're talking about, man.
Ruffins: I told my girlfriend "We've got to get Irvin's trumpet."
Mayfield: You should note that as he's saying this, Kermit Ruffins is walking behind the bar looking for ice for his suitcase of Bud Light (laughter).
Ruffins: I had to bring my own because they don't sell Bud Light here.
Mayfield: My polar opposite has just walked in the room.
GAMBIT: We were talking about Armstrong and how Maurice saw that tradition from Chicago. Maurice, when you first picked up the trumpet, were you thinking, "I'm gonna try to play like Louis Armstrong?"
Brown: Definitely. Like Irvin was saying earlier, Armstrong is big; it's hard to even put it in words, but he affected all the horn players, all the singers, everybody.
GAMBIT: I know Kermit and Irvin have been involved in cutting sessions. Have you done any of that, Maurice?
Brown: (to Kermit) I don't know, have I?
Ruffins: Maurice always gets involved (everybody laughs).
Mayfield: Kermit and I have these official cutting sessions called the Battle of the Bands, which are just between me and him. When you get a lot of musicians on one stage, it's not really a cutting section, After three, it starts being something else.
Ruffins: It becomes a jam session.
Mayfield: For it to be a good cutting session, it's got to be two people.
Brown: When I first got to the city I played with these two guys at the Parish.
Mayfield: I didn't know who he was, but he had this look in his eye, "Let me up on the stage." I didn't want to piss Kermit off so I asked Kermit if it was cool.
Ruffins: That was like the battles between Louis and Dizzy Gillespie back in the day.
Mayfield: The best battle I ever saw was between Wynton Marsalis and Leroy Jones at Vaughan's. When Wynton comes to New Orleans, he always goes to Kermit's gigs, which is interesting because you have this perception of Wynton being a highbrow. He used to come to Kermit's gigs at the Little People's Place, a small room that held only 30 people and there would be all these people trying to get in to see Wynton. It wouldn't be advertised or nothin', and we would play until 4 or 5 in the morning. One time at the Funky Butt, we played so long that the bass player just packed his shit up and left. He got off the stage, with all these people in there, put his bass in the case, and just walked out at 4 in the morning. And nobody left.
Ruffins: I've battled Irvin from the day I met him. We were playing in the Superdome, I was in this parade about to march around the dome and here's this kid from high school. I'm just starting with ReBirth -- me and [Mayfield] started playing with a tuba player and a drummer. We battled for about an hour. I didn't even know his name. Before I know it, Irvin was on the scene with a hot band.
GAMBIT: Irvin, you're putting together an overview of Armstrong's career for Satchmo Summerfest.
Mayfield: I'm going to do a lecture from a musician's perspective but in laymen's terms about Armstrong's influences. I hate it when things get too highbrow.
GAMBIT: A lot of people know him as a famous guy, like Babe Ruth or somebody, maybe they only know him from "What A Wonderful World" and aren't aware of the depth of his talent.
Mayfield: People always say Kermit is the spiritual embodiment of Louis Armstrong and to a certain extent that's true. Here's Kermit in the middle of the Sixth Ward, in the ghetto, and he has that red pickup truck. It was loud, it would be like somebody listening to rap music but he was playing Louis Armstrong. It was a compilation of obscure Armstrong stuff and all the cats from the Sixth Ward were just sittin' there listening to it.
People from New Orleans have a real true sense of Louis Armstrong's music. They know a lot of the songs, they have a personal relationship with it, but it's not the same if you go to another city. Kermit Ruffins is in the neighborhood, he's in the culture, Trombone Shorty has come up playing those old songs, "Didn't He Ramble" and like that -- a lot of songs Armstrong played in his early years. His presence is alive in the city. Our airport is named after him and I think the mayor and the city are trying to do all the things they can do to try to bring that message forth.
Ruffins: We've been out traveling the world to do our part, getting on stage in places like Central Park in New York, where we were last weekend, playing New Orleans music and it's amazing to see people's response. We were just in Philadelphia playing "When It's Sleepytime Down South" and "Struttin' With Some Barbecue," it was all about Louis for sure...
Mayfield: ... and he was clean ...
Ruffins: ... clean as a ...
Mayfield: ... man, you ain't never seen Louis Armstrong when he wasn't ...
Ruffins: ... clean ...
Mayfield: People ask why do people in New Orleans always wear suits or get dressed up when they play? Louis Armstrong was clean all the time. How could you not want to look like that? That's the kind of vibe I try to get all the time. I like them pictures where they show his socks pulled all the way up. I love what that represents.
GAMBIT: You guys are all bringing music to a younger audience.
Mayfield: It's like with my kids -- if I put on a Louis Armstrong record, they like that. They might not necessarily like my records.
But think about this: Louis Armstrong is the reason we have so many jazz festivals. You have more jazz festivals than any other kind of music festival all around the world. You've got jazz festivals in China, South Africa, and it's all because Louis Armstrong was a goodwill ambassador. A lot of times people say jazz doesn't appeal to this or that type of audience, but jazz has proven itself time and time again via Louis Armstrong that it appeals to a younger and an older mass audience.
GAMBIT: Even Miles Davis, whom you wouldn't necessarily associate with Louis Armstrong, said that his approach to playing came from Armstrong.
Mayfield: Even when you hear Maurice Brown play, even though it's a completely different thing from what I play, I definitely notice a difference in his playing since he's been in this city. I don't even know what you call it, but it's something that happens. You can't put it in words. To go to school and study Louis Armstrong, you can't really learn it, but when you move to New Orleans and play it, something happens.
Brown: Living here has definitely changed my playing ...
Ruffins: ... without you even thinking about it.
Brown: I sit back sometimes and listen to recordings before I was here. It was a totally different thing, it's hard to put it in words, it's more ... majestic, maybe.
Ruffins: It's an attitude.
Mayfield: The difference between the Louis Armstrong/New Orleans style of trumpet versus somebody else's style of trumpet is first of all the way you hold the trumpet. If you're from New Orleans, you hold the trumpet up and there's a good reason for that, because if you hold the trumpet down and you're playing second line, you won't have no teeth left in your mouth. But it has a certain kind of resilience to it, you holding the trumpet up, and all New Orleans trumpeters have that and it comes out in their sound. Maurice, even though he's from Chicago, I run into people now and mention him and they say, "Oh, yeah, that cat from New Orleans?"
GAMBIT: Is Armstrong as much on people's minds out of town as he is here?
Ruffins: When I do my sound checks, you should see the sound people. They're just dragging along and then when we do sound check, these people light up like you wouldn't believe. They go, "It's Louis Armstrong!"
Mayfield: I hate it when it becomes either "not Louis Armstrong" or "doing Louis Armstrong" because he was so inventive. He created scat singing, singing with a musical sound in his voice, and the way he played the trumpet -- which nobody else in the history of the world has been able to match ever since. So if I play something new and it doesn't sound like something that people assume is Louis Armstrong, it must not be New Orleans. People have a hard time seeing that Maurice is a part of that lineage, and that when Kermit gets up and does some new things, that he's a part of that lineage too. Doing something new was a part of what Louis Armstrong was about. People think Louis Armstrong is traditional, but Louis Armstrong is modern.
Brown: One thing about Louis Armstrong that I picked up from being down here is that people from New Orleans, when they play, they mean what they play. There's not so much BS. Some places, cats will play all day long and say nothin'. They're just moving their fingers and making noise, but down here cats mean what they play. It's coming straight from the heart.
Ruffins: It's spiritual.
GAMBIT: Are there other things Armstrong did that you have to be a trumpet player to understand?
Ruffins: His trills.
Brown: His endurance, I think.
Mayfield: You don't have to be a trumpet player. Earl "Fatha" Hines tried to play like Armstrong on the piano. Billie Holiday wanted to sing like she was playing the trumpet. He was influential across the board.
The trumpet is a leadership instrument. It's the leader of the band. Everybody picks up their horns and starts to play when they hear the trumpet come. He was the greatest leader of the lead instrument of that time and brought the first glimpse of what this great American music called jazz was all about. He was (counting on his fingers) the first, the first, the first, the first, and the first, and he was black. People had never heard the trumpet played like that before, there were stories of him going to Europe and people checking his trumpet. They'd never even seen a black person before let alone heard the trumpet played like that.
Ruffins: A lot of trumpet players have a beginning, a middle and an end when they play. Louis, right off the bat when he went (stomps his foot to count off time) he was playing like it was the last note he was ever gonna play in his life, and it sounded like that throughout the whole song every time. Most trumpet players get real strong at the end, taking it out -- bam! But Pops would start off like that (he sings the notes of the first line of Armstrong's traditional set-opener "When It's Sleepy Time Down South," forcefully articulating each line.)
GAMBIT: The trumpet is the most physically difficult instrument to play.
Mayfield: Louis Armstrong was the most physical player ever. There were stories about how he would hit this high F every night when he was in Chicago, and people would come every night to see if he could do it. One night he got pissed off and he did it like 26 times in a row.
Ruffins: He did that on record too.
Mayfield: He would overwhelm you, and it wouldn't be just technical like Maynard Ferguson or Doc Severinson.
Ruffins: It was wide. He didn't play no skinny notes. He played thick, wide sustained notes with body.
Brown: They were so rich, you wouldn't even think he was playing that high.
Mayfield: People were coming to that show in Chicago wanting him to miss. He say, "I'll show you about miss!" He just kept playing that note over and over. He would do that after another four-hour gig. Kermit Ruffins does that all the time too. I'm too old to do that (laughs).
Ruffins: That's because you're not a singer, man. You break out and sing a couple of tunes, then you come back with the high notes. Give your chops a rest and you can go all night.
Mayfield: I'll tell you another thing about playing physical. Playing in a brass band...
Brown: ... is like basic training ...
Ruffins: Standing on a stage playing is easy compared to being in a brass band.
Mayfield: If you can play in a brass band outside in a four-hour second line at the Fischer Project, you can play anywhere.
Brown: In Chicago, we didn't have no second line, but I used to go downtown every day, I used to take my place outside the Sears Tower and play every day religiously.
Mayfield: Did you make any money?
Brown: Made all kind of money.
Mayfield: See? Only in Chicago. In New Orleans? You can stand out there and play in front of the World Trade Center for many hours and get no tips.
Ruffins: That's how ReBirth got started -- on the streets of New Orleans, back in '84.
Mayfield: There's this unspoken seniority about playing on the street. Like if you play in Jackson Square, that's the first thing I learned about, playin' in somebody's spot. I played in Tuba Fats' spot one day. Boy, I got chastised! Everybody had a spot. I was playing there and musicians come and say, "This is our time. We'll let you play with us if you want."
Ruffins: They call it the front line. Jackson Square is the front line.
GAMBIT: Armstrong obviously made a lot of great recordings. Which ones stand out for you?
Mayfield: "Cornet Chop Suey," "West End Blues."
Ruffins: I love "Skokiaan."
Mayfield: I also liked how he would do the whole New Orleans tradition when he had the All-Stars.
Ruffins: Anything he played, he took a New Orleans style to it.
Mayfield: Another one of my favorite records is the Ella Fitzgerald/Louis Armstrong stuff.
Ruffins: Yeah, those are great, "Stars Fell on Alabama," all that stuff.
GAMBIT: Armstrong started out on cornet before he played trumpet. How important is the instrument itself?
Mayfield: For Louis Armstrong, it didn't make no difference at all. He didn't play the same trumpet for 50 years and his sound was always good. In the 1920s, the recording facilities weren't as good as they are now but he sounded just as good on those records as he did in the late '60s on his last recordings.
GAMBIT: What's the difference between a good trumpet and a bad trumpet?
Ruffins: You could take a box of 20 trumpets and they all sound different. Then the way you form your lips and your teeth structure when you play makes them sound different, too. Your body, liquor when you got liquor on your breath (laughter all around), water, whether you eat chicken or steak (more laughter).
Mayfield: Are you a chicken or a steak eater?
Ruffins: Long as it ain't no turkey.
Mayfield: (amid laughter) Put that in. He says that as he pops his next Bud Light!