Kermit Ruffins needs only two words to hype a New Orleans barroom for one of his weekly shows, and this, his personal slogan, sums up what this Big Easy ambassador is all about.
From playing himself in the HBO Series Treme, to barbecuing outside his bar, Kermit’s Treme Mother-in-Law Lounge, to sitting in with Jon Batiste and Stay Human on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, the trumpeter/vocalist keeps himself busy when he isn’t on stage doing what he does best—entertaining and sharing his love of life with the world. He personifies the laid-back vibe of New Orleans.
But he did not come by his gifts easily. Ruffins did his homework and developed his stage persona and musical act by studying artists who came before him. He watched videos of Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway until the tape wore out, cut his teeth busking the streets of the French Quarter, and apprenticed on stages with local legends “Uncle” Lionel Batiste and Danny Barker.
Consider his lengthy musical career. While still in high school, he co-founded the Rebirth Brass Band – a group that revolutionized the brass band community in New Orleans with songs like “Do Watcha Wanna” that have become anthems. Rebirth’s growth and success bolstered the rejuvenation of the New Orleans second-line culture that now flourishes.
Still, after less than a decade fronting the band and touring the world, Ruffins tired of the road. He missed the culture at home so much that he traveled, like fellow New Orleans icon Fats Domino, with cooking equipment and prepared his favorite foods in hotel rooms far and wide.
He made a bold and risky decision to leave Rebirth and go solo, having no guarantees the public would embrace his new direction. At the time there were very few young musicians playing traditional jazz. Nearly all the backing musicians on his first album were decades older.
Now, Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers are a beloved institution – a must-see for every New Orleans visitor and a favorite of local critics and music lovers. As he’d helped spur the formation of new brass bands in his 20s, he’s since influenced the city’s musical direction in the 21st century. Dozens of young musicians and bands are essentially playing the same music Ruffins pioneered with his solo act. They sing into retro microphones, dress in dandy suits and perform the timeless tunes that defined a decades-past era.