Kermit Ruffins & The Barbecue Swingers
By Lisa Readie Mayer
In New Orleans, they take their food and their music seriously. But even in this city full of top-notch chefs and performers, it would be hard to find anyone who embraces both food and music with greater passion than Kermit Ruffins.
The trumpeter, singer, composer, and bandleader has been said to personify the spirit and laid-back vibe of New Orleans jazz. With 15 albums to his credit, and a near-nightly performance schedule, Ruffins is an institution in his hometown, beloved by music critics, locals, and tourists alike.
He expanded his fan base playing himself as a recurring character on the former HBO series “Tremé,” set in post-Katrina New Orleans. He recorded “Bare Necessities” with Bill Murray for Disney’s 2016 remake of the movie “Jungle Book;” sat in with John Batiste and the Stay Human Band on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert;” and was a guest judge and performer on a New Orleans-inspired episode of “Top Chef.”
The latter appearance comes as no surprise, given Ruffins’ cooking is as legendary as his music. In fact, both of his skills are so intertwined, they usually take place in tandem. Ruffins is widely known for grilling out front of the venues where he’s performing – so much so that he named his band The Barbecue Swingers. He has also included recipes in his album liners.
Intersection of Cool Jazz and Hot Barbecue
Ruffins began honing both his musical and cooking talents as a child. He fell in love with the trumpet when his uncle, a trumpeter, would stop by the house and let a young Ruffins open the case and play. Ruffins received a horn of his own at age 14 and joined the school band.
His interest in cooking took root as a youngster as well. “I grew up in the 9th Ward, and on any given Saturday, my whole family would go out to Hopedale (Louisiana) to go fishing,” he recalls. “We’d leave at 4am and get back around 11. When we got back, the whole family would gather in the backyard and my dad, grandfather, mom, and grandmother would cook.
“I liked to help my grandmother in the kitchen, and I would help my grandfather clean and cook turtle, raccoon, squirrel, alligator, and all kinds of wild foods. My dad liked that I took chances when I cooked, especially with the wild foods, so he let me do more and more of the cooking.”
As a 17-year-old high schooler, Ruffins and some friends formed the Rebirth Brass Band, an old-school, second-line-style brass band with influences of funk, jazz, soul, and hip hop. Ruffins says it was unusual for young musicians to be playing traditional brass band music at the time.
At first, the band busked on the streets of the French Quarter for tips, but it soon gained a following locally and beyond. The Rebirth Brass Band is credited with rejuvenating interest in brass bands and second lines in New Orleans, and inspiring other young musicians to form their own brass bands, according to Ruffins’ record label, Basin Street Records.
While touring throughout the U.S. and Europe with Rebirth Brass Band from 1983 to 1992, Ruffins missed the food and culture of his hometown. So he began traveling with a small hibachi and cooking gear and would grill his favorite dishes at the hotel or between sets at the venue. He also realized he was missing out on seeing his young children grow up.
Kermit Ruffins performance at the 2009 Satchmo Summerfest.
Photo Courtesy: ©2020 Gary J. Wood, www.flickr.com/photos/garyjwood.
After nearly a decade, Ruffins amicably parted ways with Rebirth Brass Band. He founded a new band, playing a more traditional, swing style of jazz like his idol Louis Armstrong, with some originals, pop covers, movie tunes, and R&B songs thrown in. Ruffins and the band dressed the part in dandy suits, ties, and fedoras, and sang into retro microphones, once again deviating from the typical sound and style of his peers.
Even though the new band mostly played locally, Ruffins continued his tradition of cooking at shows. “I’d get hungry, so I would bring my hibachi and cook on breaks for myself, the band, and the people at the shows,” he says. “I’d grill chicken and other foods, but I really became known for grilling spicy New Orleans sausage. People would smell the smoky sausage and go crazy. It became so popular that one day I woke up and said, we’re gonna be ‘The Barbecue Swingers!’ That’s how the band got its name.”
He started taking his grills to second line parades (the iconic brass band parades that wind through the streets of New Orleans) on Sundays with his kids. “We’d cook and hand out food. It was something fun we could do together,” Ruffins recalls. “I started the biggest ruckus in New Orleans with cooking at second lines. Now every Sunday so many people set up their grills and sell food at second line parades.”
The grilling became such an important part of the show that, about 20 years ago, Ruffins invested in a custom, supersized smoker rig made by Bubba Grills that cost him $7,200. “I’ve cooked in it so much I burned a hole in it,” he says with a laugh. “I need to get it repaired.”
He says about four hours before a show he would hook up the smoker to his truck, light the fire – he cooks on a combination of charcoal and pecan wood logs – and load it up with Patton’s spicy hot link sausage. “It’s a traditional New Orleans beef sausage. People use it in gumbo, red beans, po boys, and more,” Ruffins says. “It comes in a 5 lb. bucket in a continuous link about 5 ft. long and I put it on the barbecue still wound in the link. Patton’s also sells the sausage in patties but I don’t believe in patties. I even use the bucket lid as a spatula!
“I would pull up to the club with the smoker an hour before the show. You wouldn’t believe that smoke and smell. It would draw a crowd. I’d cut up the cooked smoked sausage and hand it out. Oh man, that taste and texture! I’ve never sold the food; I always gave it away.
“As I’ve gotten older, I don’t do it as often as I used to, but in the early days I barbecued before shows all the time,” he says. “I find that when I barbecue, I play a better show. It puts me in a picnic frame of mind. I feel like I’m in my backyard and it brings me back to childhood with my family, manning the grill, with smoke everywhere. It’s so relaxing to stand by the grill or to cook a pot of beans right before my show. I take off my apron, smoke a little reefer (there’s a reason why the doors of his club open at 4:20!), drink a little Bud Light, and get on the stage. It’s the best feeling.”
Ruffin’s love of barbecuing even inspired The Barbecue Swingers’ original song “Smokin’ with Some Barbecue.” Released in 1998, the song pays homage to Louis Armstrong’s 1927 hit “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue.” But while Satchmo’s “Barbecue” refers to a beautiful woman, in Ruffins’ version it is definitely about the food.
Kermit jazzing it up with The Barbecue Swingers.
Photo Courtesy: ©2020 Erika Goldring.
“Music and food just go together in New Orleans,” he explains. “There is a long tradition of Mom-and-Pop bars cooking and giving away food. When you get off work, you go to this bar for seafood night on Tuesdays, then go to this other place on Thursdays for red beans and rice. You plan your whole week around it. I love the idea of bars giving away food.”
Which is why when Kermit opened his own bar, Kermit’s Tremé Mother-in-Law Lounge, in 2014, he made sure to carry on the practice. The bar and live music venue was initially owned by the flashy and flamboyant New Orleans R&B singer Ernie K-Doe, who named the place after his 1961 hit song “Mother-in-Law.”
“He was a legend,” says Ruffins. “After Ernie’s death, his wife Antoinette ran it, but then it closed in 2010. The place was empty for three or four years before I opened it in 2014.”
In addition to the indoor bar, the Mother-in-Law Lounge has an outdoor patio with a stage, dance floor, and grills. Every inch of the exterior is painted with extraordinary, brightly colored, whimsical murals painted by artist Daniel Fuselier, that depict jazz musicians and other iconic New Orleans images. “The mayor made the place an historic landmark,” Ruffins says. “Tour busses pass every day.”
Unlike many musicians who are investors in bars and restaurants, Kermit Ruffins is IN the restaurant business, literally cookin’ in the kitchen, as well as on the stage. Before shows at the Mother-in-Law Lounge, he can be found outside barbecuing sausage, chicken, steak, or other meats. Or he might be in the restaurant’s kitchen cooking up huge quantities of red beans and rice, butter beans and rice, smothered turkey necks with potato salad, fried shrimp and fish, or other local favorites to share with the crowds for free.
Mother-in-Law Lounge exterior.
A few months ago, he opened another venue, Kermit’s 9th Ward Juke Joint, a few blocks away, where he plays and cooks most Wednesdays.
“I love having a bar to sit and talk with people,” says Ruffins. “Every Sunday my parents and my auntie and uncle, they come from church and have lunch at the bar. I’m always thinking, ‘What am I going to cook for lunch on Sunday?’ I love it!”
Ruffins believes his signature barbecue dish is smoky hot sausage. “Nobody was putting New Orleans hot sausage on the grill until I started doing it,” he says. “I think I kinda kicked that off.”
But he still considers wild foods his favorite specialty. “I love to cook raccoon, turtle, squirrel, deer meat – I do that every Thanksgiving. I love turtle with red and brown gravy over some good ol’ grits. There’s nothing like it,” he says.
When asked what kind of music he likes to listen to when he’s barbecuing, Ruffins says with a laugh, “At the end of my shows, I always say, ‘Please buy my CDs because they go good with barbecue!’ It’s good music for cooking and eating.”
To find out where Kermit Ruffins & The Barbecue Swingers are performing in New Orleans, visit www.basinstreetrecords.com/events/kermit-ruffins-events/ or Kermit’s Tremé Mother-in-Law Lounge www.kermitslounge.com, (504) 975-3955.
Click the red play button below to hear a sample of "Smokin' With Some Barbecue."