‘I’m going to clean my grill the way you’re not supposed to—with fire!”
Trumpeter Kermit Ruffins sprays a steady stream of lighter fluid on a small flame in his rolling barbecue pit, parked in front of Sydney’s Saloon on St. Bernard Avenue in New Orleans. He’s out of his usual suit and hat, wearing instead a white undershirt, jeans, rarely used white tennis shoes, and a kerchief. Ruffins has been an icon in New Orleans since his days with the Rebirth Brass Band; his recurring role on HBO’s Treme further raised his profile nationwide. For visitors to the city, he is now emblematic of New Orleans’ determination to have a good time, no matter what. Like today, for example: It’s Monday afternoon—an off day—and he’s in the mood to cook.
Before that, though, he’s shooting the shit with guys on the corner, nursing a Bud Light, and prepping the grill for hot sausage later. He has a new album—” ‘Hap-py talk, keep talkin’ happy talk,’ ” he sings. “That’s the title track. We put a second-line beat on it.” But he’s also got bats, balls, and his baseball glove in the back of his pick-up. “We’ve got a game every week,” he says. “I’m the pitcher.” After the game, he plans to return to Sidney’s, the bar he owns in the Treme neighborhood, and grill out. When a neighbor opening a body shop across the street complains that he can’t eat pork, Ruffins reassures him: “All-beef sausages. And once I start cooking, people bring other stuff—chickens, burgers.”
The New Orleans–born-and-bred Ruffins was one of the founders of the Rebirth Brass Band in 1983, but he went solo in 1992. He is often likened to Louis Armstrong, but only as the good-natured embodiment of the Crescent City’s mix of traditional jazz, the blues, and street-parade music. He’ll travel if the price is right (mostly festival gigs, including a two-night stint at BAM in December), but he toured with Rebirth and doesn’t feel the need to go through that again. He’s got enough work in New Orleans, and he can do what he wants. Old friends from Clark Senior High School hang out at Sidney’s—”We can talk about the same teachers and stuff that happened”—and he tailgates outside of Treme bars when the Saints play home games at the Louisiana Superdome. “I can’t smoke reefer in the Dome,” he says, his eyes widening conspiratorially. “It’s better here. It’s more convenient. It’s more like a party.”
Ruffins’s grill is part of his identity. He cooks wherever he goes, even outside the studio during sessions. It’s 12 feet long from trailer hitch to smoker, built in Atlanta for $4,200. A Saints window flag is duct-taped to its chimney. With a backing band called the Barbecue Swingers, it’s a must, and he’s had it for 10 years. Before that, he’d set up a grill in the bed of his truck when he played Thursday nights at Vaughan’s in the Bywater. “Nothing like barbecue between sets to pick up the band,” he says, laughing. “And it makes everything smell like a picnic.” Oh, and by the way: “You know what else we did?” Ruffins sings: ” ‘What makes that little old ant/Think he can move that rubber tree plant?/High hopes/He’s got hi-i-igh hopes!’ ” He mimics smoking a reefer and cracks himself up.
Happy Talk presents Ruffins looking outward. He’s prone to celebrating the city, generally, and Treme, specifically, with tourist-bureau regularity, but there he leans on the standards and a band of New Orleans A-list talent that brings every track to life. He’s a casual vocalist who settles for clichés more often than he should, but he’s still the Pied Piper of Good Times for New Orleanians and New Orleanians at heart. In Treme‘s premiere episode, someone asks Ruffins, “Don’t you want to be famous? Are you standing there telling me that all you want to do is get high, play some trumpet, and barbecue in New Orleans your whole damned life?” The answer: “That’ll work.”
Kermit Ruffins will appear as part of Red Hot + New Orleans at the Brooklyn Academy of Music December 3 and 4