City of Song And Sizzling Sausage

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The New York Sun

The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is the Big Easy’s annual celebration of its best features: music and food. Whether you head down for the first weekend (April 25 to 27), the second (May 1 to 4), or both, you can catch Kermit Ruffins — a one-man combination of song, food, and good times. For 15 years, Mr. Ruffins and his Barbecue Swingers have performed on Thursday nights at Vaughan’s Lounge, a low-lit dive with sawdusty floors in the section of town called Bywater. There, Mr. Ruffins — a trumpeter and vocalist strongly influenced by Louis Armstrong — plays songs such as “Smokin’ with Some Barbecue,” “Chicken and Dumplings,” “Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner,” and “Hide the Reefer.”

But Mr. Ruffins and his backup band don’t just sing about barbecue. They cook it, too. The weekly shows kick off close to midnight, and for three hours, the crowd works up an appetite. Mr. Ruffins is an impressive showman who plays trumpet, and waves it overhead, stopping only for a sip of beer, bottles of which line up onstage as the night wears on.

After his first set, Mr. Ruffins invites his audience outside for some New Orleans hot sausage, along with rice and beans, already sizzling on a large barbecue grill behind his red 2007 Lincoln truck. Mr. Ruffins and the crowd spill back inside for a raucous second set, which winds down at 2 a.m. (and sometimes later). The act is so popular it has attracted the likes of the Rolling Stones and Harry Connick Jr.

Mr. Ruffins’s formidable culinary skills, which he learned from his grandmother, have earned him personal invitations to the prized kitchen table at Chef Emeril Lagasse’s flagship New Orleans restaurant. He is also regularly invited to sell his cuisine at the Jazz Festival’s food tent, where more than 60 cooks and caterers from around the state serve local classics. Music lovers can wander into the tent to enjoy their choice of Po Boy sandwiches, beignets, alligator sausage, gumbo, fried green tomatoes, and crawfish served in every imaginable variation. More ambitious combinations include oyster-artichoke soup, fried crab cakes with smoked tomato and jalapeño tartar sauce, iron skillet corn bread, shrimp and okra gumbo, and Cajun jambalaya.

For the festival, Mr. Ruffins is planning to serve some adventurous dishes. “I’m going to pull out grilled quail and fried rabbit,” he said. “We’re going to show them something a little different. Maybe a small pot of gumbo, too.”

Mr. Ruffins, 44, was born and raised in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, the neighborhood most visibly ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. The house in which he grew up was three blocks from where the levees broke, and was completely destroyed. He and his family moved temporarily to an apartment in Houston, but he now lives in the French Quarter. With his trademark fedora, worn at an angle on top of a bandanna, he’s a throwback to old-time New Orleans greats. He even named his 2005 album “Throwback.”

Mr. Ruffins started off with the Re-Birth Brass Band, an ensemble that aimed to shake up the city’s traditional sounds, but in 1992, he returned to his roots to focus on traditional New Orleans music. He peppers his conversation with talk about “real people,” “real music,” and “real food.” He regularly plays in the city’s “jazz funerals,” rambunctious processionals during which participants dance and sing though the streets when a local musician passes on. During the festival, you can most likely find Mr. Ruffins at the Economy Hall Tent. “There you can listen to real New Orleans traditional music being played at its best. That’s where it all started,” he said.

The events that take place during the jazz festival represent an annual rebirth for the city, Mr. Ruffins said. Like many New Orleans natives, he is obsessed with the city’s heritage. “Jazzfest is always super. It always pulls out the real music lovers,” he said, “compared to Mardi Gras.” The event features more than 100 acts playing jazz, rhythm and blues, rock, country, blues, and gospel simultaneously on 11 stages at the Fair Grounds Race Course. The festival is a short walk or drive from the French Quarter, where cabs are available for transportation.

This year’s headliners include festival first-timers Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, and Sheryl Crow. Veteran acts include the Neville Brothers, Jimmy Buffett, Santana, Elvis Costello, Al Green, and Diana Krall. About 90% of performers are locals, including the Neville Brothers, Dr. John, the Radiators, Irma Thomas, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Mr. Ruffins will perform on May 1, and the concert will mark his 22nd year playing at the festival.

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