When Kermit Ruffins takes his band on the road, the population of New Orleans drops by five, but there's no calculating the Big Easy's precipitous decrease of soul.

Over the past three decades, the trumpeter, vocalist, barbecue aficionado and irrepressible entertainer has come to embody just about everything that makes New Orleans such a singular creative hothouse. Ruffins returns to the Bay Area for a series of performances with his Barbecue Swingers, including Thursday at Oakland's New Parish and Friday and Saturday at Brick & Mortar in San Francisco (where Hobo Paradise and Billy Iuso and Restless Natives open the show).

Kermit Ruffins of Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers performs during the 2008 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival at the New Orleans Fairgrounds
Kermit Ruffins of Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers performs during the 2008 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival at the New Orleans Fairgrounds Racetrack in New Orleans, Thursday, May 1, 2008. (AP Photo/Dave Martin) ( Dave Martin )

A New Orleans institution ever since he launched the Rebirth Brass Band in 1983, Ruffins has become an icon in his own right. He appears regularly as himself on the HBO series "Treme," and since the early 1990s, he has held down a coveted weekly gig with the Barbecue Swingers at Vaughan's Bar in the Bywater district.

Last year Ruffins fulfilled a longtime dream by opening Kermit's Treme Speakeasy Restaurant & Bar, where his band plays every Sunday and Monday. The joint has not only survived the difficult first year during which a majority of new restaurants fail, it's attracting high profile patrons like Robert De Niro ("He had some of my deep-fried fish," Ruffins says) and LL Cool J.


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"I've loved pots and pans since I was a kid," says Ruffins, 48. "My grandparents and my mom and dad would always take big fishing trips, and we'd have a huge fish fry.

"So when I started playing music, I wanted to barbecue for the band at break time, and I had a little bitty grill. Several years later, I got a big giant smoker that I pull with my truck to every gig."

While Ruffins often performs with other high-profile New Orleans players, the Barbecue Swingers provide an invaluable showcase for musicians who have adopted the Big Easy as their hometown. The quintet features Japanese-born pianist Yoshitaka Tsuji, bassist Kevin Morris, Houston-raised drummer Derrick Freeman (a student of Ellis Marsalis) and Arizona-reared vocalist Nayo Jones, a rising star on the New Orleans scene.

"I heard her one time and put her in the band," Ruffins says.

The trumpeter takes his role as a cultural ambassador seriously, even when he's at home. In the old days, New Orleans jazz musicians were known as an ornery bunch worried about players stealing their licks. Ruffins is beloved for taking the opposite tack, welcoming players of every stripe onto the bandstand at jam sessions.

Berkeley trumpeter Erik Jekabson performed in Ruffins' big band several times during his five-year sojourn in New Orleans in the mid-1990s. He also frequented Ruffins-led jam sessions at Vaughn's and describes the trumpeter as unfailingly "generous and welcoming."

Ruffins also made an enduring impression with his gift for turning every gathering into a celebration. "He always cooked up red beans and rice," says Jekabson, who performs Sunday with vocalist Jackie Ryan at Yoshi's-Oakland. "And he sounded good on whatever he played. He put his own spin on them with that big singing New Orleans sound."

Even television's notorious hurry-up-and-wait schedule can't ruffle Ruffins. He has nothing but praise for "Treme" (creator "David Simon is a genius," he says). "It's so much work and so much fun at the same time," Ruffins says.

"You have to be there from 9 a.m. till midnight. So I bring my grill, chairs and tables, invite my friends and family, and I sit across the street until they call me. Every time they say 'cut,' I go right back to the picnic."

If there's a key to Ruffins success as an artist and entertainer, it's that he's absorbed the boundless lyricism, humor, and populist touch of both Louis Armstrong and Louis Jordan. As a gravelly voiced trumpeter from New Orleans, his debt to the former is obvious, but his devotion to the latter is almost as important.

With his hugely popular Tympani Five, alto saxophonist Louis Jordan was a singular force who defined and popularized rhythm and blues in the 1940s. Ruffins grew up on his music, and he continues to make sure other people get hip to Jordan's songs.

"Just yesterday at the restaurant, I put 20 bucks in the jukebox and played 20 Louis Jordan records to warm up the house," Ruffins says. "I just love his style. When the sound is so unique and so happy, you can tell those cats were having a lot of fun."

kermit ruffins and the barbecue swingers

When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: The New Parish,
579 18th St., Oakland
Tickets: $9-$15,
510-444-7474,
www.thenewparish.com
Also: 9 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Brick & Mortar, 1710 Mission St., San Francisco,
$15-$20, 415-800-8782, www.brickandmortarmusic.com