RUFFIN IT IN NOLA: Kermit’s Tremé Mother-In-Law Lounge, one mile from the French Quarter in New Orleans, opened in 1994. (Courtesy Venue)

NEW ORLEANS — Kermit’s Tremé Mother-In-Law Lounge puts the vibe in vibrant.

The lounge is a technicolor oasis in the cement shadow of an I-10 overpass in the seventh ward of New Orleans known as Tremé .  It’s folk art on a grand scale with bright murals and hand-painted phrases and lyrics covering the exterior walls, including thoughts by Bob Dylan, Walter Winchell and the original proprietor Ernie K-Doe, which reads, “I’m not sure. but I’m almost positive that all music came from New Orleans.” 

What is certain is that Kermit’s Tremé Mother-In-Law Lounge is a refuge for any disciple of the New Orleans cultural trinity of music, food and a good time. 

Operated by local music legend Kermit Ruffins, the lounge dominates the corner of Claiborne Avenue and Columbus Street, situated one mile from the French Quarter. Patrons — local drinkers, European tourists and hipster musicians — file in past a massive barbecue grill on the sidewalk. If the exterior feels like a renegade carnival, the interior is equal parts music shrine and man cave. 

“For the tourists and the locals alike, the music flows real good, far as financially for musicians and spiritually,” Ruffins says. “It’s important to me on stage that a bunch of people are having the time of their life.”

Wearing a black “Kermit’s Security” T-shirt, Reggie was ladling red beans and rice that Ruffins made into Styrofoam bowls for $8. The bar served straightforward cocktails, shots and beer and patrons filled every chair, sitting inches from the band and leaning against the walls.  

Music is programmed nightly and trumpeter/vocalist Ruffins takes part several days a week.

On a recent Tuesday at 6 p.m., trumpet virtuoso and Grammy winner Irvin Mayfield and an equally gifted group of musicians performed a collection of covers from the American and jazz songbook. Ruffins, his red jacket slung over his right shoulder, joined on Billie Holiday’s “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” and Louis Prima’s “Pennies From Heaven.” His delivery was both laid back and expressive. 

 “That was some Mr. Rogers’ shit right there,” said Mayfield, an affable host. “Kermit is Mr. Rogers of the hood.”

Playing without Ruffins, the band was unrestrained. Drummer Jamal Batiste — his dad was a member of The Gladiators and his cousin is Grammy-winner Jon Batiste — brought a fearless funk/hip-hop groove to his improvisation. Mayfield played keyboard and then turned to guitar and banjo, which he played with a mandolin-like intensity. Mayfield’s Afro Cuban influence with Los Hombres Calientes and later fronting the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra was clear as he fluidly led the ensemble.

“I am dedicated to live entertainment,” said Ruffins of being a musician and club operator. “That is the big difference more than anything else. I really want to have bands and see bands and feel that entertainment at my club. I want the walls to feel that jazz.”

The floor is painted cement. The ceiling is low and strung with patio lights. It’s about the size of a three-car garage. But the performance quality and entertainment value rivaled anything an audience would find at the most renowned jazz venues in the country. 

“We get up every morning doing it over and over again,” explained Ruffins, 59. “It’s a freakin’ blessing because I’m the type of guy who is up at 4:30 a.m. and lookin’ out the window thinking, ‘Where is the freakin’ sun?’ I’m ready to get up. I’m excited about each and every day. I’m going crazy until show time.”

The magic that is the Mother-In-Law Lounge was born out of necessity, tested by disaster and extolled by the faithful. 

JAZZ JAM: Kermit and the BBQ Swingers get down on a Tuesday night at Kermit’s Tremé Mother-In-Law Lounge. (Harmonese Pleasant)

Named for his 1961 No. 1 pop hit, Ernie K-Doe opened the Mother-In-Law Lounge in 1994. K-Doe was a beloved character and an elaborate entertainer who dressed in crowns and robes and dubbed himself Emperor of the Universe. When he died in 2001, K-Doe’s widow, Antoinette, who was also a musician, took over running the club. 

In 2005, the venue was flooded with about six feet of water by Hurricane Katrina. With community support, the lounge reopened a year later. Antoinette K-Doe kept the venue and her husband’s legacy alive until her death in 2009 during Mardi Gras. Ruffins agreed to lease the property in 2011 and reopened Kermit’s Tremé Mother-In-Law Lounge on Jan. 20, 2014. He claims the party hasn’t stopped since. 

Ruffins’ appreciation for traditional New Orleans music began early. He crafted his stage presence by watching old footage of Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway and busking the streets of the French Quarter in the early ‘80s. 

A native of the Crescent City, Ruffins co-founded the Rebirth Brass Band while he was still in high school. The band played the famous Glass House on Thursday nights for $1 cover. The group revolutionized the brass band community in the city with songs like “Do Watcha Wanna” that have become anthems and propelled the revival of the New Orleans second-line culture. 

“When we came along, we only had about five or six brass bands,” explained Ruffins. “None of them were young. We made it cool to the point where we started playing a little bit of everything in brass band form. It made it so cool to a point where I can’t even count the brass bands that are in the city right now.”

Ruffins fronted the band and toured the globe for nearly a decade before the pull of home and culture drew him back to New Orleans and a solo career. He’s released more than 15 albums, appeared as himself on the 2010 HBO Series “Tremé” and performed on “The Bare Necessities” featured on Disney’s 2016 theatrical release The Jungle Book

“What a blessing to be born in the lower ninth ward in 1964,” explained Ruffins. “I started the Rebirth in ’82 and here we are today, still traveling the world, playing music, putting records out and performing throughout the city. It’s a beautiful city, one of the most beautiful in the world – especially for its music and community.”