First things first: Bullet is a person.
When he was 18 years old, Rollin “Bullet” Garcia walked into a neighborhood grocery store and was shot after accidentally stumbling upon a robbery-in-progress. Garcia survived, thankfully, and so did his new nickname.
Cut to years later, and it’s now practically impossible to separate out the man, the nickname and his namesake watering hole, Bullet’s Sports Bar. All three have become synonymous with a particular kind of genuine bear-hugging warmth that’s unique to New Orleans and, more specifically, the bar’s tight-knit 7th Ward neighborhood.
Nestled inside the bottom half of a two-toned house, Bullet’s is, as you might’ve guessed, a place partial to sports. New Orleans Saints décor litters the walls, and television sets tucked in the back of the bar screen a constant loop of the day’s athleticism du jour, from almighty football to a down-and-dirty boxing match.
On any given night, regulars make their way in—cracking jokes, backslapping, catching up on the latest neighborhood gossip—and order drinks from bartenders who refer to guests, invariably, as “baby.” Meanwhile, a fleet of ramshackle food trucks lines up out front, dishing out ribs in tangy-sweet barbecue sauce, red beans and piles of crispy, golden shrimp in Styrofoam take-out containers.
But it’s not the food, or the sports or even the gloriously cheap drinks (though, of course, those never hurt) that make Bullet’s one of the city’s great hidden gems.
It’s the music.
Pound-for-pound, Bullet’s is the finest bar in New Orleans in which to enjoy live jazz in the way it was meant to be consumed: without fuss. An intimate venue, the bar is one long, cavernous room that feels like a converted basement, right down to remnants of birthday party décor that someone keeps forgetting to remove. There’s no stage—in fact, there’s nothing that separates drinkers from musicians, save a loosely constructed line of demarcation by way of a microphone. At Bullet’s, everyone is equal.
I started frequenting the bar a couple of years ago, encouraged by a bartender pal who knows the only thing stronger than my love for jazz is my commitment to the “set-up”: a style of serving drinks that begins with a half-pint of liquor, mixers of your choice, a bowl of ice and plastic cups. At Bullet’s, it’s the only way to drink.
Thanks to legendary trumpet player Kermit Ruffins, Tuesday nights were the hottest ticket at the bar (so much so that my friend built his work schedule around it). But it was Travis “Trumpet Black” Hill, not Ruffins, who played most frequently on Tuesdays when I started going. The grandson of legendary Louisiana bluesman Jessie Hill, Travis’ musical career had been derailed when, as a teenager, he was arrested for armed robbery and served nine years in jail. After being released, his commitment to his craft and devotion to community betterment positioned Hill as one of the city’s finest up-and-coming performers.
Cigarettes were still permitted inside New Orleans bars then, and by the end of a standard-issue Tuesday night, the room had worked up such a fog of smoke and steam that it was almost impossible to see clearly through the haze. No one ever really seemed to mind. Men in motorcycle jackets or cowboy hats would shimmy next to women throwing back their heads in laughter as they rattled off the chorus to the classic song, “Ooh Poo Pah Doo.” Often, a guy from the neighborhood would come through at just the right time selling snacks from a cardboard box—pralines and the like—which were the perfect fuel to keep going until the show’s end. I’d gleefully leave many times covered in a fine film of sweat, sugar and wing sauce.
In May 2015, Trumpet Black passed away unexpectedly while on tour in Tokyo. It was his electrifying music that made Bullet’s come alive for me, and for a while, I couldn’t imagine the bar without him in it.
Still, as the Bullet’s community mourned, the music continued. Kermit returned, moving his weekly show to Thursday nights. Spice’s still slings ham hock-dappled red beans from their food truck out front, and Bullet continues to be one of the city’s most affable hosts. Most importantly, though, the rick-rolling spirit of inclusiveness that has made Bullet’s a neighborhood anchor remains untouched, a family affair where everyone is a distant relative you haven’t met yet.