'Treme,' Episode Three: Playing For That Money
by Patrick Jarenwattananon with Josh Jackson of WBGO
The most powerful scene in episode three of Treme takes place in the destroyed Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Mardi Gras Indians from several tribes have gathered to commemorate the death of their comrade, who literally died during Hurricane Katrina. In the middle of the highly spiritual ceremony, set amid grey destruction, a "Katrina Tour" bus barrels through. The hostility is searing.
Treme is about the residents of New Orleans, but the real town depends economically on tourism, and its cinematic depiction doesn't ignore this. Antoine and the buskers make their livings playing music largely for tourists; restaurants like Janette's do business with out-of-towners; Davis' last paycheck came from working at a hotel. And not just the debauchery/Bourbon Street side of tourism, but the marketing of culture, of authentic experience of an eccentric city. The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, as amazing and overwhelming as it is, testifies to this.
With the "Katrina Tour" bus, and the clueless Wisconsin tourists of episode two, Treme's creators seem to be hinting at what they feel constitutes authentic experience. It can't be voyeurism, or passively observed; it's participated in, lived every day by everyday people. It's an argument that compelling cultural activity happens all the time.
In New Orleans, where musicians are very much everyday people, the show's soundtrack is more than just background music. Speaking of that soundtrack, WBGO's Josh Jackson and I, having just soaked up three days of Jazz Fest, e-mailed about episode three, as we have for the first two as well. HBO's full playlist is here.
Patrick Jarenwattananon: Ok, so let's look at the music performances, which you and I recently learned were entirely recorded live to tape -- no studio mixing-in afterward. (It's an amazing engineering feat, if I may say so.) The first is Annie and Sonny's performance with the accordion player, doing "La Vie En Rose." That's in the French Quarter, I can recognize. I know there's a lot of competent busking in that part of town.
Josh Jackson: That's Jackson Square, in front of St. Louis Cathedral. It's a great spot for busking, since so many tourists pass there. A certain 43rd POTUS once executed some lovely stagecraft in that area; the colonial seat of government, called The Cabildo, is there too.
The accordion player with them is a real one, Bruce "Sunpie" Barnes. He's a zydeco player. I use that term rather generally, because he can play a lot of music that's not adherent to a singular word.
PJ: At that moment, Tom McDermott approaches them -- as in the actual musician, Tom McDermott. I know I've heard that name before: he played piano during Toast of the Nation 2009, and I know you saw him a few days ago backing up singer Lillian Boutte. Who is this cat?
JJ: Tom McDermott is a very versatile pianist. I think he's been in the "talent deserving wider recognition" category for most of his professional life. Tom has an incredible knowledge of creole dance music that contributed in some way or another to the development of jazz, or more broadly, the identity of New Orleans music. He can play contradanzas, habaneras, choro and ragtime. He can also play the rumba style of Professor Longhair, or the florid classical funk of pianist James Booker. He can navigate the complexity of Jelly Roll Morton's "Finger Buster" with savoir faire. When I saw him at Donna's, he opened with Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever," and he put many of these elements into the performance. He's also a great accompanist for a singer. He brings a lot to the bandstand.
PJ: Tom hires Annie to play a gig with him, duo violin and piano. Even though it's her birthday, she takes the gig -- she could probably use the money. They're shown jamming on an old standard, "King Porter Stomp." Now, I noticed when Tom was chatting up Annie, he asked her if she played jazz, if she read music, stuff like that. Which brings up this point: if you want to make a living as a musician in New Orleans, you have to be exceptionally good and exceptionally versatile.
JJ: You have to be a very capable musician to survive in New Orleans. Musicianship is an age-old craft here, so it doesn't seem exceptional when you live in the city and hear so much of it. I'm thinking of one immediate example: sousaphonist Matt Perrine, who had seven different gigs this past Saturday alone during Jazz Fest. That's what it takes to raise a family on performing music alone. Otherwise, you better know a handy trade, like so many of Creoles traditionally performed, including plastering, tinsmithing and other crafts that contribute to the preservation of New Orleans' architectural heritage.
PJ: Dr. John makes a performing cameo in this episode, being a bit gruff and rehearsing his take on "My Indian Red" for the [Jazz At] Lincoln Center New Orleans benefit show. I hear him shouting out a lot of tribes and their leaders, using the word "jockamo," etc. What's all this about?
JJ: The specific meaning is a little cloudy, but most folks agree that the origin is part of the Creole patois associated with the Mardi Gras Indian rituals. There's no academy guarding a precise definition. A generally accepted belief is that it is some kind of call to awareness between two rival tribes.
PJ: That's an obvious contrast to the version of "My Indian Red" at the end, chanted so chillingly by the Mardi Gras indians as a sort of funeral rite. ("Hey Pocky A-Way" is in there too, I believe.) In fact, Dr. John says something about how he's a bit tense about co-opting the Indian chant for his own performance, but ultimately, we see that he goes about it with respect for the song's artistic value and the tradition behind it. Or did you think otherwise?
JJ: Well, I was glad to hear him mention Danny Barker's recorded version of it. Notice also he mentions Wardell Quezergue, a legendary arranger of New Orleans music also known as the "Creole Beethoven."
Of course, Dr. John knows this history very well. Read his autobiography, Under a Hoodoo Moon. He's been one of the cats for a very long time.
There's a racial context underlying that qualification he makes. No one worth a damn wants to trample on something so sacrosanct to the African-American experience of New Orleans. Being a cultural carpetbagger is a cardinal sin, and you don't want to be excommunicated in such a small town. Dr. John exposed this music to a lot of people, but he's been very upfront about the sources. His music also has a life of its own.
PJ: Davis is becoming a more complex character, rather than just the somewhat annoying, hot-headed fellow he first appeared to be. He's obviously a total dork and apologist about New Orleans music. I mean, in giving piano lessons to the Bernettes' girl, Sophia, he teaches not scales, rudiments, classical pieces -- but the Professor Longhair signature tune, "Tipitina." These sorts of people actually exist in New Orleans, I've learned.
JJ: Yeah. They have and continue to exist, especially at WWOZ. Even though Davis (the character) isn't working there right now, he'll be back -- that's according to show co-creator Eric Overmyer.
What can I say? Music lovers everywhere are passionate people. Recently, two volunteer announcers let that emotion get the best of them. I'm not naming names, but a small coterie of music freaks in New Orleans know who I'm talking about. I think I might want someone like that teaching my daughter about Professor Longhair. Hopefully, I'll get to her first, though.
PJ: Let's go back to the scene where a drunk Antoine joins the buskers in a rough-hewn but effective take on "Ghost Of A Chance." (As an aside, Wendell Pierce plays an amazing drunk.) It's an ironic selection: the police beat him up, basically for being clumsy, and he stands no chance against them.
JJ: Yea, that was a painful sequence to watch.
PJ: In The Wire, the police got to be complete human beings, with motivations for good or evil like any other human beings. Here, they're pretty much completely, almost inhumanly terrible -- and I get the sense that this is how most NOLA residents view their city's police department. I mean, they hassle Sonny and Annie, nab Delmond for marijuana, arrest Antoine for no apparent reason ... they're completely unredeeming. I mean, they and every single other government institution is portrayed as uncaring.
JJ: Maybe a more "nuanced" view of the cops will come. Some people have a strong position on justice in New Orleans, and whether it has ever been applied equally since Reconstruction. That's no different from many places, in the South especially. Welcome to the advanced discussion on culture and memory. Feel free to add your comments below.
Anyway, New Orleans did have a few more pressing issues three months after Katrina than possession of marijuana or bumping into a police cruiser with a trombone slide. I'm not an apologist for either side of the coin, but to be fair, everyone in Treme is living in a shattered image of a community, even the fictional police.
PJ: Related to that is Delmond's sentiment, which he expresses to his fellow horn players (including Trombone Shorty). Delmond is now a New York resident -- he feels like the best musicians have to leave New Orleans to "get their due." He cites Louis Armstrong and Louis Prima as examples. There is, of course, disagreement with this, but nobody will deny that New Orleans is certainly a very different scene (especially for a "modern jazz cat" like Delmond), in both size and character, than New York is.
JJ: Before Jazz Fest, you and I were at the Louisiana Music Factory for trumpeter Maurice Brown's in-store. (He has left New Orleans too.) The pianist Jesse McBride, who is still in the city, was telling me he had only one other gig besides his performance at the Jazz and Heritage Festival. He was very matter of fact when he said to me, "You know how this town is about modern jazz." New Orleans is different from New York, or anywhere. That has positive and negative connotations for individuals.
PJ: You're a jazz radio producer. You left New Orleans for New York. You know something about this.
JJ: Well, I had it in my mind to try New York for my own reasons. I got a lucky break, and I was brave enough to take a calculated risk. So far, so good. Obviously, I would love to be able to do my job from anywhere, but that opportunity does not yet exist. If you think prospects for modern jazz musicians are dim, what does that say about whatever this is that I do? Anyway, what I wanted ten years ago was very different. Now I simply will not tolerate anything less than world domination, Pinky.
PJ: All right, Brain. Finally, what recorded music worked well for you? I noticed that the end credits roll out on Donald Harrison Jr.'s beautiful, modal take on "Indian Red." Davis listens to an Ernie K-Doe song, and blares the New Orleans Nightcrawlers to annoy the neighbors. Any thoughts on this or anything else I neglected?
JJ: I love Donald's version of "Indian Red" -- reminds me of Coltrane's "Dear Lord." It's worth noting that his sister, Cherise Harrison-Nelson, is in the final scene with the Indians. She's an amazing woman, and it was overdue from someone to really recognize that Indians are not just anpther boy's club. Women sew and dress too.
Also, Vernel Bagneris, a very talented man, is Bernard, LaDonna's brother-in-law. His character introduces another complexity about race, which is too big to address at the moment. I'm sure we'll get to it sometime.
Davis is listening to "A Certain Girl" to great effect. The Nightcrawlers are playing their take on "Lil' Liza Jane"; it's called "Funky Liza." The Big Chief inspects feathers to Coleman Hawkins. I love that record, The Hawk Flies High, though I wonder if they considered Lester Young; Pres has the stronger connection to New Orleans. Maybe there's a connection to the name of the song itself, "Think Deep."
I heard Huey "Piano" Smith and James Booker, and Lil' Queenie in the strip joint. Longtime blues-rockers The Radiators are also represented with "Ace in the Hole." I need to get me one of those.
Related At NPR Music: All of our Treme discussions live here.
3:51 PM ET | 04-26-2010 | permalink