The actor Wendell Pierce is well-known to fans of the HBO program Treme as Antoine Batiste, the salty trombonist and occasional crooner. This season saw him expand on his mercenary musicianship by starting his own band — Antoine Batiste and the Soul Apostles, a funk-and-soul outfit which he fronted — and by taking a teaching job in an elementary school, an engagement he initially resisted but grows to appreciate.
Pierce had to learn the trombone for the role, and continues to study the instrument. But he's been around jazz and New Orleans music for many years: He was raised in the Crescent City, and still spends much of his time there filming Treme and rehabilitating his old neighborhood, Pontchartrain Park. He also works a lot from New York, where he's the host of Jazz at Lincoln Center radio. That gives him a chance to work with a high school friend: Wynton Marsalis.
When the A Night In Treme musical revue rolled through Washington, D.C., I caught up with Pierce backstage. He was about to take the stage with Donald Harrison Jr., Dr. Michael White, Big Sam, James Andrews and the Rebirth Brass Band, narrating a barn-burning performance that saw dozens of audience members dancing on the stage and in the aisles of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Before the show, we spoke about the story arc of Antoine Batiste, the differences between jazz in New York and New Orleans, and his brief, checkered career as a horn player.
Patrick Jarenwattananon: So did you play when you were growing up too?
Wendell Pierce: I played trumpet for about two weeks. Sixth grade. And I didn't practice. Maybe a little longer than two weeks, but I didn't practice and I was faking it. Unfortunately I was on the left side of the band, on the end of the trumpet line, and we were doing "[When] The Saints Go Marching In." Classic. And we had a little routine, a little choreography, turn to the right, "buh buh buh buh," turn to the left. And while I was looking out the window, they cut off the band and I was just playing with the valves, and Mr. Louis said, "When do we play that line?" And I'm like, "Huh?" "Play that line! Oh OK, turn in your horn." So that was the end of it.
PJ: So what's it been like to learn the trombone?
WP: It's been great. First of all now, I thought, "Oh, the trombone, everybody wants to play trumpet."
PJ: It's a hard instrument, the trombone.
WP: I find it easier than the valve instruments, for me. Because whenever you're off, you can always slide, either sharp or flat to slide into the note — you can always tailgate until you hit the note. The whole visual and the coordination of the hand and ear really is a little easier for me. But then they switched up in the second season: They had me singing so much more, which is terrifying for me. So I spent so much time working on those songs. I would say for every minute, I spent a week.
PJ: Speaking of singing, I've got two questions there. First of all, did you hear those songs growing up?
WP: Yeah, I knew the tunes so it terrified me even more. Billy Paul, "Me and Mrs. Jones"? Yes, I heard all those songs. "Love and Happiness," Al Green. It's Al Green, man! I'm going to go on international television and try to sing "Love and Happiness." So I was terrified. That's the real acting thing. Acting is — for Antoine Batiste, he's not terrified. He's soulful, and so that's what I always have to remind myself.
PJ: Do you have any formal voice lessons, and do you think Antoine Batiste ever did either?
WP: I did. At Julliard we had some voice classes. It was really just so you could carry a tune. It always just helps with your speaking voice also, when you connect your diaphragm and your breath.
Antoine Batiste didn't. A lot of cats in New Orleans, very soulful, very soulful musicians and they assume that they're singers. And they just make that assumption. And so when there's a little intonation problem, people are very forgiving of them because they heard how soulful they play.
Wendell Pierce's Antoine Batiste became the lead singer of his own funk and soul band this season of Treme.
PJ: I was going to say, I think you asked on Twitter, "How's my singing?" and I thought, "I like it, it's really soulful, it seems like its meaningful, but it's not quite a trained singer's voice."
WP: Right, no, it's your typical musician. A musician will, I find — I shouldn't be speaking and making [such] a broad statement — but a lot of musicians would rather capture that soulfulness than be exact as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It's Michael Jackson when he breaks on the end of "She's Out Of My Life," and [the ending of] "You Are So Beautiful To Me," Joe Cocker.
PJ: Fair enough. So you must have grown up with a lot of jazz music too. As somebody who's spend a lot of time in both cities, what do you think the differences are between New Orleans and New York jazz, and how has this season concentrated a lot on that?
WP: Well, I love the push-and-pull nature of what Rob [Brown]'s character Delmond goes through. Because I've watched so many of my friends like Wynton [Marsalis], Branford [Marsalis], cats like [trumpeter] Marlon Jordan, who've come up, and like [Delmond] said in earlier episodes, "Man, every note I play has New Orleans in it." You can't give that up. I think it has more to do with continuing to explore the boundaries of what your music idealism is. Cats from New Orleans who venture out and take their music to New York, they will always have their foot in New Orleans, but at the same time, they're trying to push the boundaries, they're trying to go further, they're trying to challenge their musicianship and challenge their craftsmanship.
So I think that's what the difference is. Where in New Orleans, everybody has that canon of New Orleans songs that they know, they'll explore that to the Nth degree. And they'll write some new music too, and explore that, but they really engage the canon. Cats who leave New Orleans are looking to, I find, just expand their musicianship a little bit more. But the two are not at odds. They're both expansion. I think that's the only difference when you see someone who goes to New York.
And then all the cats I know in New York who've just gone straight [to] New York from other cities, and musicians from New York, they recognize it. 'Cause they'll joke around and tease New Orleans musicians like, "Oh yeah, there they go. Do your thing, you gotta do your big four from New Orleans." Every cat in New Orleans — every cat in New York makes fun of New Orleans musicans, just teasin' and rippin'. "They're always trying to find their big four, second-line groove in their drummers, and find that line like Pops and get that vibrato and trumpet" and stuff, so they joke. But they have a sense of envy.
PJ: Sure. You know, I read somewhere that you knew Wynton Marsalis was you were growing up yourselves, in high school?
WP: Yeah, we went to high school together. We went to Benjamin Franklin High School and NOCCA. He was two years ahead of me.
PJ: But you were in acting.
WP: Yeah, I was in acting. The way NOCCA worked — New Orleans Center for Creative Arts — is you went to your regular high school half the day and then you traveled to NOCCA. And we were at our regular high school also, Ben Franklin, which is like this great college prepatory school. Stuyvesant in New York is, to New York, what Ben Franklin is to New Orleans. So you had the best of both worlds academically. I remember meeting Wynton: He was into chess, still is to this day. And then when I went to NOCCA and I heard [him at] an open house. I was listening; I heard him play. I've known Wynton since 16 years old.
PJ: So after the former host of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Radio show passed on, you offered your services over?
WP: I said I would love to do it. If there's ever an opportunity, and that's the only way that I saw as an actor, I would be able to be a part of what Wynton was building at Jazz at Lincoln Center. I think what's happening at Jazz of Lincoln Center and what Wynton started with that has sort of spread throughout the country, where arts institutions have embraced jazz and brought it to another level. At the time it was Wynton at Jazz at Lincoln Center, John Faddis at Carnegie Hall, and then other places. So it was really wonderful to have jazz be institutionalized at our great halls of our art, because it needs to continue to have that sense of archive, to make sure that we archive great preformances, great influences, great changes in the music. It's freedom within form. So people who are so worried that you shouldn't do that with jazz, their concern is misplaced. Because if any art form will survive any sorts of restraint, it's jazz, because the whole idea of jazz is freedom within form. You can honor form and at the same time show your individualism.
PJ: So talking about going to big institutions, how's this concert tour been going? How've the audiences been?
WP: It's been fantastic. The halls don't know what to think of it. I mean people, we were in Davis Hall and they said we've never seen anything like this. People up on their feet, people dancing on the stage actually in San Francisco, all in the aisles. Chicago Symphony Hall last night was just wonderful. They didn't know what to make of it. And then also, just to be in the Hollywood Bowl at Playboy Jazz Festival and watch 18,000 people second-lining. It was really great to also see the response that people were having to Treme 'cause you're in a vacuum when you're on a TV show. You see the response online, you read about it and all of that, but actually to be live and have that many thousands of fans come out, it's really wonderful. I'm expecting the same thing to happen tonight at the Kennedy Center.
Antoine (Wendell Pierce) and his girlfriend Desiree (Phyllis Montana-LeBlanc) move on up in season two of Treme.
PJ: Well, I hope so. D.C.'s a tough crowd sometimes, but I think they'll be convinced. So, a few more questions. Have you gained a better appreciation of what it takes now that you're taking the show on the road? Of what are your character is going through, trying to run a band?
WP: Oh, definitely. Even more than that, besides just running a band, I got real appreciation of that: for putting together a tour. Especially a tour where guys aren't accustomed to their band members. I realize with a sort of all-star cast, like tonight, you maybe really appreciate how well they work together, that there's a necessity of musicianship to be there, craftsmanship, to be there, because you're taking people out of their elements really. ... They're actually working with a whole new group of guys, they're working with a whole new rhythm section, so it's a different feel, and different genres of music ... different styles within jazz. So it made me appreciate the musicianship, the coordination, the logistics, people on time, not on time, if somebody's running late, or if somebody wants to do something else, "I don't like that tune," "Play it in a different key." That happens in every workplace, so I understand that. What I've really learned on this tour is the high level of musicianship: Where people just jump in and out of planes and then cars, and then come and do a soundcheck, and then tonight, minutes before, they prepare and are ready to hit. That, night after night, has been amazing. Great guys to hang out with too. But just really, their musicianship is just on display, a high level of it.
PJ: The other thing: Your character at the beginning of this season was pretty hesitant to take that job teaching in the schools. But it seems like your character is growing a real appreciation for the art of teaching as well, and the need for it.
WP: Yeah, I think what Antoine has done is learned that's the part of the legacy that he passes on. He understood it with the passing of Nelson last year: His mentor passes on the horn, and says that to his Japanese benefactor, like, "We have that tradition." And when [the Japanese benefactor] says, "We have that tradition too in Japan," I'm like, "Yeah, that's the whole part of it." And what [Antoine] thought was, "Oh, a job that I really didn't want to take," is really a part of that. You guys are musicians, this is our music, it's a part of civic pride and cultural pride that he's tapped into, and [Antoine] started to realize that it's having an effect on him.
PJ: Even if you yourself were not the best musician at age 10?
WP: Oh yes, I know. Now, man, it's like I'm looking forward to just working on the horn. I mean, I'm looking forward to getting back and working on the horn. Especially now after the tour.
PJ: Are we actually gonna get to see you play at any point? Maybe a few years down the road?
WP: Maybe a few years down the road. I did make my public debut. I did open the Hornets game [the New Orleans NBA franchise], the Hornets season with Rebirth [Brass Band], but it's still a little tentative because I told them, "Make sure they don't put a mic on me!" So I was still nervous about it; I was still very nervous about it. One night after one of our wrap parties or something like that, I had a little liquid courage in me, and the next thing you know, Stafford [Agee, Rebirth's trombonist] handed me the horn, and I just knew I could play, and everybody was cheering me on. But it's kinda like Tinker Bell: "I just wish I could fly, wish I could fly, I wish I could play, wish I could play, like, c'mon, you can do it." Like, no, you can't just click your heels and hope. ... So one day yeah, hopefully.
For our complete coverage of Treme at A Blog Supreme, visit our archives. The Treme tour continues with its rotating cast and a handful of dates in fall 2011.