'Treme,' Episode 5: Struttin' With Some Southern Cooking
So you know when, in episode five of Treme, those four big-time chefs come in from New York to eat at Janette's restaurant? She makes a point not to "out New York" them, but still hits them with artful Southern cooking: sweet potato andouille shrimp soup, rabbit kidneys wrapped in bacon lardons, crawfish and grits, lamb, etc. Janette impresses those guys, and they seem loose and relaxed. It seems to me to be saying something to the effect of "we do it our own way here" — but still at a very high level, objectively speaking.
Well-stated. Negotiating the line between New Orleans and New York has its rewards, whether you're a big chief, a big chef, or Louis Armstrong. Negotiating your way through a plate of grits and grillades versus a pastrami sandwich is helpful to understand the difference.
Oh, hello again Josh Jackson of WBGO. You know, I can see a theoretical parallel scene in my head: Delmond is going to show up in a later episode with a bunch of New York jazz musicians, and they're going to be really impressed with the local talent.
They should be. Connecting to the music of New Orleans can be a powerful experience. On that note ...
Patrick Jarenwattananon: Ok, first order of business: who are all those guys who Davis McAlary cajoles to play for him? I recognized Kermit Ruffins of course, and saxophonist Ben Ellman from Galactic ... others look familiar, but I can't put names on them myself.
Josh Jackson: He asks the Pfister Sisters to sing back-up vocals. That's Jimbo Walsh on bass, and Derek Freeman, a protege of Shannon Powell, on drums. The actual Davis Rogan is on piano and sucking crawfish heads. Tyrus Chapman on trombone.
PJ: There's a woman alto player in that batch too. There haven't been a lot of female musicians — and even fewer instrumentalists — in the show so far.
JJ: Aurora Nealand. She plays with the Panorama Jazz Band. They play the traditional style of New Orleans, klezmer, and other folkloric music.
PJ: Ok, so they play an interpolation of "Shame, Shame, Shame." Why are the musicians suspicious of covering that song? Who's the Cosimo character the producer mentions? Who's Smiley Lewis? And then, of course, there's the political message behind the song: that the Federal government is actively trying to keep New Orleans' poor people from returning to the city, even though they represent New Orleans culture at its fullest. (It's notable that Albert Lambreaux goes on the war path for this cause too.)
JJ: Smiley Lewis was a wonderful blues singer. He is revered in New Orleans, but curiously, he never made it big; Fats Domino eclipsed him on the national stage. Smiley recorded with Tuts Washington on Deluxe and later for Imperial Records, where Dave Bartholomew produced all those great sides for Lew Chudd in New York. The session men back then included Frank Fields, Huey "Piano" Smith, Earl Palmer, Walter "Papoose" Nelson, Lee Allen, Justin Adams, Red Tyler — all pioneers of rock 'n' roll. Cosimo Matassa recorded many of the sessions in a single room over J&M Music Shop on Rampart Street and Dumaine. Feel free to get the history in book form: I cannot recommend I Hear You Knockin' by Jeff Hannusch enough.
Some people of New Orleans were very suspicious of the motivations behind the federal government's decisions immediately after the disaster, and rightfully so. The fact that so many of the poorest citizens are responsible for the richest parts of this nation's culture is no new idea. Most of this country has no clue exactly which things that make New Orleans great, other than what's been commodified into popular culture. Too often, that did not benefit the people who made it. Like Roy Blount says at the restaurant Upperline, while having dinner with friends, "There are times when rage is the only rational response." That includes appropriating Smiley Lewis.
PJ: You know, there's some righteous anger at the Federal government and President Bush in that song, but as Creighton says in a YouTube rant at the beginning of the episode, New Orleans would forgive Bush if his administration would actually keep its promises. That sounds about right too.
JJ: A quick history lesson may prove illuminating. In 1965, Hurricane Betsy destroyed New Orleans, and President Lyndon Baines Johnson was there within 24 hours. He came despite signing the Voting Rights Act that alienated the Dixiecrats who controlled Louisiana politics. Johnson even visited a school on St. Claude Avenue that was a makeshift refuge for mostly African American citizens. He then pledged to do what he could as the chief executive of our country. The Flood Control Act of 1965 followed, whereby the Corps of Engineers would supposedly solve all our problems ... Anyway, I found an interesting quote from Johnson at the time:
Now, in times of distress, it's necessary that all the members of the family get together and lay aside any individual problems they have or any personal grievances and try to take care of the sick mother, and we've got a sick mother on our hands. And as I said the other night when I was there, we've got to cut out all the red tape. We've got to work around the clock. We've got to ignore hours. We've got to bear in mind that we exist for only one purpose and that's to the greatest good for the greatest number. And the people who've lost their homes, people who have lost their furniture, the people who have lost some of their crops and even their families are not going to be very interested in any individual differences between federal or state or local agencies."
PJ: Moving on, I feel like the show made sure to make clear that Antoine's trombone benefactor was a wealthy Japanese person. Not another American from somewhere else in the country, but someone who was clearly a foreigner — and one who was very passionate about New Orleans jazz. Now, he was working with the Tipitina's Foundation, and there are a number of domestic efforts to help out New Orleans musicians. But I think the point there was that some Japanese people know about this slice of America's cultural heritage far better than most Americans do.
JJ: "Japan, Japan?" Yes. America had better thank Japan and some other places for keeping certain aspects of our tradition afloat. I'm thankful for the support of agencies like the National Endowment for the Arts, but I think grassroots activism has always had a more direct power. The Tipitina's Foundation and the Jazz Foundation of America put instruments back in people's hands. You cannot underestimate that kind of investment.
PJ: Antoine plays a little something for the Japanese man too: Kid Ory's solo on the Louis Armstrong Hot Five recording of "Struttin' With Some Barbecue." The trombonist Ory is one of the Japanese man's many heroes (he also cites the Hot Five recording of "You Made Me Love You"). Matter of fact, a lot of names get exchanged between him and Antoine: Alvin Batiste (no relation, fictional or otherwise), Shannon Powell, Germaine Bazzle, Honore Dutrey, Big Eye Louis, Big Jim Robinson, Thomas Valentine, and even that photo of King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band with Louis Armstrong holding a slide trumpet.
JJ: Somewhere, slide trumpeter Steven Bernstein is smiling about that slide trumpet reference ... Yes, that's Ory's solo from the Hot Fives "Struttin' With Some Barbeque," and it is one of the exemplary models of the "tailgate" trombone style. Honore Dutrey was another early trombonist and a member of Joe "King" Oliver's band. Jim Robinson is another great trombonist. Big Eye Louis Nelson was a clarinetist, not to be confused with Louis Nelson the trombone player. Kid Thomas Valentine blew a mean trumpet. Shannon Powell and singer Germaine Bazzle are all part of the current jazz community of New Orleans. So was Alvin Batiste, who played clarinet and taught many of the many New Orleans modernists.
A final note about the obscure "You Made Me Love You," one of the many maudlin Percy Venable lyrics that Louis Armstrong immortalized — "Sunset Cafe Stomp," "Irish Black Bottom," and "Big Butter and Egg Man From The West" being others. This song doesn't fit neatly in the (Eurocentrically-biased) narrative of Armstrong, the cornet player of high art. But his vocal solo on the third chorus is 32 bars of sheer genius, its novelty-song origin notwithstanding.
PJ: So Annie is rehearsing some classical work — sounds like Bach or something Baroque — when Sonny walks in singing his take on "Junco Partner." There's some clash of cultures symbolism there, but it also brings to mind: a lot of people probably know that song as a Clash song, but it's very much a New Orleans blues. It references Angola prison, after all.
JJ: This Sonny character is a hot mess. Drugs are bad, m'kay? I love The Clash, but there's way more to this song than their take on it. Try James Booker or Champion Jack Dupree for starters. "Junco Partner" comes from the old "Junker's Blues," and that junker style is a real piano tradition in New Orleans. You hear that melody in plenty of New Orleans music from Fats Domino and Lloyd Price to musicians today.
PJ: Indeed, perhaps it's just me catching on to them, but there were an awful lot of inside references in this episode. King cake, the Sazerac cocktail, Abita Amber beer, the Vietnamese population at large, the cameos from humorist Roy Blount, Jr. and restaurateur JoAnn Clevenger, and this year's targets of the Krewe du Vieux satirical parade, including ex-governor Kathleen Blanco and ex-mayor Ray Nagin ...
JJ: Don't leave out the Krewe du Vieux reference to was the Mystic Krewe of Spermes ... How can you not love an organization that meets in Ernie K-Doe's Mother-In-Law Lounge and promotes a mission of "exposing the world to the true nature of Mardi Gras — and in exposing ourselves to the world." C'est levee, baby!
PJ: And then there's something filled with local color: the second line, featuring the music of the Rebirth Brass Band. A few notes about the parade. First, it's cold outside — it must be late December or January — but the turnout is greater than expected. Second, it seems like everyone is invited to join in, but it's certainly the African American population which is most visible. Third, it's unfortunately also very true to New Orleans of that time that there's a shooting: as we find out in a number of ways, violent crime is returning to the city as the people are too.
JJ: Notice the real New Orleans street signs people carry to make a point: they say "Desire, Humanity, Pleasure." As to your third point, this fictional sequence for Treme is based on a real event: the All-Star Second Line Parade on Jan. 15, 2006. There was a shooting unrelated to the actual parade, and that became the nexus of NOPD's escalating battle with New Orleans culture post-Katrina. No amount of police detail can prevent senseless violence or score-settling. This issue between the duty to protect and the (literal and figurative) price on culture will get uglier. The wayward officers who pawned Antoine Batiste's trombone are not helping the department's cause much, either.
PJ: Speaking of violence, a drunken Davis oversteps his bounds at a bar in the Treme regarding an incident about the N-word. As much as Davis feels some sense of ownership of New Orleans and the Treme — and does a lot for the neighborhood and the music scene — he's still just some foolish white guy.
JJ: True dat. A man has got to know his limitations. Davis is maybe a little too impulsive to understand his role in the cultural pecking order. He's lucky it was just a really good punch, and not something more.
PJ: Speaking of people who wind up screwed, Sonny's bouncer friend from episode four, who is ostensibly Hispanic and bilingual, finds employment as a day laborer. And then he moves out of or has to leave Sonny and Annie's place. Seems to some extent to be a commentary about the Latino community of New Orleans.
JJ: There was a lot of tension created by the influx of Latino workers who were working to rebuild the city, undocumented or legal. When it comes to immigration, racism has no borders. All communities — black, brown, yellow, white — have a low appreciation for each other. The situation also worsens because of opportunists masking as contractors, etc. Meanwhile, the Vietnamese community rebuilds on its own. And some people are trying very desperately to return home. When they do, they're faced with enormous and trivial hurdles. Life's messy details are now really big issues. Who deserves to return? Who will stay? Is this really a zero-sum world, like Creighton says in an earlier episode?
I'm reminded of the scene with Albert Lambreaux passing by Gralen Banks at City Hall, trying to square away the parade permits. Banks, a real-life member of the Black Men of Labor, is with Tamara Jackson from the Social Aid and Pleasure Task Force. They are heading off the permit issues with the police and city officials.
Why do people put up with all these insults? Banks put it best in an NPR story: "I'd rather be in a FEMA trailer in New Orleans than in a penthouse anywhere else."
Related At NPR Music: All our Treme e-mail conversations are amassed here.