Tremé, the musical

Lovers of jazz, jazz beyond jazz, jazz before jazz are all watching Treme, right? The HBO series about New Orleans three months after Katrina sets a new standard for celebrating America’s roots music where this should happen — on tv.

It makes no sense to pay for cable (I thought content wants to be free!) but I do it to feed my insatiable appetite for quality narrative. Tremé depicts the foundations and outgrowths of popular music in the U.S. — jazz, blues, funeral brass bands with a second line, Mardi Gras Indian chants, soundtracks for French Quarter strippers, rap with a Crescent City beat. In the first three episodes of this dramatic series produced by the great David Simon and Eric Overmyer, we’ve already been:

He proceeds to teach her the basic F major bass line of “Tipitina,” explaining the song’s mambo beat.
Each Treme episode’s soundtrack is available for purchase 
— a smart and generous marketing move, because this music is catchy. And as someone wrote before I could there was more music presented whole — without anyone pontificating about its historical context or social value — in the 80-minute introductory episode (I cheer the series has been extended into a second season) than in the entire 10 hours of Ken Burns’ Jazz

Also, the music is held to a high standard, not dumbed down — it’s one of the Zahn character’s irritating rants that a tiresome handful of New Orleans’ classics are over-promoted, obscuring the depth of its musical resources — so the show’s determined to dip into that treasure trove. So doing, the stylistic array is totally satisfying to the fierce cognescenti as well as those who’ve ever known what it means to miss New Orleans. Dig:

Louis Prima sings “Buona Sera” lustily while the camera tours the riverfront. Louis Armstrong blows his golden horn on record behind a backyard barbeque. Zahn’s gay neighbors listen to Louis Gottschalk. Everybody has music on in their homes all the time. To top it off, the third episode ended with one of the most remarkable and affecting musical scenes to grace a fiction film in a long, long time: a fervently heart-felt Mardi Gras Indians’ performance of “Indian Red” in a memorial service for a fallen member of a 9th Ward tribe. 
A loose circle of men and a couple of women gather on the curb in front of a hurricane ravaged house. There’s a cry, the beat and shake of a small drum, husky voices falling into chorus. The vocal calls date back some two hundred years, the percussion probably precedes that by an eon, and here’s true-life Big Chief Darryl Montana chanting alongside actor Clarke Peters, who portrays a grim returnee determined to pull his culture back together. Peters’ character ended the series opener with an incandescent dance, wearing his orange- feathered, intricately beaded Carnival costume in the otherwise dark streets of his sodden neighborhood (electricity hasn’t yet been restored). That was a ghostly sequence, but one promising continuity and renewal, not fading grace.

There are many things to like about Treme: the bumptious comedy of Wendell Pierce, knockabout trombonist; the view into New Orleans’ food culture over the shoulder of beautiful Kim Dickens, who struggles to reopen her restaurant; the legacy of racial hierarchies riling hard-bitten saloon owner LaDonna Batiste-Williams, who was once Pierce’s wife; the tough position of the pro bono lawyers, here Melissa Leo trying to trace a missing man; the unvarnished telling of truth to power projected by John Goodman, whose size makes us worry he won’t be around forever. 

But what’s greatest overall about Treme is how it gives us a unique, rich culture from the inside. “Here’s New Orleans,” it says. “Get it now? The significance of 3/4s of the place being washed away? Does it affect your image of what America is and could be?”
That’s my take-away. Plus, it’s entertaiment.

Since childhood I’ve been a sucker, I admit it, for music theater. South Pacific and everything Frank Loesser (whose centenary arrives in June),”Annie Get Your Gun,” “Show Boat”  “West Side Story”, “Kiss Me Kate,” “Li’l Abner,” “Gypsy,” “Pajama Game,” “Damn Yankees,” “Oklahoma,” “Bye Bye Birdie,  of course “Porgy and Bess.” On tv, I’ve enjoyed Pennies from Heaven and even Cop Rock. Nothing’s ever successfully integrated music with story as Tremé does.

It’s not perfect: plot lines aren’t in clear focus yet; sometimes the patois begs subtitles, and one might doubt there’s a nation out yonder; Baton Rouge is considered another country, and when the scene shifts to NYC it’s a shock. Forces of official law and order are so far all brutal and uncaring. I suspect politicians and exploiters will soon be showing their weasily faces. Laissez les bon temps roulez!
But as with Simon’s brilliant The Wire, and before that Homicide: Life on the Streets, patience is rewarded with the complex interweavings and relationships, albeit in necessary artistic compression of life. The writers are struggling to balance accurate social observation with the emotions of personal struggle. It’s a tall order. Very nice any production company is seriously trying it.

Always great to hear New Orleans music — and sit before the flatscreen, wondering if/when Fats Domino will make an actual appearance, or the Neville Brothers, Irma Thomas, Dr. Michael White, Dave Torkanovsky, Rob Wagner, William A. Thompson, Little Queenie, Beausoliel, Walter “Wolfman” Washington, the Dirty Dozen, one of the gospel choirs. How will the revival of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival be treated (the NOJHF is happening for real right now — why aren’t we there)? Will we get inside Preservation Hall (we’ve already walked past it). Is Wynton Marsalis welcome on this show? His name has been brought up with bracing ambivalence. What about his brothers and father Ellis and brothers? Or Kidd Jordan and his musical progeny? The Baptistes? The Thibodeaux?  

I can’t guess how the multiple threads will develop into the future (this must be why I’m not writing for it).
Are we all going to get as frustrated as N’Awlin’s actual residents with the tragic national neglect, the unrepaired damage, the surge of violent crime, our inability to wrap collective will around the project of renewal? Is there a future of New Orleans? These questions themselves hold suspense.

However, this is appointment televison due to the music. If Treme had no plot, no sympathetic people and was shot on a cellphone, such sounds would plentifully reward an hour. As it is — HBO’s high production values are used to catalog a catastrophe. Simon’s brilliant cast and crew probe embarrassing wrinkles in the American psyche. Will Toussaint hire the Dixie Cups to spice up Dr. John’s album date? Will the storm have unearthed Buddy Bolden’s long-rumored recording? Can a backbeat foment social reformation?  Turn in Sunday nights, 10 EDT — and remember, it’s five years since the storm.
Subscribe by Email |
Subscribe by RSS |
Follow on Twitter
All JBJ posts |

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. says

    Terrific review. I’m loving this new series on HBO. I can’t remember New Orleans even getting mentioned in any of the public school American History lessons I had as a student. Its such a huge part of our history and culture. The city has always represented a kind of human triumph for me, the beautiful product greater than its sums of African, European and Indigineous cultures.