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:
- in a street parade following Rebirth Brass Band,
- in a recording studio with Allen Toussaint and Dr. John,
- in a bar (alongside Elvis Costello) hearing trumpeter Kermit Ruffins,
- in Greenwich Village’s Blue Note for a solo by alto saxophonist Donald Harrison,
- at WWOZ’s radio studios with Cajun Coco Robicheaux,
- bumping into Trombone Shorty on Bourbon Street,
- in Jackson Square with buskers,
- at a private party where pianist Tom McDermott duets with sweet young violinist Lucia Micarelli on Jelly Roll Morton’s “King Porter Stomp“
- and at a piano lesson where actor Steve Zahn, insufferable as a local fanboy, announces to his teenage student, “Forget all you’ve been told about Jesus, Buddha, Zeus, there is one God — and his name is Professor Longhair.”
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.
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.
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.
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.