Treme: Many Styles, Many Traditions

HBO’s music-loaded Treme practices the art of authenticity

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New Orleans' Treme Brass Band
By Demian Roberts
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Donald Harrison, Big Chief
By Lee Mergner
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Donald Harrison, Big Chief
By Lee Mergner

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As it approaches New Orleans from the west, Interstate 10 dips southward, toward the Central Business District. At the fringe of downtown, it abruptly turns north and east, bisecting several residential communities before traversing Lake Pontchartrain.
One of those neighborhoods is Faubourg Treme, long a home to many of New Orleans’ great African-American musicians since free blacks lived there during slavery. The construction of an elevated I-10 spur through the Treme replaced Claiborne Avenue, where live oaks once framed a thriving commercial district. At best, New Orleanians see that stretch of the freeway as an eyesore and necessary evil; often, they resent how it fractured living history.

Early in the opening episode of the HBO series Treme, a parade—“the first second-line since the storm,” we’re told—stops under the I-10 overpass. As the highway looms, natural light is choked out by concrete. But the energy is irrepressible. A costumed social aid and pleasure club steps fancily, surrounded by dancers of all ages and skin colors. Umbrellas are rhythmically raised aloft. And actual members of the Rebirth Brass Band play an ardent, funky “It’s All Over Now.” They lower their horns to chant the chorus en masse—and the effect is arresting.

Welcome to the New Orleans of Treme, where the beautiful and the damned commingle. It’s a frequent theme in the show, a story packed with musical performances and set in the Crescent City following Hurricane Katrina. In fact, with an ensemble cast and no unifying plot line, it might be Treme’s only constant. In the midst of destruction, corruption and criminal neglect—plagues that long pre-date Katrina—a unique culture still finds a way to thrive. “The city came back on the weight of culture,” said executive producer David Simon in a recent interview for NPR. “There was no political leadership that stood up; there was no socioeconomic reason that New Orleans had to return. I mean, this city came back over the last five years, one trombonist, one sous-chef, one Mardi Gras Indian, one social aid and pleasure club member at a time.”

Typical of David Simon’s television shows—the best known being HBO’s The Wire— his team is obsessed with authenticity. Flood levels were researched by neighborhood to get set designs correct. Actors playing instrumentalists learned hand positions of notes they were miming. All music was recorded while filming on location: The crew actually hung microphones from the I-10 overpass, according to co-creator Eric Overmyer, a part-time New Orleans resident.

Most important, Overmyer and company employed fellow locals whenever possible: lead actors, bit players, cameo-makers, writers, production staff, consultants. Their actual stories inspired characters: besieged restaurateur Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens) and outspoken professor Creighton Bernette (John Goodman) are modeled after real people. Free spirit Davis Rogan not only inspired erstwhile DJ Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn), but is also a screenwriter and consultant and occasional actor.

Of course, the presence of many New Orleans musicians also guarantees accuracy. “When I read my script, I realized somebody had to have been looking over my shoulder for the last couple of years!” said Kermit Ruffins, the jazz trumpeter who both consults and plays himself. “Somebody been watching me, you know?”

The show’s creators have clearly been watching New Orleans politics closely as well—very closely. Treme deals with a public housing controversy, a stiflingly bureaucratic justice system, an inept local government, an ineffectual federal response and a rogue police force, all in the first six episodes. And every main character confronts a brutal officer, an unhelpful warden, a utility monopoly, a shifty insurance company or a spineless councilman—that is, when they aren’t soapboxing about these issues themselves. Polemic is prevalent.

Thankfully, as saturated as it is with politics, Treme is even more loaded with music. If a prominent New Orleans musician, dead or alive, isn’t being paid royalties for the use of his recordings, he’s probably performing on screen. We see stars like Dr. John, Allen Toussaint and Trombone Shorty, as well as plenty of lesser-known talent like Tom McDermott, Don Vappie and Jack Braun. It’s very nearly a serial musical: a reasonable aesthetic for a city where music happens at nearly every social
gathering.

New Orleans being the cradle of jazz, lots of it—whether trad-jazz or postbop—is heard in the program. In fact, if it’s along the traditional axis of blues/R&B/funk, it’s probably in the show. (Much music filters through New Orleans native Wendell Pierce, who plays Antoine Batiste, a broke trombonist who takes any gig he can get, jazz or otherwise.)

Big Chief Donald Harrison Jr., whom jazz fans may know largely as a saxophonist, was brought onboard as a consultant and occasional actor, playing himself. He said he encouraged the team to feature modern jazz, but as just one style within the wide variety of New Orleans musics. “It’s a different lesson that you get playing with Roy Haynes than you get from playing with ‘Doc’ Paulin, who I played with in New Orleans,” he said. “But they’re all interconnected.”

Harrison’s life also partially inspired the character Delmond Lambreaux (Rob Brown), a young trumpeter based in New York. Like Harrison, Delmond is the son of a Mardi Gras Indian Chief, and was once an up-and-coming modern jazz musician. Unlike Harrison, Delmond has trouble reconciling his modernity with his New Orleans roots. At one point in Treme, Harrison advises Delmond: “That’s New Orleans, young’un. Many styles, many traditions.”

“Many” is the key word. Treme is a program about cultural renewal. And it has an awful lot of examples.

Originally published in July/August 2010

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