I’ve heard that modern jazz is boring, or that it’s too complicated. I’ve heard that it all sounds the same and is just a bunch of noise. I’ve heard that it’s “too smart for me”, and I’ve heard that such jazz is just plain dumb.
Watching Treme, though, one might get the impression that modern jazz is the soundtrack for the soulless, and therefore has no place in New Orleans, pre- or post Hurricane Katrina.
The news that David Simon, one of the creators of the peerless television drama The Wire, was going to create a series about post-Katrina New Orleans lit me up with pleasure. The Wire brilliantly brought to life the quirky culture of Baltimore. No American city has quite as much quirky culture as New Orleans. Treme‘s second season, just concluded on HBO, is a triumph. Entertaining, serious, lovingly crafted— I love the show. In large part because Simon uses music as the main window on the city’s culture.
But as a jazz critic, I’m not entirely thrilled with how the music is dramatized. Jazz, in its modern form, is a kind of villain in Treme. Or maybe it’s more complex than that.
Modern Jazz as Villain
A central issue in Treme is New Orleans’ unique culture and its relationship with the rest of America. In its very first episode, the show depicts Tulane professor Creighton Bernette arguing with a BBC interviewer about the federal government’s disregard for the city’s fate after the flood. New Orleans, he posits, is “a great city, a city that lives in the imagination of the world,” a national treasure that needs to be saved. The interviewer asks, bluntly, whether New Orleans deserves to be saved, referring to the music as having “rather seen its day, let’s be honest” and the food as “a provincial cuisine which many would say is typically American—too fat, too rich.” John Goodman as Bernette calls him a “limey vulture”, grabs his microphone, and throws it in the canal. Treme is not afraid to throw down for its city.
Many of the characters are returning to New Orleans from elsewhere, making this question of loyalty organic to the story. Perhaps most pointedly, Albert Lambrauex, Big Chief of the Guardians of the Flame (a Mardi Gras “Indian” tribe), returns to New Orleans to the chagrin of his daughter Davina and son Delmond. Delmond, in particular, is put out by his dad’s stubbornness—how can he worry about his dad living nearly homeless in New Orleans when his career as a modern jazz player is just starting to really take off in New York?
As with just about everything in the show, the question of returning to and rebuilding of the city’s culture is dealt with through music. Delmond is not just the son of a man who holds dear the oldest traditions of city—he is himself a jazz trumpeter. But Delmond’s music is modern jazz: the style crystallized in New York in the ‘60s and beyond, post-bop that relies on complex harmonies and music-school level virtuosity. Delmond seems to have rejected the traditions of his father, leaving New Orleans in order to make it.
Rob Brown as ‘cool’ jazz musician, Delmond Lambreaux
In Season One, Delmond himself is depicted as selfish and distant. His father’s troubles in New Orleans are a bother, an annoying phone call he has to take between sets at a New York club. Music seems less his passion than his career, to the point where it has him dressing in fancy suits and constantly flipping open his cellphone. Modern jazz, in Treme, seems more like studying for the bar exam than like making love.
The first season gives Delmond a local analogue who helps to define the New Yorker as a stiff. Real life New Orleans trumpeter Kermit Ruffins plays himself, leading his loose-as-a-goose band through a set at Vaughn’s, singing a bit like Louis Armstrong, playing in his expressive but technically shaky trumpet style, getting high, and barbecuing at the drop of a hat. Ruffins is fun, authentic, and local. Delmond is wearing fancy clothes, has abandoned his hometown, and plays in a way that many people find gives them a headache. He starts out as the bad guy, of sorts, there’s no doubt.
Most pointedly, while Treme revels in New Orleans music of various styles, Delmond’s modern jazz is presented as relatively soulless, cool, intellectual, and aloof. You could imagine Creighton Bernette grabbing Delmond’s trumpet and throwing it in the canal.
Serious modern jazz fans, of course, will note the irony that Delmond is somewhat analogous to Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison and other young hard boppers who hailed from New Orleans but then headed to New York to wear fancy suits and play modern jazz. It’s ironic because, in the larger “jazz wars” beyond New Orleans, these young cats were seen as reactionary and over-traditional, embracing a style perfected in the ‘50s and 60s and explicitly rejecting—and sometimes speaking out against—the more avant-garde styles or “free jazz” that followed.
In short, in one jazz world Delmond would be seen as too conservative and conventional, while in the Treme world of New Orleans, he is seen as ill-advisedly rejecting useful traditions. In both worlds, however, the Wynton/Delmond character is set up as a soulless technician rather than someone who plays with genuine feeling.)
The Forces Arrayed Against Modern Jazz
Treme’s music surely is a joy. And almost all of the joyful stuff is not really what you would call jazz, at least these days. On the one hand, who cares? All this great American music, from early blues to jazz to rock and soul, is one big gumbo that New Orleans has been happy to mix up from the start. But on the other hand, the show’s purposeful use of different musical styles as a story element makes the distinctions worth noting.
Start with the show’s infection theme, “Treme Song”, which is originally from the 2008 album Jambalaya by the New Orleans singer (and occasional series guest) John Boutte. It’s a simple but driving slice of simple R&B that may include a saxophone solo but remains closer to pop than to jazz.
Another highlight—and key story element—of the first season is the 1957 tune “Shame, Shame, Shame” by Smiley Lewis (though better known through the Aerosmith cover on Honkin’ with Bobo). The character Davis McAlary rewrites the lyrics as a critique of the Bush administration response to Katrina, firing up his ambition to transition from being a DJ to being a politically conscious musician. The tune is an utterly timeless blues with a fast locomotive groove—a perfect example of how early R&B was the blueprint for rock ‘n’ roll. Is it jazz? Who cares? But… no.
The most charismatic character in Treme is Antoine Batiste, a trombone player with too few gigs, too many obligations, and the sweet smile and voice of native New Orleanian Wendell Pierce (who played Bunk on The Wire). Batiste is both a well-trained musician and a pure natural who seems to be able to play any style. He plays with Ruffins, he plays in brass bands, he makes a gig with the band Bonerama, and he works a gig with pianist and legend Allen Toussaint. And when he gets the chance to front his own band, they become Antoine Batiste and his Soul Apostles. Needless to say, they aren’t playing Charlie Parker tunes. Like Ruffins or like “Trombone Shorty” (Troy Andrews, also featured in some episodes), Batiste’s goal—and his musical love—is not to be improvising in the jazz tradition but getting down with the earthy groove of New Orleans-style soul music.
The other truly compelling musicians on Treme are the fiddle player Annie (played by real-life musician Lucia Micarelli) and her friend and mentor Harley (played by musician Steve Earle). Annie is classically trained, but her leaning among the music of the city is more toward folk and Cajun music rather than R&B. She sits in with The Subdudes and with Shawn Colvin, and in the season two Mardi Gras episode she and Harley are invited to a Cajun Mardi Gras where they sit in with the acoustic musicians in the countryside. While Annie has the chops to play “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” at a museum gig with pianist David Torkanowsky, it’s clear that this is just another paying gig for her. The season’s story for Annie is about discovering how to write her own tunes on acoustic guitar so she can become a singer-songwriter like Colvin or Earle.
The key is this: Treme celebrates all of this music in grand style. In the streets, in the clubs, at outdoor festivals, and even in rehearsals, the funky groove of New Orleans is irresistible. It is the embodiment of joy. Modern jazz, however, is a chore with a very narrow foothold. As Delmond demonstrates, to play it seriously you do have to leave New Orleans. In the show’s Us vs. Them set up, modern jazz is not only Them, but it’s Them Who Don’t Have Much Fun.