Does ‘Treme’ Hate Modern Jazz?

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.

Season Two: Pressing the Argument Against Modern Jazz

Treme’s second season doubles down on making modern jazz a symbol of soullessness.

Big Chief Albert stays in New Orleans despite a bureaucracy that refuses to give him any funds to rebuild his house. He sinks into a funk—even refusing to work on the sewing for the Mardi Gras Indian costume that normally defines him. Delmond is still in New York, where he has two conversations that begin to turn him around. First, some non-New Orleans musicians run down his hometown, specifically deriding the city’s traditional jazz scene (embodied by the famous Preservation Hall) as being “for tourists”. Second, his hip New York girlfriend gets annoyed with him for listening to LPs by Jelly Roll Morton and Armstrong. To her, it all sounds old and boring.

In essence, jazz history beyond New Orleans is the farthest thing from sterile and rule-bound. It continues the gumbo tradition of the Crescent City — but it’s not living in New Orleans.

Playing at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, a premiere New York club, Delmond has a crowd that is thin and mostly indifferent. There’s tepid applause rather than dancing and cheering, and our modern jazzman seems to realize that his art is cold and fetid. How, he wonders, can I get the soul of New Orleans back into my art?

The answer presents itself on Mardi Gras, when Delmond happens to hear a boombox playing a Miles Davis track while an Indian parade, with its traditional tambourine groove and chanting, provides rhythmic underpinning. He can hear it: a fusion of New Orleans Mardi Gras sounds with modern jazz—heart and head, something new.

Del recruits his father Albert to “front” the group in a New York recording studio, playing percussion and singing, while he fleshes out the rest of the band with compromise—the quintessential modern jazz bassist Ron Carter on the one hand, but New Orleans pianist Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack on the other. The music is a fierce combination, hotter and less anonymous than the tricky stuff we’ve heard him play before, but also enriched by the sleek attack and musical sophistication of Del’s hard bop injection. For Albert, however, it doesn’t sound right. His gut feeling—and Treme’s argument, in microcosm—is that you just can’t get the right groove outside of New Orleans.

(For the record, this very record was essentially made in real life by alto saxophonist Donald Harrison in 1992. Harrison’s dad was, in fact, Big Chief of the Guardians of the Flame and sang on Harrison’s Indian Red. Simon knows this, and so he has Harrison—playing himself—as the sax player on Delmond’s recording.)

The solution, then, is to rerecord the music in a New Orleans studio, where Albert feels it. It sounds great, and ultimately even Delmond’s cynical agent is moved to love it—and to contribute $5,000 to Albert’s home renovations. Moreover, Delmond decides to leave New York so he can help his dad rebuild at home. (In a particularly nice anti-jazz touch, Demond’s New York girlfriend Jill breaks up with him, essentially, because she does not want to let him store his jazz LPs—which she calls a “museum” of old 20th century music—in her apartment.)

The last episode, like every episode, iss drenched with glorious live music of every stripe but jazz: Lucinda Williams’ country-ish blues, Rebirth Brass Band playing “I’m Walkin’”, Davis’s band gets into both “Little Liza Jane” and James Brown’s “Sex Machine”, and The Iguanas appearing at “Jazzfest”. Great stuff, joyous stuff. But not jazz.

The Case for Modern Jazz in a Treme World

I don’t think that Simon hates modern jazz, but it’s undeniable that he sets up this kind of music as a symbolic/dramatic departure from the New Orleans soul that pulses at the center of the show. In the Treme world of tremendous class-consciousness, music that moves gets butt shakaing or is made by “regular folks” is king. Home cookin’ only, please.

However, it’s an argument or dichotomy that isn’t musically valid. Albert’s preference for recording in New Orleans, is dramatically compelling, no doubt, but species in the extreme. The music that beautifully and perfectly closes Treme second season is Louis Armstrong’s recording of “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams”. If anyone embodies New Orleans, it’s Pops, but this tune—like most of Armstrong’s discography—was not recorded there. Armstrong cut this tune in November of 1931… in Chicago. And where did Armstrong live for most of his life? Why, New York, of course.

More importantly, the glory of New Orleans music is not the degree to which it is an isolated, localized colloquial joy. Rather, New Orleans is the perfect argument for variety and eclecticism—it is the American melting pot of culture, with Latin, African, French, Scotch-Irish, and Native American influences so gloriously mixed up together that the fusion is something wholly new. New Orleans gobbles up other inputs, not the other way around.

And jazz—the modern, up-to-date version that has its capital, arguably in New York—is just the same way. Modern jazz incorporates funk and classical, it loves to take on a Latin groove, and of course Brazilian music has had both rhythmic and harmonic influence. Through many different musicians from Coltrane to Rudresh Mahanthappa, jazz has fused itself with Indian classical music, and recent experiments in using klezmer melodies for jazz improvisation are rich and successful.

In essence, jazz history beyond New Orleans is the farthest thing from sterile and rule-bound. It continues the gumbo tradition of the Crescent City. Treme’s implied depiction of modern jazz as a steely citadel is wrong—but its ultimate depiction of a modern jazz musician (embodied by Delmond) becomes accurate when it shows his restlessness and desire for innovation and change. Season One Delmond is a bit of a straw man; Season Two Delmond is more like it—but for most of these musicians, the last thing they would do is leave New York and move back to a more provincial scene.

Buy, c’mon, Treme fans should be saying, “The music in the show—not the jazz but the grooving stuff like the theme, like the funky brass band music, like the Soul Apostle material—is just so great and so fun. Jazz, that modern stuff, doesn’t just seem more sterile or intellectual, it is more for the brain than for the ass. Admit it, Will.”

I can’t. I love Treme’s R&B as much as the next guy. But that doesn’t make modern jazz into a soulless automaton of music any more than the existence of a great hamburger invalidates the deliciousness of salmon poached with cilantro. They are two different, but related things. They’re both wonderful, but in a different way. Like New York and New Orleans.

Sure, modern jazz may be more for the head than the feet. Cabernet rather than IPA, Scorsese rather than Spielberg, The Wire rather than CSI: Miami. So, of all the people out there, surely Simon would be the last to suggest that an art form be judged by its ability to attract an audience or to ask less, intellectually, of its audience.

I can’t wait for Treme’s third season. I’m ready for more Delmond and more Kermit. I want to groove and to think in equal parts. I trust that jazz’s days as TV villain might just be over.

Here’s hoping Simon and his writers listen to Art Blakey or even some Vijay Iyer during their hiatus. They might dig Ambrose Akinmusere and his daring new trumpet or the jagged bass playing on Jamaaladeen Tacuma’s latest. New Orleans is great, but so is all that it spawned. May it all play on long into the future.