'Treme,' Episode 6: Straight Ahead, Striving For Tone
May 17, 2010. Posted by Joshua Jackson.John Goodman's Creighton Bernette (left) and Steve Zahn's Davis McAlary: kindred spirits, in a twisted sense. (Image Credit: Paul Schiraldi/Skip Bolen/HBO)
Pot for potholes
Hos for schools
Always for pleasure
Break all the rules
Episode six of Treme begins and ends with outlandish political satire. Davis McAlary's self-amused campaign for city council launches, and launches the show, in earnest, parading down a wide avenue in a flatbed pickup truck blaring music, giving away CDs, and slapping strippers on their butts. Meanwhile, the whole Bernette family dresses as sperm as the Krewe du Vieux parade courses past, its highlight a giant float of then-mayor Ray Nagin in bed nursing an outsized nocturnal emission.
It must be with a bit of a wink that the writers of Treme made John Goodman's Creighton wary of Zahn's Davis; they seem like kindred spirits as New Orleans apologists with loony streaks. Their aims aren't the same; the Krewe du Vieux simply lampoons major political figures, while Davis' council run is at least half-serious. But they're certainly more akin than Creighton wants to let on to. Davis' platform can't possibly win (especially if he wants to legalize illegal drug sales, as we learned from season three of The Wire), but it can act as a gadfly, speaking out on topics other candidates won't touch with absurd humor. If anger is occasionally a proper response to injustice (a la Creighton's "f--- you, you f----- f--s"), humor has just as much potential as a community statement.
Enough of that. Josh Jackson of WBGO joins me again via email to talk about the episode's music (full playlist here), and whatever else comes to mind.
Patrick Jarenwattananon: Okay, so this week in Delmond Lambreaux Makes Awkward Pronouncements About Jazz:
Donald Harrison: I've always been down with tradition myself.
Delmond Lambreaux: Yeah, I noticed. But you old school and cutting edge at the same time.
Donald: That's New Orleans, young'un. Many styles, many traditions.
Delmond: Yeah, but for me traditional is Bird and Diz playing "Salt Peanuts" at Massey Hall, with Bud Powell and Max Roach.
Donald: And Charles Mingus on bass.
Delmond: Right, exactly.
If that weren't loaded enough, here's another thought. New Orleans doesn't seem particularly happy that just 'cause many of its jazz musicians didn't primarily follow bebop, it's been so written out of mainstream jazz and Official Jazz History that even a native son thinks it's a musical backwater.
Josh Jackson: Well, there's Official Jazz History, and then there's the important information that falls into an outlier category. Delmond fails to understand that musicianship is the tradition, and it has had a special relationship to the city even today. For all the official recognition for Ornette Coleman as the last great genius of jazz (not my words), let's not forget he spent two formative years with the Lastie family in New Orleans, 'shedding with Ed Blackwell and other local musicians. I'm not excluding other people and other places from the narrative. I'm only suggesting that music has a certain appellation, or terroir, specific to the city. What distinguishes that "backwater" from a place like New York is that its music community is naturally self-renewing. Even the mighty New York relies heavily on importation.
PJ: By the way, Delmond admires the other act on the Crescent City tour: banjo player Don Vappie and the Creole Jazz Serenaders. I must say I did, too. Who is this cat?
JJ: Don Vappie is one of the best string players in New Orleans. He started out playing in funk bands, then migrated into the traditional music. He mostly plays the tenor banjo (four strings), as well as some six-string. Vappie deals with the Creole banjo players like Johnny St. Cyr and Danny Barker. He toured for a while with Preservation Hall, replacing Al Lewis. He and his wife Milly are some of my favorite people. I spoke with Don shortly after Katrina. He was then the subject of a lovely regional documentary for PBS, American Creole: New Orleans Reunion.
PJ: You know, prominent New Orleans jazz musicians always struck me as having a complicated relationship to mugging for the camera, Louis Armstrong forward. Of course, they also seem to be genuinely happy to represent their hometown with its most visible cultural signifiers -- perhaps because they realize its endangerment -- as per this exchange:
Donald: Tell you what. Let's go up there and do our set, and end with a little something from home.
Delmond: Like what?
Donald: "Iko." "Mardi Gras Mambo." "Saints." You gotta give the good people of Arizona a little of what they came to hear.
Delmond: Just play our set, man.
JJ: No harm in giving the people what they want, especially after playing an entire set of music that ultimately satisfies the artist. That's called being unselfish and knowing your audience. Or mugging, depending on your perspective.
PJ: We hear a lot of Delmond "playing" with Donald Harrison. In Houston, they do a Charlie Parker-like tune, and bookend it with "Iko Iko." (Not my favorite version of that tune, I must admit.) And they play another modern jazz number at Snug Harbor. Tell me about Snug Harbor -- I know it's supposed to be the modern jazz room in town.
JJ: They play "Yardbird Delight" in Houston and "Quantum Leap" at Snug Harbor. The latter is from Harrison's upcoming recording. Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro is the anchor (pun intended) of modern jazz establishments in New Orleans. The late George Brumat originally opened a club called Faubourg in that space on Frenchmen Street. It failed, but Snug Harbor was established shortly afterward. George got back into the game when he bought Snug Harbor in the early '90s. Jason Patterson has been booking the club for as long as I can remember. George Brumat is a big reason why there's music on Frenchmen Street. The best part about Snug is that they paid musicians decently. Musicians could play modern music and not have to pass the hat.
PJ: And at Snug Harbor, we see Donald Harrison encounter Delmond's father. In real life and in the show, Donald Harrison is a Big Chief, like his real-life father, Donald Harrison Sr. And then we actually see Delmond go to Mardi Gras Indian practice with his father's krewe. (Aside: "Shallow Water" is sounding really, really, good.)
JJ: I like the end of that scene at Snug Harbor, the casual competitiveness between Donald and Albert, suggesting that they would be looking for one another on Mardi Gras Day. Then we see Big Chief Lambreaux teaching the new kid how to be the Spy Boy. There was a lot of emotional context in that scene.
PJ: Moving on, Antoine actually gets a jazz gig himself, playing at a formal Mardi Gras Ball. We hear some rather, uh, measured takes of "Fly Me to the Moon" and "Take the A Train." Antoine takes a seemingly random solo that would probably get him fired in real life ... anyway, what is this ball business about?
JJ: Mardi Gras balls are high-society events held by all the major krewes in the city, and there are also some balls that are unofficial records of carnival time. When Kermit talks about the gig, Antoine is reminiscing about playing during the M.O.M.s ball, a bacchanal of the, um, "highest" order. Antoine seems frustrated about playing those lame stock arrangements. I loved that "Take the Z Train" line.
PJ: More live performances: While busking, Sonny and Annie's "Basin Street Blues" is a little bit off -- perhaps a bit of musical foreshadowing there of the relationship drama later. You know, it seems Sonny's possessiveness simply won't work as a career move. Personally, you can be a monogamous musician, but professionally, you have to be as promiscuous as possible to make a living.
JJ: Can we please get Annie the gig that will get her out of this relationship? I'm ready for Sonny to exit the stage. She has the talent to play a lot of music. He's busy reenacting Eric Clapton's "Cocaine."
PJ: Okay, this week in inside references and cameos: Barq's root beer, creole mustard, Jacques Morial, Lee Allen, Cafe du Monde, Coco Robicheaux, Phil Frazier, Trombone Shorty's given name, and the melody of "Just a Closer Walk With Thee."
JJ: Barq's: Always in a bottle, never in a can or plastic. I drank it by the gallon as a kid; that and Pop Rouge, a red cream soda. Creole mustard is spicy, and it contains the crushed mustard seed. Jacques Morial is the brother of former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, and the son of New Orleans' first black mayor, Ernest "Dutch" Morial. They're a New Orleans political dynasty as much as the Landrieu family, for better or for worse. Lee Allen was an amazing saxophonist who recorded tons of sessions at Cosimo Matassa's studio. Try to find his instrumental R&B tunes, especially "Walkin' With Mr. Lee." Annie goes to Café du Monde at the absolute best time -- when there are no tourists. Phillip Frazier, leader of Rebirth Brass Band, revolutionized the sousaphone for brass ensembles. Coco Robichaux returns to Treme after we last saw him sacrificing a chicken at WWOZ. I'm afraid that we'll be hearing Antoine Batiste returning the favor and playing "Closer Walk With Thee" for his teacher, Danny Nelson, sometime soon. He's not looking so good.
PJ: A more nuanced view of the police finally takes shape a bit when Toni goes to visit the ex-NOPD officer in Port Arthur, Texas. I mean, he did some irresponsible stuff, leaving his car and his responsibilities. But if you live out of your car for eight days in a post-apocalyptic soup, scrounging for scraps of food wherever you can find them, then you begin to understand something or other about why so many officers quit or were broken down or somehow were different following the storm.
JJ: It explains some actions. There were a lot of law enforcement who were under enormous pressure to impose order on a chaos so complete that it consumed them. Sections of the NOPD were already dysfunctional. Katrina just blew off the cover. Some situations have a backstory, but there will be more responses from NOPD to come that are just inexplicable. I'm thinking of the Danziger Bridge Massacre, which I'm assuming will appear later in Treme.
PJ: Here's another nice soapbox scenario: How Random House wants to pay Creighton Bernette to finish his book now that Katrina has captured the nation's imagination about New Orleans. And especially how they want him to dramatize it and make it have contemporary relevance. And how Creighton says something like, "New Orleans speaks for itself." And how the entire show is itself a dramatization of post-Katrina New Orleans.
JJ: Some twisted logic buried in all that. I did like the comment about how Katrina nearly erases New Orleans from the map but puts it on the monetization map. This just about sums up the media's lust for tragedy, too.
PJ: Speaking of Creighton's literary agent, there's a brass band greeting her at the airport. And later in the show, Antoine gets his mentor a gig playing at the airport, too. Live music at an airport! I didn't hear live music there myself, but I must say that Louis Armstrong International Airport had by far the best canned soundtrack I've ever heard in a terminal.
JJ: New Orleans has always been a welcoming place for tourists. With all due respect to the aviator John Bevins Moisant, I'm happy that Moisant Field was renamed Louis Armstrong International Airport.
PJ: Speaking of recorded music, I love how Albert Lambreaux is always listening to some classy old music. This week, it's alternately Nat King Cole's "I Was a Little Too Lonely" and a recording of
Lester Young's "Lester Leaps In."Stan Getz's "Intoit." Any other recorded music strike you as working well?
JJ: I liked Jon Cleary's "Got to Be More Careful" when Annie walks in on Sonny powdering his nose. That's not a plate of powdered sugar from beignets... Also, the scene in Snug Harbor featured background music from the Classic Ellis Marsalis Quartet with bassist Marshall Smith, drummer James Black and saxophonist Nat Perrilliat. Sounded like
"Swingin at the Haven."[Ed. "Twelve's It"]. Ellis Marsalis has had a weekly gig at Snug since forever. It's still a joy to hear him.
PJ: Even when he's laughing, Albert Lambreaux really only ever has two moods: dead serious and as serious as your life. When his councilman tries to buy his favor back with a FEMA trailer, man... Anyway, he says a line that strikes me as really important: that his people are "refugees in their own country." This whole "who gets to move back to New Orleans" thing is a pretty weighty issue.
JJ: I still think Albert Lambreaux's offer to repair Lulu's crack in an earlier episode is maybe the best double entendre I've heard yet in Treme. But, yeah, the Big Chief is a very serious man, especially when he's looking out for his gang. There was a lot of anger about that term "refugee" as it was used in the press. I mean, we're talking about U.S. citizens here! Also, think about the conversation at the McAlary house, and the mother's "carefully euphemized racism" about using the aftermath of Katrina as a means of social engineering. We're getting into the heart of darkness with this topic.
PJ: Finally, we close with the Krewe du Vieux parade, full of "spermes" and a float of former mayor Ray Nagin masturbating. There are real brass bands in there too -- the Panorama Jazz Band and the Stooges Brass Band. Comment?
JJ: Satire works best when it speaks for itself. I did, however, notice Aunt Mimi's tall white Port of Call go-cup, another reminder of George Brumat, who once owned the best hamburger joint in town. Port of Call is, oddly enough, the first place I went before our Jazz Fest extravaganza. It's still great.
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