How Treme Can Get It Right

David Simon's new HBO series uses fiction to honor New Orleans' surreal, heart-breaking fact

Truth is, making music in New Orleans has, historically, often meant a marginal living; the flood exacerbated this reality, submerging not just homes but careers and a good chunk of the local music business. Around Katrina's second anniversary, a "Musicians Solidarity Second Line" featured dozens of musicians carrying, but not using, their instruments: not a note played, not a step danced. A slow, steady rain lent dramatic drips to homemade signs reading "Living Wages = Living Music" and "Imagine a Silent NOLA." Even those who've surmounted financial hurdles often encounter a more insidious challenge: the sense that they're not exactly welcome back. "There's a feeling among many that some of our older cultural institutions, like parades and jazz funerals, are in the way of progress and don't fit in the new vision of New Orleans," says Michael White, a clarinetist and Xavier University professor. "That they should only be used in a limited way to boost the image of New Orleans, as opposed to being real, viable aspects of our lives."

There's plenty of evidence to support those fears. In October, musicians were arrested during a funeral procession and charged with "disturbing the peace"—in Tremé, of all places. At Mardi Gras Indian gatherings, the spectacle of black men looking fierce in eight-foot-tall suits of feathers and beads has lately been overtaken by the sirens and flashing lights of NOPD cruisers, enacting their own display of power and domain. The most dramatic of these episodes occurred in 2005. But even this year, Mardi Gras Day featured such a standoff: "Mardi Gras Indians Concerned About Police Antagonism," read the headline to Katy Reckdahl's March 8 Times-Picayune piece. And in 2007, Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs—whose historical roots in 19th-century black benevolent societies held new relevancy in post-Katrina New Orleans—took to federal court to challenge the city's hiking of police security fees for their parades. They won. The suit invoked First Amendment rights, insisting that permit schemes "effectively tax" such expression. "Should the law not be enjoined," the complaint stated, "there is very little doubt that plaintiff's cultural tradition will cease to exist."

At her law office in a MidCity shotgun house, Mary Howell, whose work inspired Melissa Leo's Treme character, recalls how she began defending musicians on a regular basis more than three decades ago. A nearby picture frame holds Matt Rose's 1996 photograph, which ran in The Times-Picayune, of musicians marching after one such incident: There, next to a 10-year-old Troy Andrews on tuba, is a teenage snare drummer wearing a sign: "I Was Arrested for Playing Music." The French Quarter's Jackson Square, where cheeseheads from Chowderland regularly encounter standard-bearing musicians, has long been contested space. Worse still, Howell explains, in 1974, the city passed a zoning ordinance that actually prohibits live entertainment in New Orleans, save for spots that are either grandfathered in or specially designated as exceptions. The very idea is mind-boggling—a city whose image is largely derived from its live entertainment essentially outlawing public performance. In practical terms, it's "vague and overbroad enough," says Howell, "to be ridiculous."

The series is likely to delve into such thorny issues even within the initial 10 episodes HBO has guaranteed; there is every reason to believe the show will extend the full five years Simon envisions. Though The Wire never carried the audience share of, say, The Sopranos, it nonetheless earned a devoted cult following and breathless critical praise. (Jacob Weisberg, writing in Slate, declared it "surely the best TV show ever broadcast in America.") Treme may well extend Simon's reputation and incite newfound fervor. For jazz fans, it provides the most significant television profile since Ken Burns's Jazz series (and this time focused on living musicians playing material that moves beyond a late-1960s aesthetic). Inside New Orleans, there's a specific sort of raised expectation: that Simon and company will get things right; that they will surely sidestep the tone-deaf caricature offered by, say, 2007's ill-fated Fox series K-Ville; that in crafting a series about The City That Care Forgot, they care.

Maybe Treme can express the true allure of this town, some locals say. New Orleans has always been a paradoxical place: Despite pervasive poverty, high levels of crime, and wide-sweeping political corruption, residents surveyed by Gallup just before Hurricane Katrina reported the highest level of satisfaction with their personal lives of any city in the survey. The 2000 Census found that New Orleans had a higher subset—77 percent—of "native-born" residents than any other major American city.

Blake Leyh, music supervisor for Treme, recalls visiting New Orleans in the '90s, back when he was out in Los Angeles. "You go to New Orleans, and everyone loves to be there," he says. "It was really striking to me. Because I was used to living in a place where everyone hates it. In L.A., that's the common bond: 'Let's talk about how much we hate it here.' In New Orleans, it's the opposite."

Nearly lost in the hoopla that began with the New Orleans Saints' Super Bowl victory and continued through Mardi Gras nine days later was the fact that the city had elected a new mayor, Mitch Landrieu, to succeed the by-now-widely-villainized C. Ray Nagin. The day after Mardi Gras, an otherwise sleepy, somewhat cloudy Wednesday morning, a pickup truck rolls slowly up Governor Nicholls Street, plying more politics. "Davis for City Council," reads a sign on one side. Another: "McAlary: A Desperate Man for Desperate Times." A third: "CDs for Sale: $3"

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