Telling New Orleans
"Price was twelve, bruh."
"Them twelve hundred was for eight pieces."
A deal's going down, yeah. But not the sort we're used to witnessing between black men on a television show set in an American city. Certainly not a David Simon drama on HBO.
Yet before even a word of dialogue is uttered come clues. A saxophonist licks, then adjusts his reed. Valve oil gets applied to a trombone. Soldiers and cops stand guard. Two little kids dance to a faint parade rhythm, which is soon supplanted by the bass booming from an SUV. An unseen trumpet sounds an upward figure, followed by a tuba's downward groove.
Back to the deal: One guy delivering those lines, an imposing-looking sort, is Gralen Banks, an actor who is also a member of the Black Men of Labor, one of some three dozen Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs that sponsor second-line parades in New Orleans; the other, diminutive and serious-looking, is Keith Frazier, the actual bass drummer and co-founder of the Rebirth Brass Band. They're working out a price for eight musicians to march in and play a four-hour parade in a shattered economy. The scene re-creates the first second-line parade since Hurricane Katrina — a memorial for a local chef, Austin Leslie, a true-life fallen hero of a culture in which music and cuisine, along with architecture and dance, are of one piece. This is New Orleans, three months past the floods caused by the levee failures in 2005. The hulking, extinct refrigerators and carcasses of former houses look familiar from news reports, as to some degree do the horns and drums. But now foreground and background are flipped.
The danger and dislocation you've heard about in the streets of New Orleans is real; it equals if not surpasses that depicted by The Wire, Simon's finely detailed evocation of his hometown, Baltimore, as told through the intersecting lives of cops, drug dealers, politicians, teachers, and journalists through five HBO seasons. But there's also a devastating beauty in New Orleans, a type neither found nor meaningfully understood anywhere else. Whereas The Wire's title referenced a police wiretap on a drug ring, suggesting as well unseen links between street action and the corridors of power, Treme, which debuts on April 11, plugs directly into an indigenous culture that has served as a lifeline for a city still inching toward recovery. That lifeline is extended principally by traditional jazz and brass-band musicians; the Social Aid & Pleasure Club members that mount Sunday parades; and — perhaps the most mysterious and essential group of all — Mardi Gras Indians, who dress in elaborate feathered and beaded suits three times a year.
The pilot episode's parade under way, another negotiation takes place, this one setting off what will become a running comic bit: With a deft mixture of desperation, charm, and speed, Antoine Batiste, the freelance musician played by Wendell Pierce, talks down a cab fare. That score settled, he rushes up to the band and begins to blow his own commentary on the tune, Rebirth's "Feel Like Funkin' It Up." It is, in all likelihood, the first opening monologue by a central character in a television series delivered wordlessly, on trombone.
In early March, at his production office in New Orleans' Lower Garden District, Simon is struggling with the fine points of a later episode's script. He's reluctant to draw a strong connection between his former series and Treme. Yet he describes a natural progression of thought. "The Wire was a tract about how political power and money rout themselves," he says. "But there was no place to reference on some level why it matters, emotionally, that America has been given over to those things. This show is about culture, and it's about what was at stake. Because apart from culture, on some empirical level, it does not matter if all New Orleans washes into the Gulf, and if everyone from New Orleans ended up living in Houston or Baton Rouge or Atlanta. Culture is what brought this city back. Not government. There was and has been no initiative by government at any level to contemplate in all seriousness the future of New Orleans. Yet New Orleans is coming back, and it's sort of done it one second-line at a time, one crawfish étouffée at a time, one moment at a time."
He's right. Those earliest second-lines were singular and stirring demonstrations of a then and perhaps still unacknowledged right to return, as were the first new club gigs. The trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, one of quite a few New Orleans musicians who make cameo appearances in Treme, recalls the post-Katrina resumption of his Thursday-night engagement at Vaughan's bar: "They had electricity, and they were burning wood outside to kill the awful smell in the air. There were tears in some people's eyes. That was the saddest gig I ever played, but, in a sense, also the happiest. We were coming back."
The cast of Treme and the characters they play draw on all walks of New Orleans life. Pierce, who portrayed surly detective Bunk Moreland on The Wire, was born and raised in the city's Pontchartrain Park neighborhood; his character's last name, Batiste, references one of the city's storied musical lineages. Clarke Peters (stoic detective Lester Freamon on The Wire) plays the Mardi Gras Indian Chief Albert Lambreaux, who is also a jazz bassist: His scenes were vetted by Donald Harrison Jr., a New Orleans native who straddles both worlds in real life. Davis Rogan, a local musician and former WWOZ-FM DJ, provided a real-life template for the musical passion and sketchy employment history of Davis McAlary, the character played by Steve Zahn. Kim Dickens plays Janette Desautel, a chef fighting to keep her restaurant open. John Goodman plays Creighton Bernette, a Tulane University professor whose angry declamations ("The flooding of New Orleans was a manmade catastrophe") were drawn in part from those of blogger Ashley Morris; Melissa Leo plays his wife, Toni, a civil rights attorney who often finds herself defending musicians. The numerous musicians playing themselves, often in performance, range from such recognizable stars as Elvis Costello and Dr. John to local heroes like Ruffins and Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews.
Simon's writing team includes familiar collaborators: Eric Overmyer, a Treme executive producer and co-creator, first worked with him on the NBC series Homicide: Life on the Street; David Mills, a Treme producer, adapted Simon's book The Corner for HBO; the novelist George Pelecanos was cajoled into joining The Wire staff early in its run. Simon also added two new faces: Tom Piazza, a New Orleans transplant and longtime resident whose nine books to date include two post-Katrina offerings, the nonfiction treatise Why New Orleans Matters and the novel City of Refuge; and Lolis Eric Elie, a former columnist for The Times-Picayune, who, along with director Dawn Logsdon, created the documentary Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans. "It's a great room," says Overmyer, a TV veteran; Piazza, who's more accustomed to writing in solitude, found himself seduced by a sense of "collective improvisation" — not unlike, he admits, that of a brass band.
It's late November, and a bright sun warms an otherwise chilly morning, but only if you're out of the shade in the narrow streets of the French Quarter. On the corner of Royal and St. Peter streets, in front of Rouses Market, sit a portable keyboard and speaker. Two middle-aged black men gesture excitedly as they talk; across the street, Overmyer and director Jim McKay follow along on a portable screen as other production assistants flit purposefully about. It's tough to tell the actors from the extras from the staff.
The cameras focus on a petite, doe-eyed violinist (Annie, played by Lucia Micarelli) and a gangly young man (Sonny, played by Michiel Huisman) at the keyboard. He plays a fairly rudimentary arrangement of "Careless Love" as she adds sweet-toned harmonies and knowing obligato.
A blond in a pink cable-knit sweater and brown skirt, purse slung over her shoulder, stands before the musicians with two friends, another woman and a man, all three bearing the look of polite excitement common among tourists who happen upon street performers in New Orleans. The trio claps, drops some cash, attempts small talk: They're from Madison, Wisconsin. First time in New Orleans. Came down with a church group to gut houses.
"We saw everything in the news, what was going on in the Ninth Ward," the blond says.
"Yeah," mutters Sonny. "Yeah, everybody talking about the Lower Nine . . . Let me ask you something: You ever even heard of the Ninth Ward before the storm? So why're you so fired up about it now?"
An awkward pause. Annie jumps in: "A-a-anybody have any requests?"
"What about . . . I don't know . . . something authentic?"
"Real New Or-leeeens music?" mocks Sonny. "How about, 'When the Saints,' you know, 'Go Marching In'?"
Annie: "Thing is, traditionally, 'Saints' is extra."
Sonny: "Because every cheesehead from Chowderland wants to hear 'Saints.' "
"He's kidding," Annie quickly adds. "We love to play 'Saints.' "
Cut. McKay has a brief discussion with the actors, focusing on Annie's awkward pause — its gravity and duration. The context it reveals. There is, in fact, a sign on the wall in the dusty auditorium of Preservation Hall, just down St. Peter Street: "Traditional requests, $2. Others, $5. 'Saints,' $10." A curious if somewhat unspoken tension surrounds New Orleans culture; it concerns the faces that culture wears, the ways in which it's bought and sold, the role it plays, and the meaning it holds depending on what neighborhood you're in and to whom you speak.
Simon's new series draws its name from Tremé, which is considered by some to be the oldest black neighborhood in America and has long been a hothouse for New Orleans jazz. When I arrive at Lolis Eric Elie's house there, workmen are attending to floorboards in need of replacement due to termite damage. A New Orleans native, Elie bought this home some 12 years ago. He pulls out a hardbound copy of New Orleans Architecture, Volume VI: Faubourg Tremé and the Bayou Road, which explains that the house sits on property originally deeded to College d'Orleans, sold for $250 in 1827. He points to a piece in that day's Metro section of The Times-Picayune, regarding the partial collapse of a building on South Rampart Street, in the historic Back o' Town section, where early jazz history was scripted by the likes of Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong.
"The fact that David and Eric have chosen to do this show," Elie says, "is testimony to the power of New Orleans culture and the effect that it's had on their lives. The show will help these things stay alive, because it will place a value on them. Part of what's so frustrating about New Orleans is I don't know of any Louisiana politician who really understands our culture and values it appropriately. Perhaps having an outsider who has a degree of notoriety and outside validation might possibly, in my most optimistic moments, help people understand how precious — and, these days, fragile — all this is."
Titillation tends toward tedium as a lithe stripper mounts her pole for the sixth time at the Déjà Vu Club on Bourbon Street, later that November day. McKay, the director, reminds her of the routine: up the pole, spin slowly, flip upside-down while removing bra, hold, then slide gently toward the floor while spreading legs. Meanwhile, the room fills with clouds from the cigarettes smoked furiously by extras. McKay and producer Anthony Hemingway hover over a playback screen: There, visible between the stripper's legs, is Pierce as Antoine Batiste, performing with the J.T. Ka-nection Band (who really do work at a topless bar), playing Parliament's funk classic "Up for the Down Stroke." His character is none too pleased to be working such a gig. But desperate times, in Katrina's wake, call for desperate measures.
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"
Davis Rogan, the inspiration for Steve Zahn's Davis McAlary, really did run for office (a State House of Representatives seat in 2003). He recalls when Simon tracked him down three years ago: "It happened the way it's supposed to happen," he says. "The way it never happens. David Simon read John Swenson's review of my CD in the local music monthly, Offbeat. He bought the CD. He liked it. He called. He hired me." By 2008, Rogan's life was such that he received the breathless e-mail now taped to his computer, from an actor about to read for the McAlary role: "I've been waiting my whole life to play you," reads one line.
Wendell Pierce is the show's hometown hero among the principal cast, for both his success away from New Orleans and his post-Katrina commitment to the place. He greets me at the offices of Community Development Corporation, through which, as president, he has spearheaded efforts to rebuild Pontchartrain Park. Gone are the colorful T-shirts, sports jackets, and jeans favored by his character, Antoine Batiste — replaced with a pinstriped suit, the tie tacked down by a fleur-de-lis pin. He recalls his first post-Katrina visit to his parents' house: "I never said it, but my goal was to get them back in that house before they died. And now, I want to save the neighborhood before it dies — or is stolen away." Politically, he says, the city must stop getting mired in the past and instead "imagine the future it deserves"; still, he sees value in revisiting the past five years. "I want people to know the story," he says. "I want to tell it. I mean, on one level, it is just telling a story, you know, which is what I'm paid to do. But I appreciate the fact that we could tell any story in the world, and we've chosen to tell this story."
In Sidney Bechet's memoir, Treat It Gentle, the late, great clarinetist's real grandfather is supplanted by Omar, a fictional figure based on a folk tale, all the better to convey stirring truths about the true origins of New Orleans jazz; on most evenings in the French Quarter, tourists gather on street corners as dubiously credentialed docents lead "Haunted History" tours. Real and imagined intermingle pointedly in New Orleans, in all walks of life.
The walls of the script room in the Treme production office are littered with facts, Post-it notes sketching out a telling chronology: October 2005 — Mayor Ray Nagin lays off 3,000 nonessential city employees. December 2005 — Ninth Ward, "Look and Leave." January 2006 — Nagin's "Chocolate City" speech. Fiction though it is, the stories told here are tethered to the way things really went down. And there's more to get right than documented incidents.
"We check ourselves a million times a day," Overmyer tells me. "On even the smallest thing." How could they not, in a city where street medians are known as "neutral grounds" and "I ain't kiddin', no" counts as proper usage? Leyh insisted upon recording the music straight from each scene, as opposed to studio dubbing — a relatively unheard-of strategy for television production, but one essential to capturing "music that sounds less true when removed from its moment." Pierce's trombone parts at each shoot are usually provided by Rebirth Brass Band regular Stafford Agee; Rob Brown, who plays the trumpeter Delmond Lambreaux (son of Clark Peters's character, Albert), pulls out his Mac PowerBook to show me the videotapes from which he must memorize the fingerings to Donald Harrison's bebop-based tunes. "It is not a game," he says.
Yet Simon swears no fealty to the facts. "I know what I'm making here," he says. "I'm not making a documentary. And this is not journalism." The dramatic pursuit trumps all, he explains, "or I'm doomed." He knows that the space his series occupies, bound by real events and yet invented on the page, serves the surreality of post-Katrina New Orleans perhaps better than any straight account.
He recalls a scene, set in November 2005, in which Dickens character Janette is running out of desserts at her restaurant. After a regular customer turns down her last remaining choice, she pulls from her purse a Hubig's pie, a packaged local favorite found at corner groceries. Simon recalls a friend, a food writer, telling him that no real chef would do so. He bristled at the criticism. "In doing that," he says, "Janette affirmed that 'we are all New Orleanians in that ineffable way that this town brings people together.' " Yet Simon acknowledges another, more technical falsity: Hubig's pies are locally made, and the Marigny-neighborhood factory hadn't opened yet. "I don't care," he says. "You discard the piece of truth that stands in the way of what is a true moment."
There are more inscrutable truths confronting Simon's team, none more so than those surrounding the world of Mardi Gras Indians, who dress in elaborate suits of feathers and beads in homage to both West African and Native American traditions: Here, Big Chiefs, Spyboys, Wildmen, and others have specific duties to enact, something between ritual and game, all of it rich with both formal strategy and spiritual signification. If too much emphasis has been placed on the fact that, once, Mardi Gras Indian battles did turn violent — what within American tradition doesn't share that aspect? — not enough has been done to understand the modern-day Indian intent to "kill 'em with pretty" as both a powerful nonviolent assertion of strength and the aesthetic credo underpinning stunning works of art. Nothing compares with the sight of a mass of colored feathers and sparkling beads, extending the whole of a man into a giant, walking soft sculpture that reveals little but two eyes aglow with purpose. "That glare in the eye, that look of supreme confidence" is how Clarke Peters describes the toughest aspect of his role as Big Chief Albert Lambreaux. That and learning how to move, let alone dance and spin, while wearing 58 pounds of feathers and beads.
In one pivotal scene, when Big Chief Lambreaux must implore a fellow Indian to rekindle tradition in the ruins of the flood, he looks the part — bright red and canary yellow feathers, glittering beaded patches. Simon and Overmyer were pleased when they viewed a playback. But after they showed it to real-life Indians, they got instant criticisms. Lambreaux's friend needs to come down from his porch into the street, they all said; the Big Chief looks up as if in supplication, undermining his character. "We needed to reshoot," recalls Simon. "We went back and chased it."
A later scene tackles yet more delicate material. After a Wildman is found drowned in his garage, a memorial is held. It's a brief yet hard-hitting scene, a ring of Mardi Gras Indians wearing plainclothes and intense expressions, slapping tambourines and singing a traditional song, "Indian Red." As the camera pans, those in the know will recognize faces: Cherice Harrison-Nelson, daughter of Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr., sister of Donald, and Big Queen of her own tribe; Darryl Montana, Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas and son of Alison "Tootie" Montana, well-known as "Chief of Chiefs"; and Fred Johnson, a founder of the Black Men of Labor, who gave up "masking Indian" decades ago, after 17 years alongside Tootie.
When I meet Johnson at the offices for the Neighborhood Development Foundation, where he serves as CEO, a tattoo on the back of his left hand peeks out from under his white shirt cuff: "SPY BOY." "You don't play around with 'Indian Red,' " he explains. "It's like the 'Our Father.' And though that scene didn't actually happen, it's true to what we went through. What it says to some viewers is that New Orleans is one of the most African cities in America. What it confirms for some others is that New Orleans has a culture that nobody else has — something we can rely on for comfort and strength."
Still, there are bound to be detractors, who will claim that the series treads where it ought not or that it can't possibly stay true to a city whose every expression of identity is ringed by concentric circles of nuance. "It's a tough nut to crack," says Xavier University professor White, "right down to the way we walk down the street." Some of the guys hanging out one afternoon next door to the Candle Light Lounge, where the Treme Brass Band holds court weekly, felt a tinge of betrayal. "Our lives are real," one tells me. "So why do we need fiction?" But Simon is undeterred. "I don't want anything getting between me and a story that I think ought to come back to the campfire and get told," he says. "I don't care about the politics of it. I am responsible for the story being credible to all those involved. That I get there is the only and ultimate arbiter of this. If, at the end of the day, the story has resonance for people within and without the culture doesn't mean you got everything right or didn't get it wrong. If it doesn't, then all the excuses and prior agreements don't matter. Then we didn't pull it through the keyhole."
Simon can't pull through his keyhole precisely what drew him to New Orleans more than 20 years ago as a music fan: Those moments, transcendent and transitory, are big and shifty beyond even his skills. But what he can and likely will do is bump aside misinformed stereotypes of victims and heroes, replace them in millions of living rooms with credible tales of resilience and triumph, and seed a conversation about culture. That, and mightily entertain.
St. Joseph's night, March 19 — an Italian-American holiday appropriated as one of three times each year that Mardi Gras Indians come out in feathers and beads — is chilly but clear. A nervous energy spikes the mood, the residue of the Mardi Gras Day dust-up with police. Yet by 9 p.m., the Indians are out on the corner of Washington Avenue and LaSalle Street, the cameras clicking, the patrol cars keeping deferential distance. Two gangs, the Seminole Hunters and the Red Hawk Hunters, face off in mock battle — a glorious blur of deep green, lime green, lavender, and royal blue set to a mash-up of fierce chants and incantatory beats. As backdrop, unfinished two-story, mixed-income units, masked in Tyvek HomeWrap, loom from the site of the former Magnolia Projects, an unsightly reminder of a lost battle over public housing. Mary Howell stands amid a small group wearing Day-Glo green caps emblazoned with "National Lawyers Guild Legal Observers." An older black man in a Lowernine.org shirt shouts, "Two-Way Pocky Way" (a Spyboy's warning, some say, that rivals approach) to no one in particular. Two girls and two boys, none more than ten years old, sit on the curb, their blue-feathered fans beside them, one girl rubbing her eyes. And there's Simon, wearing a black Kangol hat and a broad smile, his face just inches from a mass of feathers, perhaps making feverish mental notes or simply thinking what I'm thinking: You just can't make this stuff up.
Editor's Note: Treme writer/producer David Mills died of a brain aneurysm Tuesday in New Orleans. He'd written extensively about the Treme process and his burgeoning love for New Orleans music on his blog, undercoverblackman.blogspot.com. His Times-Picayune obit is here.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.