Treme Marches Off the TV and Into the Concert Hall

Jeff Kaliss on June 10, 2011

Dr. Michael White is a native of New Orleans and a recording clarinetist, and he’s been studying, performing, and teaching about New Orleans traditional jazz for most of his 56 years. White insists that you not apply the questionable term “Dixieland” to this music, which preceded his birth by some six decades. And he points to recent changes, ushered in, in part, by Hurricane Katrina.

“Elements of different styles [of music] have been coming together,” White explains in a phone conversation, “partly out of necessity, but partly out of the conscious realization that all of our New Orleans traditions are unique. I think the displacement of people evacuated from the city, post-Katrina, really kind of underscored that for all of us. And the message most people got was: Our music is different, our food is different, our culture is different, we have something special, and we need to honor it.”

Showcasing the Crescent City in all its styles and uniqueness has been a mission of Treme, the HBO weekly cable television series, which is pronounced “tra-MAY” and is cocreated and produced by David Simon and Eric Overmyer. Now in its second successful season, the show plays out its several fictional story lines throughout the period of slow recovery from the monumental 2005 hurricane, focusing on the city’s music and on the title section of the “real” New Orleans, close to but mostly overlooked by the swarms of tourists in the French Quarter.

Having placed more music and more real musicians in a successful series than ever before, Treme has now taken its mission on the road, presenting A Night In Treme in concert halls across the U.S., including Davies Symphony Hall this Friday. “This was something I envisioned ahead of time, along with my producing partner, Danny Melnick,” says actor Wendell Pierce. He came to his role as trombonist Antoine Batiste after several seasons starring in The Wire, Simon’s earlier celebrated HBO series, set in Baltimore. “We went to HBO before we even started the first season [of Treme], and negotiated this opportunity, to take the music out.”

Artists and Musicians Make It Real

Pierce was immensely pleased that Simon’s casting not only returned him to his hometown but let him turn from police work to music-making. “All my friends have always been musicians,” he says. “At NOCCA, the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts — where Harry Connick Jr., Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Donald Harrison, Terrence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton, and all these [celebrated jazz] musicians went — I was, like, the actor, but I had this secret desire to be a musician.” Later, while studying theater at Juilliard, he got to keep company with even more musicians.

To look credible playing Antoine playing his trombone, Pierce studied with Keith Hart, who also portrays his part-time boss in the series, directing a high school band. But the sophisticated blare of the horn onscreen is actually created by a sound double, Stafford Agee, a member of the ReBirth Brass Band. For the evening at Davies, Pierce will serve as emcee and narrator, and ReBirth will function as the house band, with soloing by fellow New Orleans notables Michael White on clarinet, Kermit Ruffins on trumpet, Donald Harrison Jr. on saxophone, and Big Sam Williams on trombone.

Actor Wendell Pierce takes up the trombone to portray Antoine Batiste, a central character in Treme
Photo by Paul Schiraldi/HBO

Ruffins, now 46 and one of the best-selling artists on New Orleans–based Basin Street Records, played R&B in school in the Ninth Ward, and didn’t discover Louis Armstrong and traditional jazz until he’d relocated, to a school in Treme. “And then I realized that in the Treme, there was a whole ’nother life going on, with a lot of jazz,” he reflects. African-American brass bands had started forming in the city late in the 19th century, and come to be a familiar part of church, funeral, and social club celebrations and parades, where the crowds which followed them (and the style of music which kept them dancing) became known as “second line.”

Associated with the birth of jazz early in the 20th century, the brass bands, along with their older repertoire, survived in New Orleans neighborhoods like Treme and experienced something of a revival in the 1970s, when the young Dirty Dozen Brass Band began gaining national notice. Ruffins and a schoolmate, tuba player Phil Frazier, formed their ReBirth Brass Band in 1982 with an eye to updating the tradition. “We started wearing our regular clothes and not wearing the milkman hats or the black-and-white-with-tie,” notes Ruffins. “And we started playing Michael Jackson and hip stuff, and the kids thought it was cooler.”

“All of our New Orleans traditions are unique. Our music is different, our food is different, our culture is different.”At the same time, “I got the whole band hooked on old black-and-white videos,” Ruffins chuckles. “We’d sit down and watch Louis [Armstrong] videos and rewind and start it again and drink our beers, and watch every step he did.” After he’d left ReBirth for a solo career, “I was just hooked on a [1941 Cab Calloway] video called, The Jumpin’ Jive. I stole a lot of stuff from them cats: the way they dressed, their mentality, the way they started and finished the song.”

Ruffins recalls that David Simon first spoke to him about a TV series a year before Katrina, and knocked on his door again in 2009. “He said, ‘It’s finally gonna happen, and I want you to play yourself. Can you do that?’ And I said, ‘You’re goddamned right!’” Channeling Louis Armstrong’s throaty vocals and good humor in several Treme episodes, Ruffins has also served as a musical and cultural consultant to the series. So has 50-year-old Donald Harrison Jr., who, having established himself as a modern jazz master in New York City, returned to New Orleans to celebrate the music of the Mardi Gras Indians, clubs of wildly costumed African-Americans who compete in parades. (He was later proclaimed a “Chief” of the Congo Nation Afro-New Orleans Cultural Group.)

Other musicians from various genres playing themselves in the series include blind jazz pianist Henry Butler, R&B powerhouse singer Irma Thomas, singer/songwriter Steve Earle, and Cajun traditionalists Steve Riley and Wilson and Joel Savoy. “We learn from them when it comes to musicality, they learn from us when it comes to acting,” testifies Pierce. “And that’s one thing David’s shows have always been about: If you create a world truthfully, authentically, with a strong sense of reality, you place yourself into that world, and it will inform you. I think all the musicians have picked up on that.”

TV Series’ Soundtrack Making Waves

The first season’s soundtrack album, on Geffen Records, is enjoying a place on the Billboard charts, as are recent Basin Street Records releases by Ruffins and ReBirth. (Michael White is also in the Basin Street catalogue.) Featured on the eclectic soundtrack, which includes rap and a musical rant against the Bush administration, is Juilliard-trained violinist Lucia Micarelli, whose Annie Tee is a continuing character in the series. Annie gets perhaps the widest variety of repertoire and costumes, from her gossamer duds as a street musician in the French Quarter, to the capuchon and mask she dons to fiddle in a rural Mardi Gras trail ride in Cajun country, to the T-shirt and panties in which she serves up a prebreakfast Rondo from Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor. Outside of NOCCA, the classical training of many New Orleans musicians has been vital in younger years, but much briefer than Micarelli’s.

“I had four years of private lessons, and I remember making it as far as the infamous Klose book,” says Michael White about his high school study of clarinet. “But if you’re lucky enough to get an understanding of what the real early New Orleans Jazz was, you start to find out that that music tends to put more life into things than you do in classical music, where you’re generally interpreting the passions, emotions, ideas, and feelings of someone else. In our music, you’re creating your own. And you’re using things like heavy vibratos and growls, like you speak, to communicate, to tell a story. It’s supposed to be personal and represent you, and that’s kind of the opposite of what you learn in classical music.”

“I played a lot of marches, including the March Grandioso, and A Trumpeter’s Lullaby, and I had to read music in high school,” adds Kermit Ruffins. “I don’t read music any more. But for La Vie en rose [on his latest recording], I had to pull out music for that, ’cause I just couldn’t figure out what Pops [Louis Armstrong, who recorded the tune in 1950] had been doing with it.” As with the Treme soundtrack, Ruffins’ recordings incorporate traditional jazz (with Michael White sitting in) but also more-progressive jazz and pop material. Still, “Every time I start singing or playing my trumpet, it’s a real New Orleans feel,” the trumpeter assures. “No matter what tune I play, it’s gonna be a New Orleans song.”

White believes that no single TV series or film could adequately represent the city that he and his family have shared for generations. “New Orleans is really like a big head of lettuce,” he says. “There are so many layers, historically, culturally, and musically. Even within the brass band tradition there are layers: Bands that play for festivals and tourists are very different from bands that have played in the community. And even though New Orleans music, even in the beginning, was a reflection, like many musics around the world, of the lives and concerns of the people, those lives and needs have changed with time.”

Wendell Pierce, who had to return to his hometown after Katrina to help secure his extended family after the devastation (and was interviewed for Spike Lee’s 2006 documentary about the storm), is currently involved in rebuilding his neighborhood of Pontchartrain Park. Social issues of urban reconstruction, drug addiction, and high and low crime are as much a part of Treme’s story lines as are the challenges of romance, family, and career advancement. “David has always been a purveyor of truth, especially when it comes to the dysfunction of American cities and the people that populate them, and of government institutions," says Pierce, who has already seen a vitalizing impact of the series on the city in which it’s set.

Hometown Boosterism

“We’ve gotten great support; there’s [Treme] watch parties all over the city, at commercial establishments and in homes,” says Pierce. “It’s sort of like group therapy here in New Orleans. Now the curiosity of our people is, what about people outside of New Orleans, are they gonna pay any attention? I always say yes. Because, one, culture transcends: The more specific you are, the more universal your culture is, the more people are touched by it. Two, it creates wonderful curiosity about and interest in the city again, and people know that it’s authentic. Three, it’s actually in America, this northernmost Caribbean city and last Bohemia,” Pierce remarks. “Everybody that got out after the storm is watching the show, too,” adds Ruffins.

Pierce expects an especially good reception for A Night in Treme in San Francisco, where he spent several years as a company member of ACT. “We’re sister cities. I very much see the sibling resemblance, and we could learn from each other,” he assures. “The saturation of music could go further in San Francisco, and New Orleans could learn from a city which is well-run, celebrates its culture, and has created an economic engine, even in the most difficult of times.” Michael White remembers two-week residencies in the Bay Area years ago with New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band, some of its members nonagenarians who’d played alongside legends like Kid Ory, King Oliver, and Sidney Bechet. “You’ve had a movement out in San Francisco based in New Orleans jazz. Your people kind of know about it,” says White with a chuckle, “as opposed to much of the rest of the country.”

But even the folks who make the music, on Treme and off, have a hard time summarizing its evergreen, magical allure. “Every time I do an interview, I’m trying to figure it out myself,” Ruffins says, laughing. “And it’s been going on ever since Louis Armstrong, and I’m always thinking about what those guys did for New Orleans and for American music as a whole. It’s crazy, man, it’s a blessing!”

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