TV series

Watching people sashay


Still from HBO series Treme. Indian practice.

I don’t know what the future holds for the movie industry, but it does seem like good quality TV shows have really hit their stride in the last few years. I have to admit I find it a tad time-consuming to keep track of all this alleged bounty and usually rely on a few favorite picks from trustworthy friends. Last year David Simon’s The Wire convinced me that gritty treatment of socially intricate environments – the seedy underside of Baltimore – could be just as intellectually compelling as your well-chiseled noir novel.

Now, as I’m sadly gearing up for the last episode of Treme, I’d like to share some thoughts about a show that I feel should have gotten a lot more exposure when it aired on HBO from 2010 through 2013.

In a nutshell, this is arguably the most accurate depiction of New Orleans as the cradle of jazz music ever shown on TV. Of course the appearance of legendary living musicians alongside cast actors makes the show even more engaging and authentic. Since this is largely a music blog, I’d like to focus in on the characters of Delmond and Albert “Big Chief” Lambreaux, impeccably played by actors Rob Brown and Clarke Peters. Their complex father and son relationship epitomizes the crux of what makes this music such a contentious “genre” to this day. Delmond is fast becoming a foremost trumpeter on the New York jazz scene but his New Orleans roots prove to be both a valuable trump card and a liability as he strives to carve his path as a modern jazz musician. Albert “Big Chief” sticks to the swing tradition and will not hear of those “modern jazz cats [that] can’t play shit”. What he is basically saying here is that today’s jazz doesn’t swing and therefore it don’t mean a thing, right? In one striking scene, Albert is playing a bluesy line on the bass. Delmond recognizes the tune and jumps in confidently. But soon enough, Albert gets upset and tells Delmond he came in late on the beat and wasn’t playing the [rhythm]changes. This is a case in point of the impressive scope of this show, which excels at bridging the gap between jazz initiate terminology and smart character development. Father and son are both dedicated to the music but their conceptions are irreconcilable.

Delmond admires the values that his Black Indian father instilled in him – for those, myself included, unfamiliar with the culture of African-American Mardi Gras Indians, this is very educational – but regretfully realizes he will always fall short of his father’s expectations of him: connect more with Indian culture and carry on the torch. However, Delmond is persistent and even successfully arranges a recording session in New York featuring himself, his father and a stellar cast of musicians, including the great Ron Carter. This Black Indian tradition meets modern jazz session doesn’t sit well with Albert at the beginning but when the whole band reunites in New Orleans to record the same song for a take that sounds similar to all involved, Albert brightens up and seems happy with the result. Clearly, the city’s vibe was missing. It is this level of detail that the showrunners should be applauded for as we spectators come to understand how deeply the music is ingrained in the city’s psyche. That particular relationship between Delmond and Albert is very stirring as jazz or, at least the wide variety of styles it covers, appears as the emotional bond that unites and divides them. Ultimately, Delmond embraces the music his dad grew up with but places it in a larger continuum. New Orleans is unquestionably the birthplace of jazz and Delmond won’t let anyone disparage its rich history, as he reminds two unctuous guys at his own record release party. Through his personal journey, we are reminded of a fundamental tenet of jazz expression: a constant back and forth between an assimilation of past pioneers and the development of an individual voice regardless of tastemakers’ pronouncements.

For those who still wonder why this music doesn’t fit neatly into one category, Treme provides valuable answers. After all, what you mostly hear in this show sounds very remotely related to what is commonly defined as jazz. It is New Orleans music, a rich soulful brass-heavy sound for all occasions of life, from carnivals to funerals. Jazz originated with that culture but has gone through a wide variety of styles ever since. That this show succeeds in suggesting that idea without affectation or dullness is probably its most laudable achievement. All the characters in this show are more or less involved with music in varying levels but you somehow never get the sense this show is only about music. Of course, this vibrant culture, recovering from the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, falls prey to a pervasive cocktail of murder, violence,  police and political corruption, and the show addresses the issues unapologetically.

That “creolized” culture in the words of DJ Davis, a hilarious and touching character in the show, deserves to be better known. Now is the time.

On that note, I’ve got the last episode waiting, and I’m sure that Chef Jeanette Desautel has some crawfish raviolis to make me forget how much I’m going to miss that show.

Highly recommended.