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New Orleans jazz is the real star of HBO's 'Treme'

New Orleans jazz — the way it's meant to be played — is the real star of HBO series

Chicago TribuneMay 27, 2010 

  • COMMENTARY

    'Treme'

    10 p.m. Sundays on HBO

At last, an antidote to Ken Burns' dismal 2001 TV documentary, Jazz.

No, the new HBO dramatic series Treme isn't a doc and doesn't pretend to be. But it presents jazz, and related New Orleans genres, on national TV in a major way for the first time in nearly a decade. Better still, it does so with the vitality, joy and street-level authenticity so sorely lacking in Burns' stultifying, 19-hour Jazz (which aired over several weeks on PBS).

In so doing, Treme — named for America's oldest black neighborhood, in New Orleans — stands to alter America's perception of a music long marginalized in our popular culture. Until now.

Watch the brass bands parading through the streets of Treme, listen to the show's jazz musicians blowing exultantly in Frenchmen Street clubs, behold the Mardi Gras Indians chanting age-old songs, and you're experiencing New Orleans music undiluted, uncompro mised, unbowed. No talking heads to explain the grand meaning of it all. No condescension toward some facets of jazz at the expense of others. No sucking the life out of a music that intrinsically bristles with invention and improvisation.

Not that Treme was designed to tell the story of jazz in its cradle, the Treme neighborhood, just outside the French Quarter.

Instead, David Simon's fictional series examines everyday life in New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina, obsessing on a city teetering toward chaos.

But for all Treme's dark themes and gnarly plots and subplots, music emerges as its central character, the lone force capable of holding a shattered city together (barely). It blares from car radios and noisy clubs; it echoes on touristy Jackson Square and in grimy rehearsal rooms; it sets the tempo of life in New Orleans day and night. Money might be short, utilities sporadic, housing scarce, anxieties high. But the music somehow still "bubbles up from the streets," as New Orleans pianist Ellis Marsalis famously has said. It's the only hope for salvation in Treme, its reason for being.

It's no surprise that New Orleans musicians emerge regularly through the first half-dozen episodes of Treme, but listen to which ones: Kermit Ruffins blasts away lustily on trumpet, just as he does weekly at Vaughan's Lounge, in the Bywater neighborhood. Donald Harrison rips into New Orleans-tinged bebop at Snug Harbor, the city's top jazz club. Tom McDermott celebrates Crescent City icon Jelly Roll Morton in dialogue and at the piano, keeping the series in tune with the first jazz deity.

For the most part, these artists let the music do the talking. When the Treme Brass Band plays A Closer Walk With Thee, the mournful horns express the sorrow of post-Katrina existence. When a tribe of Mardi Gras Indians exultantly chants Shallow Water, voices rumbling and tambourines clattering, they prove there's life yet to be lived in New Orleans.

Not everything in Treme serves its noble cause. Portraying one of the show's leading characters, the fictional jazz trombonist Antoine Batiste (played by Wendell Pierce), as a chronic philanderer and swindler taps the sorriest stereotypes about jazz life.

Then, again, Simon and friends are trying to produce not a treatise on jazz but a dramatic series about the near-death of a city. And not just any city, but one that has exported more musical culture to the rest of the country — and the world — than anyplace else on this continent.

Treme is sending a message about the incalculable musical value of New Orleans, why this city must be saved and what will be lost if its citizens can't regain their footing.

"New Orleans without poor people ain't New Orleans," says the character Davis McAlary (played by Central Kentucky resident Steve Zahn), a perpetually struggling musician/DJ. "Because it's the people without a pot to piss in who keep the beat and blow the horns and step on the streets."

Of course, not everyone watching Treme will ponder the aesthetic fate of America's first musical city. Yet by bringing jazz funerals and second-line parades, brass bands and piano professors into America's living rooms, Treme can enlighten a coast-to-coast audience about a music it hardly knows — but should.

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