In 'Treme', Music is the Star

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HBO


David Simon's rich, complex shows have always been rewarding to watch alone, but they almost demand conversation, whether it's a debate over Baltimore's future or a reality check at a particularly audacious act of cruelty, style, or recklessness. His new show, an exploration of New Orleans' Treme neighborhood, premieres on HBO on Sunday at 10 p.m. And to start the inevitable discussion, Alyssa Rosenberg, Latoya Peterson, Matthew Yglesias, Anna John, Kay Steiger, and Rachael Brown will be talking Treme.Treme different from Simon's other shows. Then Matthew Yglesias questioned how realistic the show is. Latoya Peterson examined the series' approach to race and class. Kay Steiger looked at how the show depicts New Orleans' division between rich and poor.

From the very first sounds and shots of Treme—a reed in a mouth, quick runs on a horn, the faded tattoo of a trombone—it's clear that this is a show about musicians as much as it is about Katrina, or New Orleans itself. In the course of the hour, we are witness to music used for aggression, persuasion, mourning, a distraction, a job—and it is incessant. It pours from car radios, a DJ's booth, a piano being practiced, and most memorably in the joyous second line scene that opens the series, where we're treated to the Rebirth Brass Band pounding out "Feel Like Funkin' It Up."

New Orleans's musical culture serves as a lens through which David Simon can explore the human condition. Just as Baltimore's drug trade provided that lens in The Wire, the music here serves both as scenic expression—what is New Orleans without its music?—and a narrative element. The first episode, which premiered last night on HBO, begins and ends with a parade; the first a celebration, the second a funeral procession.

The first musician we meet is Antoine Batiste, a hand to mouth horn player who talks his way out of cab fare in time to join Rebirth in the second line. He announces himself with a neat little riff, and then jumps into what The Village Voice called "the first opening monologue by a central character in a television series delivered wordlessly, on trombone." Batiste, as played by the wonderful Wendell Pierce (himself a NOLA native, although here his parts are performed by Rebirth's Stafford Agee), is a charismatic scoundrel. He blows out a powerful line only to playfully boast, "That's the 6th ward in my bones, baby. Here in Treme. Y'all don't know nothing about that." It's just a hint of what's ahead. Throughout the first and second episodes, Simon uses music, and the musicians themselves, to begin to delineate just who belongs in this place and who does not.

The relationships aren't always easy to decipher. Take Davis McAlary, played by a shaggy-looking Steve Zhan. Davis hosts an overnight radio show but chafes at shilling during pledge drives. ("Fucking New Orleans fucking canon," he gripes about the compilation CD he's expected to spin, simultaneously owning and disowning those "admittedly great 20 tunes.") He aims speakers out his windows to blare Mystikal's "Bouncin' Back (Bumpin' Me Against the Wall)" at his square, classical-listening neighbors. He calls himself a musician, and though we've yet to see him play much of anything, he seems to be accepted by the local legends he worships. In one of the funniest scenes of the pilot, Davis awkwardly tries to impress Elvis Costello, whom he's spotted at a jazz club. But by the end of the second episode, Davis is shaping up to be a far more complex presence than the stoner/slacker/groupie that the first makes him out to be.

It should be appreciated how much care Simon has given to who was actually playing in New Orleans "three months after." At the time the show is meant to take place, Costello certainly was, recording his album The River in Reverse with local composer Allen Toussaint. Kermit Ruffins plays himself, as do saxophonist Donald Harrison, and drummer Keith Frazier, who along with Ruffins, is a co-founder of the Rebirth Brass Band.

The presence of "real" musicians among the characters provides a sense of authenticity that Simon clearly values, and also underscores the tension that plays around the show's edges. Musicians in Treme are a useful stand-in for the social structure of the city as a whole. We see those who've made it by leaving, only to return post-storm, those who chose to stay, and many who aren't making it at all.  Seemingly two local musicians can support themselves: Delmond Lambreaux (played by Rob Brown), and Kermit Ruffins. Delmond has found success looking beyond the city's musical heritage, playing straight-ahead jazz at the Blue Note in New York, while Kermit is embracing that heritage completely, almost becoming a caricature of it. After a gig, Davis urges a reluctant Kermit to go talk to Costello, who had been in the club's audience. "Make a friend, make a contact," he scolds. "Don't you want to get famous?"

However, Simon doesn't let the viewer forget that for some, it's not just about the music. "Play for that motherfucking money boys!" Antoine continuously reminds his bandmates. The Treme Brass Band's drum is brightly painted with their booking phone number. Sonny and Annie, street performers who can spot a rube when they see one, tell a group of white tourists that it costs $20 to hear "When the Saints Go Marching In" after a request for "something authentic." Sonny and Annie are white too, but here it is their music and their sense of cultural belonging, not their race, that places them squarely inside the walls that Simon has started to build.

There is a long tradition of jazz musicians adopting a language of their own, and emphasizing the difference between themselves and the audience, even as jazz itself evolved from chord progressions that were designed to let anyone play along. Miles Davis always played with his back turned on the crowd, and Lester Young hid behind sunglasses. Similar signposts dot Treme's landscape, giving clues to who fits in where.

Not everyone loves the performers. "I married a goddamn musician. Ain't no way to make that shit right," LaDonna, Antoine's ex-wife, explains their divorce. For some, the music is too painful. "I hate that fucking song," complains a woman driving away from the city, switching off the classic tune "Do you Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans." For others, it is symbolic of the fear that the city's soul is being appropriated by post-Katrina chaos.

For jazz fans, Treme is momentous, and aficionados of the New Orleans horn-heavy style will fall over themselves spotting the cameos. (The first episode alone includes performances by members of the Donald Harrison Quintet, the Rebirth Brass Band, Kermit Ruffins & the Barbeque Swingers, the Treme Brass Band, and the Treme Sidewalk Steppers.) But even if you can't name a single Marsalis brother, you'll enjoy yourself. Just try not to tap a toe to the catchy performance of "Down in the Treme" that accompanies the opening credits, despite the images of Katrina's extreme destruction flashing across the screen. It's worth remembering that in New Orleans, even mourners dance.

Here, Rachael Brown highlights the role that music plays in the series:

Alyssa kicked off the discussion by writing about what makes

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Rachael Brown is a writer and analyst for Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit organization working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. A former Atlantic editor, she has written for The Guardian and Smithsonian.com, among other outlets. She is also a former public high school teacher.

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