“Keep Sewing”: Treme’s First Season

It would be a bold viewer who too closely related Treme, the television show about New Orleans after the levees broke, with Wynton Marsalis, the stubbornly conservative musician and historian of jazz. Certainly David Simon, who with Eric Overmeyer is creator and executive producer of Treme, is no reactionary traditionalist: on The Wire and Generation Kill alike, he laid into the destructive shibboleths of contemporary American discourse. But in Ken Burns’s 2001 documentary Jazz, itself criticised for its prescriptive, classicist approach to the music, Marsalis said: “Jazz music objectifies America. It’s an art form that can give us a painless way of understanding ourselves. The real power of jazz and the innovation of jazz, is that a group of people can come together and create art, improvised art, and can negotiate their agendas with each other. And that negotiation is the art.” If Treme had a voice, this is what it would say.

The first season begins just five months after Hurricane Katrina leapt with disarming ease over the insufficient defences provided to New Orleans. One of the show’s first scenes features the Tulane English lecturer, Creighton Bernette, labelling the flooding “a man-made catastrophe, a federal fuck-up of epic proportions and decades in the making.” Treme doesn’t really interrogate Creighton’s assumptions – it takes as fact (as indeed it is) that New Orleans is suffering as a result of long-term federal neglect and local corruption, and if it doesn’t (yet) delve deep into the politics of all this as The Wire might have done, this is only because, having decided where to place it, the show is uninterested in blame. It is focused on what comes next – if anything can. Ultimately, Creighton comes to fear that the old New Orleans is lost for good – that it cannot rebuild itself except as facsimile. Other characters are less fatalistic.

Take Wendell Pierce’s affable degenerate, Antoine Batiste. A trombonist once considered the next big thing, and now routinely short-changing taxi drivers as he shuttles from venue to venue in an attempt to make ends meet, Antoine is too focused on the next paycheck to think conceptually. We first meet him at a funeral parade, where he exhorts his fellow musicians to “play for the fucking money”; there is a cool pragmatism to his work which is allied with a very deep and heartfelt love for and commitment to New Orleans and its music. Indeed, when an old friend of his dies, Batiste passes down a trombone to the man’s grandson – it’s what the people of New Orleans do, he explains to the wealthy Japanese jazz enthusiast who has funded Batiste’s largesse. This isn’t just a moribund tradition, a museum piece kept in place for the benefit of afficionados and tourists; it is certainly that, but it is also the beating heart and the central nervous system of a city on life support.

This makes the band, the collective, the raggle-taggle coming-together of musicians too stupid or stubborn to leave for Austin, into the show’s governing metaphor. In their work, in the negotiations and accomodations of Marsalis’s characterisation of jazz, we see a sort of parallel rebuilding. As the first season progresses, stores reopen and streets are cleaned; but this work takes place in the background, and foregrounded always is the formation, the management, the performances of bands. In writing about Treme, Jonathan McCalmont has wondered if the show’s approach to the world of New Orleans isn’t a little shallow. He cites, for instance, the moment when the out-of-work DJ and middle class slacker, David McAlary, runs into a pothole and is shook down first for a lift and then by the man he’d paid to look after his vehicle; the only consequence of this absence both of the state and a sense of community responsibility, he opines, is that Davis writes a song. A song! That’s it! But Treme is about how we might create cultural product from suffering; thus is the New Orleans tradition – and thus must it be rebuilt.

Jonathan reads Davis unkindly. On many levels, this is fair – he can only afford to live a creative life, unlike for instance his sometime girlfriend, and struggling chef, Janette Desautel, because he hails from a rich family, whilst his constant quest for stimulation, and his habitual emphasis on the purity of New Orleans culture, can appear self-defeating and sterile in equal measure. But as much as he is a curator, the sort of passionate enthusiast who can risk ossifying a tradition in an image of what it should be rather than what it is, he is also one of the city’s greatest advocates, its most eloquent evangelist. New Orleans needs Davis as it needs a show like Treme, and it is a sign of the openness of the culture he exhorts that it accepts a man like him, rather than a token of its closed qualities that he spouts so much false rule-making and elitist pride.

So, in her own post about the season, Abigail is on stronger ground when she argues that Treme risks looking most of all like a product of the New Orleans Tourist Board. Certainly the show is premised on the idea that New Orleans represents something unique and priceless in American culture, and it therefore goes out of its way to prove this to us. But given that the city does indeed possess precisely those qualities, it seems unfair to attack the show for foregrounding, for example, the nobility of Albert Lambreaux’s Mardi Gras Indians, or the joyous excellence of the music of Kermit Ruffin: after all, the writers also emphasise the return of the city’s corrosive drug culture through the story of the only averagely talented street singer, Sonny (the break-down of his musical and romantic relationship with the fiddle player Annie is an instance in which the band acts as a metaphor for destruction rather than construction); furthermore, the quality of New Orleans housing is throughout the show on shame-faced display. The show doesn’t pretend that New Orleans is perfect (though when students in search of the ‘real’ New Orleans are sent by Davis to the scuzziest jazz dive in the city the scene is admittedly played for laughs). Rather, Treme is posited as an argument against the notion that New Orleans is rotten to the core.

There is more to write about this show – I haven’t addressed, for instance, Khandi Alexander’s breath-taking fierceness in the role of LaDonna Batiste-Williams, Antoine’s ex-wife, whose brother was lost in the storm (the whole season is worth the sight in its final episode of LaDonna dancing the second line); nor have I looked at its odd storytelling structure, in which there is barely any plot to speak of and many characters never even meet (which many cannot abide). But at the show’s core is this question of culture, of heritage and creation. When his daughter professes enthusiasm for the Endymion Mardi Gras parade, Creighton huffs that it is, “Like everything else in America – cheap, mass-produced and made in China.” Despite this, his wife scolds him for “waxing nostalgic for the knights of Momus”. This enthusiasm exists “because you’re not from here,” she says. “When you grow up with it, it has a whole other meaning.” The meaning, the relevance, and the continued existence of cultural product are Treme‘s key considerations – and in New Orleans, Simon has one of the last non-homogenised localised American traditions with which to negotiate his agendas. Here’s to season two.

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