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Music Class/Layers of Treme #1

April 16, 2011

I finally got my Treme Season One box set and sat down to watch it from beginning to end. I had already seen the entire series twice, but each time it was viewed episodically. This time I wanted to watch it as a piece. So I watched the first five episodes one day and the next five two days later taking notes all along the way.

It was interesting watching it as a piece, viewing it like a well loved book re-read for the third time. The first time through I watched it with rapt attention, waiting to see what would happen next week. The second time I watched it, I was looking at character development more than anything. But this time, knowing how everything turned out, I just let it be a cover to cover don’t-call-I-won’t-answer marathon.

It didn’t disappoint. I noticed layers in several areas that are far richer than I initially picked up on. That’s actually pretty amazing given the fact that there are several writers and several directors involved, but the framework of enriching the layers as the story line of Season One evolved was very much in evidence.

One area of layering was in the depiction of the musician characters. Treme showed the itinerant nature of musicians in New Orleans and the tiers of a kind of class system. While that’s certainly true of musicians everywhere, here in New Orleans it is compressed, highly concentrated, both cooperative and competitive.

Antoine, is first shown arriving late to a second line, doing it for the money, playing loudly as he catches up, letting the guys know he’s there. Antoine is a good player, clearly known and respected by his fellow musicians. He plays everything from a second line—funerary or Social Aid and Pleasure Club–to a club date with Kermit Ruffins to a chi chi Mardi Gras ball. He plays a strip club and the airport in a band greeting returnees. Always chasing the bucks (Note in front of his wallet says “Groceries”—Oh, Desiree!) as his wallet seems perpetually short of cash. He owes every cabbie in town (although his tried and true feigned outrage over the direction they took is always fun to watch) as he goes from gig to gig. When LaDonna needs some money to fix the family crypt, Antoine ponies up what he has and heads out the door to make some more. When his mentor, Danny Nelson, is sick and has no trombone, he generously gives him the brand new one he’d received as a gift from a Japanese admirer. He’ll have to make the money he spent getting his own bone back somehow before Desiree finds out he spent it, so he’ll chase another gig. (Desiree’s line: “A gig is not a job” is blown off as he heads out the door.) He’s turned down by Dr. John for his touring band but gets hired for the Allen Toussaint recording sessions, a real feather in his cap, nevermind he loses all his money playing poker with Irma Thomas. He may not always be sensible but the man can track down gigs. He can smell them out, he can wheedle them out of friends who have more regular gigs, he can hit up the Musician’s Clinic for 100 dollars a man. The man must have hundreds of songs permanently in his head as he can play with anyone it seems. But Antoine has a self esteem problem.

Trombone Shorty, Troy Andrews, is set up subtly as Antoine’s nemesis, but only in Antoine’s mind. Shorty is younger than Antoine but has shot into that stratospheric realm of fame that Antoine aspires to. In that class of known names are people like Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Trombone Shorty, Kermit Ruffins, Jon Cleary and others. He’s known by these musicians as a reliably good player. Some, like Trombone Shorty and Kermit Ruffins, have gotten him gigs. But somehow he knows he will probably not be one of them in this lifetime and it bugs the hell out of him. His response to the limo driver holding up the name sign at the airport and his seeming acceptance that the Andrews brothers will upstage him says it all. Antoine is a great player, but New Orleans has its own stratifications and Antoine knows his place within that system while aspiring to transcend it. He strikes me as the most typical New Orleans musician in the bunch. He’s simply a working musician, reliable in his musicianship if not in his personal relationships. His music comes from his having heard it all his life, the lessons taught him by his mentor, the hardscrabble playing wherever he can “sit in” on the way up. He’s not much of a student of music as his exchange with his Japanese admirer shows, but he has pride in his music and his ability to play it, even if he has to eat that pride now and then for the dollars. He knows the likelihood of a Grammy nominated CD with his name on it is slim to none, but he keeps on blowing his horn, making those bucks, doing it because he can’t not do it, it’s in his blood. Oh yeah, and he needs to pay his rent.

On another tier is Delmond Lambreaux. His tier is the upwardly mobile, cerebral jazz musician, touring with a known jazz virtuoso, Donald Harrison. Delmond has a love/hate relationship with both New Orleans and its music, and he’s distraught at his hometown’s touting of the music while not supporting the musicians that make that music. He loves the New York scene and tries very hard to wipe what he views as a parochial city’s mud off his shoes. Delmond is clearly a guy on his way up, hoping to reach the level of Wynton Marsalis and young enough and talented enough to do it. Although we aren’t privy to his musical experience as he grew up, other than the Mardi Gras Indian tradition and their music which he is vocally ambivalent about, we wonder at what point he bailed out on playing second lines or if he ever did. He’s way ahead of Antoine but still not quite a Marsalis. While his character wasn’t on screen as much as Antoine, we’re still curious about him and we see that he’s probably not going to be playing with his feet touching the street instead of a stage in the foreseeable future. He also doesn’t seem to be particularly strapped for cash, which allows him to pick and choose where he plays and when. We’re never sure that he’s passionate about what he’s doing. We do know that he’s ambitious and that he might actually stand on a stage accepting a Grammy some time in the future, something that will probably never happen for Antoine.

Then we have Sonny. Sonny, Sonny, Sonny. Poor Sonny. Sonny has passable talent, but only that. While Antoine doesn’t write music or seem to study at all, Sonny attempts writing and has clearly studied the music of New Orleans. He simply doesn’t have the talent to be a working musician like Antoine and he’ll clearly never rise to the level of Delmond. But he’s more passionate than Delmond. Moving to New Orleans from the Netherlands in order to learn and play the music he loves, he plays on the streets. Street musicians have their own stratifications as they can range from terrible to reasonably enjoyable to remarkable. Sonny falls into the reasonably enjoyable category unless he’s high on some substance or other, in which case he’s belligerent, off key, and abysmal. Along with his personality problems, he suffers from the knowledge that he’ll always be third or fourth rate. He’s like a kid who practiced on frozen basketball courts in the winter from the age of nine with his dreaming of a contract with the NBA only to reach the age of 18 to find that he barely measures 5’8”. He doesn’t know what else to do, he’s never thought of anything else as a possible future. Sonny is in that situation having found that his talent is too short. Sonny wants desperately to be a better musician but he just doesn’t have the stuff, no matter how hard he tries. When he smashes his keyboard, we know his realization of this fact is complete and his identity will disintegrate as his hope disappears and there’s nothing to replace it.

Annie, on the other hand, is genuinely talented. She’s a brilliant musician for whom the sky’s the limit, if she can just make better choices in men and gain her confidence as a musician. While her erstwhile boyfriend, Sonny, is convinced of his talent and his dream, Annie is unconvinced. When other musicians point out her talent, she is self-deprecating and doesn’t seem to believe their compliments enough to internalize them and bolster her confidence. She is remarkably talented but too willing to give in to Sonny’s ridiculous demands or her own self-sabotage. Passionate and disciplined, she practices, and it’s clear she must play in order to be whole. It’s who she is. She’s starting to crossover from street musician to club musician with a chance at recording, if she quits shooting herself in the foot. By New Orleans’ musicians’ standards, she’s upwardly mobile and has a shot at greatness.

And last but not least, Davis McAlary. Davis is knowledgable about all things related to New Orleans music. He teaches piano and guitar, puts together a recording, the wonderful “Shame, Shame, Shame” that’s selling out at Louisiana Music Factory, and is a DJ. Not untalented, and definitely passionate, he doesn’t classify himself and as a result is difficult to place in the stratifications here. Part of the difficulty in placing him is his music and part of it is money.

Along with the musical tiers, are the money tiers. Trombone Shorty and Delmond Lambreax probably have bank accounts. Antoine, Sonny, and Annie, probably don’t. They get paid in cash, the standard pay method for a New Orleans musician. (When Antoine hands out checks to his fellow players at the airport gig, they look at them in wonder. This, by the way, was one of the huge issues for musicians trying to get a home through the Musician’s Village/Habitat for Humanity partnership. These guys don’t keep records, and probably aren’t jotting down their take from the tip jar. For many of them it was a hurdle they couldn’t overcome.) Street musicians don’t even usually have the “100 dollar a man” option, living day to day on what gets tossed into their guitar cases by passersby. Davis can get a day job, and does periodically, and he also comes from a family with money and seems to own, not rent, his home. He’ll never be living on the street, while some of the others may or may not be able to keep a roof over their heads, case in point Annie, couch surfing until she went to Davis’ house. That will be an interesting story line this season: Are they living together a year later?

The writers did an amazing job illustrating these various classes and I’m intrigued by the depth of their illustration of them. They could have had one guy, probably a sax player, probably standing by the obligatory street lamp but they didn’t. They placed musician characters at every level of the layering and did a great job of showing that a “New Orleans Musician” is a very broad label indeed. It encompasses a deep strata of talent, venue, aspiration, passion and financial renumeration. The writers didn’t have to do this but they did, and in the doing, they enriched Season One, the piece, in a very gratifying way.

6 Comments
  1. April 17, 2011 5:01 pm

    Awesome post, Sam.

    I gotta say, I don’t agree with the take that Antoine is not so much a student of music. The thing about Toyama, he is book-smart. He knows that such and such played this instrument backing up that cat on this track because he experiences jazz through records and liner notes and books. He’s got that kind of encyclopedic knowledge that comes from spending hours listening and reading at home. Whereas Antoine’s knowledge comes from having played with these guys. He might not know which Bo Jocques they’re laying to rest in that second line by the guy’s pedigree, but he knows it’s the one with the lazy eye. He might not have Honore Dutrey’s discography committed to memory, but he knows the mans music and maybe used to go to school with his granddaughter; he can make a mistake about Kid Ory in a photo but he was taught to play by a man whose horn came from Ory himself. There are different ways of being a student and Antoine’s way is as legitimate, maybe more legitimate, than one based strictly on book-learning.

    But yeah, agreed on his place in the hierarchy. I think Davis Rogan has a quote somewhere how it isn’t really worth anything to be the 17th-best piano player in New Orleans. Probably most musicians have that trouble. Most people of any field have that trouble, actually, but musicians have to live that pain up on stage.

  2. April 17, 2011 8:31 pm

    Ya know, I shoulda figured all that from our conversation on “where’d ya go to school.” I still maintain I could write an entire treastise on that question asked here in NOLA. You’re right. Antoine WOULD know where this one went to school, what family that other one came from and which Beau Jacques had the lazy eye! You’re dead on.

    As for Davis’ line re: having to live up to your ranking on stage, I’ll dig through my notes. Copious. It’s probably in there!

  3. wigatrisk permalink
    April 18, 2011 8:06 am

    Interesting stuff sam. As you’ve said here, I like the way that both food and music, while having their own rich particular meanings, were in season one also used as a way to explore how people imagine their own culture/traditions in relationship to other cultures/traditions. Although last year the creators were accused of partaking in New Orleans “exclusivity”, the show explores cultures interacting through many more lenses: insularity, inclusion, universality, etc. The whole bit with Antoine and Toyama seemed in part about Antoine realizing that “his” music (ie. Culture) could and did have not just universal appeal but also universal meaning, as well as Antoine exploring the cerebral elements of the tradition.

    I don’t really buy that Delmond doesn’t approach music primarily through passion – he’s cerebral perhaps but we don’t see that much of it other than him being accused of it by Albert. The interaction with his father over “swing”, the jam with Galactic, and walking with his father as Chief, show the other side. He just seems to be playing the distant “cool” stage personna of post-40s jazzmen. I saw Miles Davis twice and he looked like he might as well have been reading the newspaper; of course, he didn’t sound that way (even if it was in his unfortunate Cindi Lauper phase).

    As for lineages, I live in a place now where you will always and regularly be referred to as a CFA (come from away) even after a lifetime unless you were born here. It’s not done in an unpleasant way but as a marker of indelible difference – difference based in a history of hardship, poverty and unforgiving climate.

    In music news Steve Earle is coming here Sept 10th. Huzzah!

  4. April 18, 2011 5:25 pm

    I do believe I’m going to change my business cards to “Sam Jasper, CFA” as it adds gravitas while keeping folks guessing. I’m liking that!

  5. Davis Rogan permalink
    April 19, 2011 2:45 pm

    Ray, the quote is from David Simon. basically the 10th best piano player in New Orleans would be the best piano player in any other city but New York. He’s saying the level of musicianship here is incredibly high.
    Also, Sam and everyone else, thanks for seperating Davis the me and Davis the character.

  6. April 21, 2011 11:04 am

    I’m home sick today and going to watch straight through again. The first thing I noticed in episode one was Antoine at the funeral saying “Play for that money, boys. Play for that money.” No motherfucker, because he’s too respectful of the moment even through they are burying a car thief.

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