The air is getting thicker on Treme. Dysfunctional institutions of health care, housing, insurance, criminal justice, and city hall lay the foundation for individual struggles with money and crime. The seemingly mundane activities 'on the ground' - scheduling a meeting, getting work, going to the hospital - run together with traumatic events - hurricanes, rapes, robberies - within a suffocating atmosphere of corruption and negligence. In domains that seem as far removed from 'politics' as possible (like a community 'second line' parade), we sense that the tiniest movements and encounters are politically infused.
Soon I'll have more to discuss re: the politics of parading and the debilitating violence that has crippled the lives of New Orleanians, but for now I want to focus on one of those little crevices that, on the surface, seems inherently apolitical but the writers on Treme have shown to be fraught with disagreement and debate. Jazz. "Jazz?" you ask. Yes, jazz.
We all associate New Orleans with jazz but the question is, What kind of jazz? That's easy: traditional jazz, which, once people figured out the music came from here, became known simply as 'New Orleans jazz' or (disturbingly) 'Dixieland'. Though we eventually came to inflate the status of this music, New Orleans-style jazz was everyday dance music in the 1910s and 1920s, when it became an international craze and eventually ballooned into swing. By WWII, jazz had become benign pop music, prompting a backlash among musicians in New York looking redirect the music away from mainstream audiences by emphasizing artistry over entertainment. The progressives jettisoned the functional aspects of music as a dance form, which smacked of Uncle Tom accommodationism, to make speedy, virtuosic, discordant music - 'bebop' - meant to taken seriously.
This break with tradition, of course, instigated a new tradition that is now its own museum piece and, I would argue, has constrained experimentalism in jazz, but that's neither here nor there for the moment, because we're concerned with how jazz fared back home in New Orleans. It wasn't until the postwar period when a traditional 'revival', mustered in response to the progressivist attacks, alerted New Orleanians to their hometown's identity as the birthplace of jazz. This recognition coincided with a shift in the local economy - away from industry and towards tourism - and musicians and entrepreneurs soon realized there was money to be made by 'preserving' tradition and putting it on display in places like Preservation Hall and Jazz Fest. Music as entertainment became the calling card for New Orleans and it wasn't only jazz that benefited but any form of African American music - R&B, soul, funk, brass band - that functioned as feel-good social dance music.
This put bebop in a precarious spot. Against entertainment and not suitable for dancing, the music languished, forcing New Orleans musicians to find workarounds. Many, like Harold Battiste and the circle of musicians that were enlisted by his label AFO Records (like drummer James Black, saxophonist Nat Perillat, and trumpeter Melvin Lastie), played trad jazz gigs and made R&B recordings in order to fund their bebop endeavors. (Check them out on Barbara George's "I Know".) A few, like Battiste and especially Ellis Marsalis, became educators at schools such as the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA) and University of New Orleans. Most left New Orleans. The drummers were particularly successful: Ed Blackwell with Ornette Coleman, Vernel Fournier and later Idris Muhammed with Ahmad Jamal, and Herlin Riley with Wynton Marsalis.
Modern jazz musicians from New Orleans face a double-bind. They struggle to carve out a space for themselves at home, while away they have to shed their associations with trad jazz to prove that they can can hang with 'serious' musicians. Throughout the first season, trumpeter Delmond Lambreaux was caught in the tension between being a tradition-bearer for audiences who expect familiar New Orleans standards like "When the Saints" or "Iko, Iko" and the modern jazzheads who police the boundaries of serious music. In a clunky scene from the first episode of this season, two young lions give Delmond a once-over about trad jazz musicians "caught in a tourist scam like a minstrel show." And in this week's episode, Delmond is struggling to build an audience, playing to a smattering of applause at Jazz at Lincoln Center and firing his manager for lackluster promotion.
Delmond's character is based on Donald Harrison Jr., a saxophonist who moved to New York in the 1980s along with trumpeter Terence Blanchard, following in the footsteps of Branford and Wynton Marsalis and generations of New Orleans musicians before them. Harrison's father, like Delmond, was a Mardi Gras Indian chief, and Donald Jr. has managed to maintain his connection to deeply rooted local traditions while extending the boundaries of tradition into modern jazz. (His CD "Indian Blues" is indispensable.) And a few who have come up since, including his nephew Christian Scott and pianist Jonathan Batiste (both recent grads of NOCCA and both appearing onstage w/Delmond in Treme) have prospered. But they walk a fine line playing music that is supposedly a world apart from politics but, as we get a sense of in Treme, is abundantly political.