Monday, May 9, 2011

episode 13: politics

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.


  1. Nice post .... It was interesting on this episode to also see "bounce" highlighted in a political way. If you have any insights about this form of music & its reception within music circles within NO, I'd be curious to hear them.

    I found the collision of the white NO gentry - in the form of Davis' aunt - with the African American bounce scene, including its favored daughter Katey Red, a transexual, to make for an interesting scene. I wasn't sure if Aunt Mimi's ready acceptance of the club and of Katey was realistic. Sure, Mimi is the slobering alcoholic representative of the family, but would she be so willing to shed the social cues of her privileged NO status so easily? If so - as David Simon seems to be implying - NO is a special place. (Yet not special enough for bounce to be acceptable radio fodder.)

  2. Hi Lucy - the bounce segment from last week's show was interesting. If you follow the links in my blog you'll find out all you ever wanted to know about bounce.

    Bounce was made and listened to by young black New Orleanians in the 1990s. Only a few older rappers continue to produce bounce, like DJ Jubilee and 5th Ward Weebie (whose political rap 'Fuck Katrina' was heard in Treme). Younger rappers have moved on to the national hood rap style a la Lil Wayne.

    But meantime, white audiences have rediscovered bounce in a big way, especially the subgenre 'Sissy Bounce' made by transgender rappers like Katey Red. The article by Alison Fensterstock in the local weekly broke the scene and it's gone viral.

    So while the gender dynamics make this an especially fascinating case, sissy bounce is part of a long lineage of white audiences discovering black music in New Orleans going back to Congo Square and jazz. Aunt Mimi, eccentric as she is, is not that hard to pin down.