Monday, June 27, 2011

episode 20: ubiquity

One thing Treme gets right in representing New Orleans is the ubiquity and accessibility of music. There is nothing exceptional about experiencing live music in New Orleans; music is not only associated with special occasions like concerts or weddings, it spills out of houses and corner bars and collides with brass band parades and Mardi Gras Indian ceremonies in the streets.

Robert, the curious trumpeter getting his start in marching band, tells his teacher Antoine Batiste that he and his fellow bandmates "want to play on the street like the Baby Boyz." The Baby Boyz is the youngest of a new generation of local brass bands to join the ranks of tradition. Band leader Glen Hall III, who grew up in a musical family in the Tremé neighborhood, put the band together with the top members of the McDonogh 35 High School marching band. The kids started out playing for tips in the French Quarter, graduating to playing funerals, parades, and club gigs, just like the Rebirth Brass Band had done 25 years earlier when they were students at nearby Joseph S. Clark High School. (And not too differently from Louis Armstrong at the Colored Waifs' Home for Boys about a century ago.) Robert (played by Jaron Williams) is pinning his hopes on Antoine to get him started playing in the streets.

Because the city's identity is so wrapped up with music, New Orleanians learn from a young age of the potential for reward in pursuing a career in music. Rebirth, like the Dirty Dozen before them, have taken street parade music to stages around the globe. For Mardi Gras Indians, music offers them the only possibility for a career: tribes like the Wild Magnolias and Wild Tchoupitoulas married traditional Indian chanting with funk, and now Magnolias chief Bo Dollis is being honored as a Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts. This week on Treme, chief Lambreaux brought his chants off the streets and into the studio with an all-star jazz group modeled after Donald Harrison Jr.'s album Indian Blues.

Some musicians make a living in this city never setting foot onstage or in the studio. In the French Quarter, alongside the local brass bands like TBC, musicians play just about every style of music in Jackson Square and all along Royal Street. David & Roselyn claim to have put their daughter through college playing folk and blues for tips; this week they were onscreen singing "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" in a graveside ceremony for Harley (Steve Earle), a street musician (or "busker") who was killed in last week's show.

Busking has a long history in the tourist districts but since Katrina there has been a huge influx of street musicians settling in the city. Alynda Lee Segarra ran away from home in the Bronx and landed in New Orleans, playing banjo in the streets and eventually forming Hurray for the Riff Raff. She now tours everywhere playing her original songs and hillbilly covers and is the most visible member of an informal scene centered in the downtown neighborhoods of the Marigny, Bywater, and Ninth Ward. Hanging out in coffee shops like Satsuma (where Sofia is now a barista) and bars like the Spotted Cat (where we caught a glimpse of the Riff Raff playing outside in this week's show). Sometimes she plays with the bass player from my band, Dan Cutler, who also has played with street kings Meschiya Lake and her Little Big Horns and the Loose Marbles. The trumpeter from my band, Jack Pritchett, is probably playing on Royal Street right now with the Smoking Time Jazz Club.

As the DJ's on WWOZ say at the top of every odd hour: "Now go out and here some LIVE local music..."

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