Monday, May 30, 2011

episode 16: taxing

In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, there was concern that New Orleans' distinctive culture might not return:

Mardi Gras Indian chiefs moved to places like Austin, threatening to relocate their tradition beyond the city limits of their hometown for the first time. (Treme: Big Chief Lambreaux stays with his kids in Houston and NYC.)

High school marching bands weren't able to march in Mardi Gras Parades because many students hadn't come home, and those that did had to replace uniforms and instruments. (Treme: Antoine and Keith Hart direct the band at the Kipp school.)

Second line parades - which Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs had led through their neighborhoods for more than a century - were nowhere to be found. The streets of New Orleans were silent for perhaps the first time in the city's history.

There were some hopeful early signs. When famed Creole chef Austin Leslie passed away after evacuating to Atlanta, his body was transported to New Orleans, where a jazz funeral led by the Hot 8 Brass Band proceeded through devastated neighborhoods piled high with debris. Soon after, the Prince of Wales Social Aid & Pleasure Club organized the first post-K second line parade through their unflooded Uptown neighborhood. By January 2006, five months after the flood, a massive "Allstar" parade was organized by dozens of marching clubs, sending a signal that local culture continued to be a priority for New Orleanians rebuilding their lives.

Though the parade was meant to be a display of unity, at the end, as the crowd was dispersing, shots broke out along the perimeter of the crowd and three people were injured. (You'll remember this from the first season of Treme.) Then two months later, a shooting took place near a jazz funeral, and a 19-year old man was killed.

As you know from this season of Treme, if the return of culture to New Orleans was something to celebrate, the return of violent crime was harrowing. Somehow the NOPD conflated the two. Police chief Warren Reily tripled the permit fees required for parading, from $1250 to $3760, and clubs like the Pigeontown Steppers that parade on holidays (Easter) were hit with a whopping $7560 bill.

This is the moment we've arrived at in Treme, when ACLU lawyer Mary Howell (the basis for the Toni Bernette character) partnered with the Social Aid & Pleasure Club Task Force and sued the city for discrimination. They argued that predicting where shootings would happen was impossible, that no one participating in a parade had ever been involved in the shootings, and that shootings occurred consistently at Mardi Gras parades and the elite krewes had never been 'taxed' for the police detail.

The result? The NOPD settled the case, agreed to a reduced parade fee of $1985, and the parade season resumed.

The return of local culture in New Orleans preceded the return of infrastructure. It sent a signal that the city was rebuilding, and it helped to lure tourists back to visit and spend their almighty dollars. And as far as their role in the community, an LSU study found that Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs were models for community participation. Many musicians and marching club members think the city should PAY them for their efforts in perpetuating local culture rather than TAX them as misdirected punishment. I would advise the optimists not to hold their breath.

Monday, May 23, 2011

episode 15: surreality

The weeks surrounding New Years 2007 were positively gut wrenching. New Orleanians who had suffered the trauma of the flood, navigated through systemic failure of the government response, and summoned the emotional resiliency needed to rebuild, now saw violence return to the city with a  vengeance.

Dinerral Shavers, the snare drummer for the Hot 8 Brass Band and marching band director at L.E. Rabouin High School, was shot and killed on December 28, 2006. As the story unfolded, we learned that Dinerral was not the target of the shooting: his stepson had become entangled in a 'turf war' after being transferred to a new high school post-Kartina, and police believe another student fired as his classmate and hit Dinerral instead. What made Dinerral's loss so tragic was that he was an innocent victim who was determined to make an impact on his community. Bandleader Bennie Pete told me a few days after the murder:

“If you look at the news and you just read the paper every day, you would be in the mind frame to think that everybody in that age bracket is into killing and crime, and [Dinerral] was just the opposite, you know. He was really striving to be a complete grown man and a musician and just a positive role model, a positive person.”

You can hear Dinerral's message (and his soulful singing voice) in his song "Get Up," with the prophetic line “my people keep the peace / strike this murder rate down.”

Dinerral's death taught me that for every murder reported in an endless stream of sensationalized media coverage, there is a victim who was loved and who touched the lives of people in some way. Dinerral's mother Yolanda had worked all her life, purchased her own home in the Lower Ninth Ward, and put three daughters through college. The youngest, Nakita, was driven by the loss of her brother to call for a reform of the police department and the District Attorney's office.

Dinerral Shavers, in baseball hat, parading with Hot 8 Brass Band a few weeks before he was killed.

As Nakita and others were bringing attention to Dinerral's murder, the city learned of Helen Hill, a filmmaker who was attacked in her home by an intruder and killed as her husband protected their child. In a week of 8 murders, the headlines were again filled with a story of an exceptionally caring person lost to violence, but this killing was noteworthy in another way as well. Helen Hill was white, and in a city where at least 80% of murder victims are black men and 50% are under the age of 30, Helen's murder not only stood out, it reached people who might be desensitized to the news of another black man killed in the murder capital of the country. 

Baty Landis, who runs the Sound Cafe, knew both Helen Hill and Dinerral Shavers, and she joined forces with Nakita and others to launch Silence is Violence. They organized a march to City Hall that was a success in bringing together black and white New Orleanians in a demonstration that culminated in a series of speeches in front of mayor Nagin, police chief Riley, and other politicians. 

The jazz funeral for Dinerral Shavers and the march to City Hall frame this week's episode of Treme. I was at both of these events and if you are one of those armchair critics who are concerned with Treme's representation of real events, then i can point out several discrepancies. Nakita did not speak at the funeral service (that was left to pastor Macolm Collins, who played himself in the scene); the Hot 8 did not lead the procession out of the church (jazz funerals begin with the dirge outside); and the musicians did not raise their instruments in silence (they raised them as the others played "Just A Closer Walk With Thee"). As for the march: it was an explicitly silent march, without music and with very little chanting. And, as far as I know, there was no great white cop trying to handle the case properly. 

But I am not an armchair critic and I could care less if Treme the TV show portrays real life accurately. What these two scenes accomplished was to give viewers a sense of the emotional intensity of a jazz funeral and the invigorating possibility of a protest march, and that is no small feat.
Jazz Funeral for Dinerral Shavers, Fifth African Baptist Church, January 6, 2007

Sandwiched in between these two scenes was a whole lot of other stuff that, for the most part, did not measure up. Here's one kvetch: For a show that claims to be centered around New Orleans music, why is so much airtime being given to actors playing music onscreen? Annie is a great violinist, but her song was indeed terrible, both times we had to sit through it. Delmond's singing is a travesty and the whole onstage scene with him warning his band "follow me or die trying" and then launching into one of the oldest, easiest jazz standards - "Milneburg Joys" - was an insult to the talent sharing the stage with him. And then there's Antoine and the Soul Apostles, which - OK, that storyline is actually cool with me. (Dang, Bunk can sing!). But hearing all the amateur music and then seeing Rebirth Brass Band flit by onscreen for a nanosecond is cruel.

Monday, May 16, 2011

episode 14: marching

There are a bunch of little plot lines in Treme that I've already dwelled upon and are now marching along nicely:

... The local style of rap known as 'sissy bounce', made by transgender rappers like Katey Red, returns in a wack recording project dreamed up by Davis and bankrolled by dear old Aunt Mimi (after Davis puts on the hard sell by describing it as a "Big Sleazy reincarnation of Def Jam Records")...

... Del is trying to reconcile his progressive impulses towards modern jazz with his rootedness in tradition by digging into the mammoth Jelly Roll Morton oral history recordings from the Library of Congress, even listening to Jelly discuss masking as a Mardi Gras Indian as a kid while sewing an Indian suit of his own...

... Antoine Batiste and his Soul Apostles make their debut with guitarist June Yamagishi, who in real life plays (too many notes) with 'new funk' bands like the Wild Magnolias and Papa Grows Funk, though to my ears The Apostles sound a bit more like Big Sam's Funky Nation...

But I want to return to another story line I've already written about from another angle: the marching band tradition in New Orleans. This week, Desiree finally makes Antoine take up steady work as an assistant director of a school marching band led by (real life) band director Keith Hart at KIPP Believe College Prep. Marching bands do a great service for kids in New Orleans. They teach the fundamentals of music, which is mandatory job preparation in a city that must have more working musicians per capita than anywhere else. I don't know a single professional musician from New Orleans that didn't play in school band, marching in Mardi Gras parades in their flashy uniforms and playing tunes that are way funkier than your school band.

Spending time in band before and after school is also productive for kids who might otherwise be lured by crime. In this season of Treme we're beginning to catch wind of the violence that touches the lives of too many New Orleanians but viewers may not be aware that so many perpetrators and victims are young, really really young.

Students at LE Rabouin High School described their band director Dinerral Shavers as a mentor. "He was like a big brother to me," drum major Christopher Lee told me in early 2007. Dinerral was plenty busy as a substitute French teacher and snare drummer with the Hot 8 Brass Band but he took time to organize a band in the tumultuous year after Katrina to bring some stability and security to kids. The school principal took notice: “Kids that we had serious problems with, after they had band, I saw a total change in them." Others from the community stepped forward to volunteer: Katey Red was even teaching the majorettes.

Unfortunately, Dinerral was a victim of the debilitating violence that kids are generally sheltered from in the band room. While picking up his stepson,
a group of teenagers approached the car, shots were fired, Dinerral was hit, and he died after managing to drive his family to safety. Police believe the bullet was intended for Dinerral's stepson, who was embroiled in a feud with another student from John McDonogh High School, but the trial collapsed when no one would testify to witnessing the shooter. 

This was the story referenced briefly at the end of this episode, when Hot 8 trumpeter Terrell Batiste gets a call from bandleader Bennie Pete about Dinerral. You might remember the actor playing Dinerral interacting with (the real) Terrell and Bennie a few episodes back, or you might have missed it since the story gets kinda lost amongst all the others competing for air time. Too many notes? Perhaps, but Treme is swinging by this point, and next week the aftermath of Dinerral's murder will no doubt get full treatment. Until then...

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.

Monday, May 2, 2011

episode 12: infrastructures

In last week's episode, the premier of Season 2, the scriptwriters were tasked with updating us on returning characters and introducing new ones, and I found it slow and clunky, like a little tugboat trying to pull a big steamship up the Mississippi. There are a LOT of storylines in this show, but thankfully this week everything cruised along at a nice clip, and - most significantly - the camera is taking a step back from the close-up of individuals' experiences to give us a more panoramic 'wide-shot' of what happened post-Katrina. Yes, there is a new face on Treme, with the lovely name of 'infrastructure', and we get to see her in all her glory: Failed criminal justice! Political corruption! Corporate greed! And more!...

... Lieutenant Terry Colson bristles as the police department comes under fire for corruption and misconduct, including the police killing of two men, one mentally disabled, on the Danziger Bridge in the days after the flood...

... Desiree runs into a fellow school teacher who is reapplying for the job she lost when the state took advantage of the tumult to dissolve the teacher's union and takeover the school system...

... Big Chief Albert Lambreaux's insurance company pays him a sum total of $495 "and no cents" for his flooded home, and he can expect to wait a long, long time to get whatever the state's "Road Home" program decides to give him...

... Meanwhile, two new characters, smarmy developer Nelson Hidalgo and his good-ol-boy banker, discover there's money in them thar flooded neighborhoods and start scheming on how to capitalize on disaster. In fact, ALL of the new characters on Treme - including two local politicians eventually convicted of corruption, Bill Jefferson and Oliver Thomas - have been added to give viewers a sense of the fraught politics and economics of recovery...

Which brings me to the debut of the Hot 8 Brass Band as a new kind of 'group character' that will appear throughout Season 2, which covers the 'long winter' of 2006-2007 when the Hot 8's snare drummer Dinerral Shavers was shot and killed. And there we see Dinerral standing at the bar next to his bandleader, tuba player Bennie Pete, both bemoaning the violence in their hometown, which has re-emerged with a vengeance after a period of relative quiet when the city was de-populated. "You're from New Orleans, act like you're from New Orleans," says the actor playing Dinerral of the violent thugs (a line that Richard Barber, who is directing the documentary The Whole Gritty City and was editor of a 48 Hours special about Dinerral, says Dinerral actually spoke in an interview with CBS months before his death.) But viewers are also made aware that interpersonal violence stems from more pervasive problems when Bennie refers to Hot 8 trombonist Joseph Williams, who was shot and killed by police officers about a year before the storm, in 2004. Tragedy struck the band more randomly when trumpeter Terrell 'Burger' Batiste, who had evacuated to Atlanta after Katrina, was struck by a car in the breakdown lane of the Interstate and lost both his legs. (We see Terrell in an earlier scene being courted by Antoine to join his new band.)

It's a bit bracing for me to see these stories play out on Treme, since they feature prominently in a book I'm writing about New Orleans brass bands, but Bennie and others featured in the show (including Dinerral's sister Nakita) applaud they way the show has handled them. I'll post the excerpt from my book about the police killing of Joseph "Shotgun Joe" Williams here for those looking for more info.

Snare drummer Dinerral Shavers with Hot 8 bandleader Bennie Pete on tuba.

Another story that A) I'm writing about, B) is also woven into this episode of Treme, and C) is true, is the firing of DJ Davis from radio station WWOZ. The 'real' Davis was let go in 2003 for what station director Dwayne Breashears referred to as "tardiness, erratic and sometimes disruptive behavior and non-adherance to the music that should be played on the Nerw Orleans Music Show". As on Treme, what got Davis fired in real life (besides acting like Davis) was playing hip-hop, specifically a regional form of hip-hop known as 'bounce'. There's a lot of great material on the web about this local style of rap - including this exhibit at the Ogden Museum, this documentary film, and this blog - so I'll just make a quick point related to the show:

Bounce was a homegrown style that became identified with its own rhythms (the 'Triggerman' and 'Brown' beats), dance moves (i.e. the saltshaker), and group chants (especially shout outs to neighborhoods, wards, and housing projects). All of these musical characteristics point to the community aspect of bounce as a social music that audiences sing and dance to together at nightclubs or in DJ parties in project yards. That describes a few centuries of music in New Orleans, and yet the controversy surrounding hip-hop as a youth music that foregrounds explicit lyrics and images has made it a tough fit for those traditionalists who police the boundaries of New Orleans culture, such as the 'guardians of the groove' over at WWOZ. As part of the bigger question, "What is New Orleans Music?", it has forced those of us progressives on the other side to argue on behalf of hip-hop's place in the history of New Orleans Music.

It's a messy debate, and one of the things I like about this episode of Treme was its portrayal of the tension that permeates daily life, in something as minute as the controversy over a style of music or as colossal as violence at both interpersonal and structural levels.