The standout feature of David Simon’s new HBO drama, Treme, is something that almost no other show in the history of narrative television has done well, and that is present music and musical performances as central to the narrative (Cop Rock excepted!). Indeed, writers and directors have shown repeatedly that they really don’t know how to handle musical performance within a narrative, always treating it secondary to character and plot, though usually just for mise en scene. Rarely is an entire musical number aired. Seemingly half the time the musical performance is faked (or certainly not filmed and recorded as part of the action; watch the drummer for the lack of synchronization). When musical performances do appear as a feature, it often seems a gimmick for the other more important needs of narrative (think unity and closure in Ally McBeal). In short, writers have rarely treated music with respect, suggesting repeatedly that it detracts from or is superfluous to the more important business of dialogue, drama, and action.
Not so in Treme. David Simon is finally giving musicians their due. Certainly there is a degree of celebration going on here (note the enumerable appearances by famous and not-so-famous New Orleans musicians). Indeed, Simon has noted in interviews his desire to demonstrate how the culture embodied by New Orleans residents was irrepressible after the flood—that is, people had to participate in the cultural expressions that are central to who they are as members of this community. [Side note: an irrepressible spirit was also central to the characters on The Wire, but it certainly had a darker, less joyous dimension than this one].
But here Simon is giving us more than just a feel-good, touristy celebration of New Orleans’ musical heritage a la Bourbon Street and Dixieland jazz. He is treating musicians and musical performances with respect (perhaps too much so for viewers who don’t enjoy jazz and may feel burdened by the resulting narrative “rupture”). Sunday night’s episode (“Shallow Water, Oh Mama”) is a case in point. Across four storylines and sets of characters—as well as at least four musical styles—each musician is seen fighting for respect on his or her own terms as musicians and artists, while maintaining respect for “the tradition” (as jazz musicians are wont to say). Big Chief Lambreaux is determined to put his tribe back together, including rehearsing by candlelight in his decimated bar sans FEMA trailer. Both Annie and Sonny yearn for more than whoring themselves to tourists for coins with yet another rendition of “Saints.” Antoine Batiste needs a gig desperately, but refuses to succumb to the soul-crushing imperative of high-society Mardis Gras gigs and their placid and safe versions of “Take the ‘A’ Train.” And Lambreaux’s son, New York trumpeter Delmond, keeps pushing back against the need for all New Orleans musicians to “kick it old school,” demanding instead that his favored brand of post-bop jazz be given the respect it deserves as a serious art form (not to serve as just another form of booty shakin’, beer swilling music). [Side note two: Simon simultaneously offers up real life versions of these tensions between jazz styles, including traditional N.O. trumpeter Kermit Ruffins and post-bop alto saxophonist Donald Harrison as actors in this drama].
With perhaps the exception of the Indian tribe, these are experiences that all professional jazz musicians can relate to—the imperative of economic survival and what that means for the production of “music;” the reality of performing before the masses and their need for little more than a soundtrack to go about their primary concerns of jabbering incessantly or attempting to get laid; playing music that has become so cliché it is incapable of stirring the soul; and feeling the desire to say “fuck this shit” and stand up and play the tune the way it is supposed to be played. With little interest here in entering the discussions of “authenticity” and “realism” in Simon’s work, let me simply say that finally, dramatic narrative television is giving music, musical performance, and musicians their (long over)due respect. And its been a long time coming.