Music is a Character
One of the highlights of Sunday’s episode “Can I Change My Mind,” was the appearance of Donald Harrison Jr with Delmond, first at the bar at Domenica, and later at Dr. John’s studio. The musicians are dreaming up a collaboration that would mix traditional Mardi Gras Indian chants with modern jazz. They will try to persuade Delmond’s father Chief Lambreaux, to do the chanting when they record. I say “dreaming up” because there is an element of the surreal about this musical rapport. Donald Harrison has done just that for quite a while. Indeed, he has been called a one-man jazz festival because he slides so effortlessly into different musical styles – from modern jazz to traditional.
To hear an mp3 of his contemporary arrangement of a traditional New Orleans Indian chant go to http://www.donaldharrison.com/ and click on the song Shallow Water. At the end Harrison dedicates the recording to his dad, Donald Harrison Sr., Big Chief of the Guardians of the Flame. For a real thrill watch the YouTube video of The Big Chief Donald Harrison Quintet at Jazzascona, where they transition from modern jazz riffs to Indian chants while strutting in feathered suits no doubt weighing over 100 pounds.
I met Harrison last March when he played for a small but enthusiastic group of locals at the Prime Example, a jazz club on N. Broad Street in New Orleans. The cover charge for the weekly Thursday night jazz session is ten dollars, and that includes a plate of local food. On the “Carnival Time” episode, Antoine Batiste and the Soul Apostles gig at the club the Sunday before Mardi Gras. I talked to a club regular Kim, who signed up to be an extra, and a glancing shot of her behind the bar can be seen on the episode.
That night Donald told me that music was a character on Treme. That made some sense to me, having argued in the past that product plugging turned commodities into characters on sitcoms. But that was a criticism. How did it work for the culture of jazz on TV exactly? Watching Sunday’s episode, what had seemed an ephemeral concept now made sense. The music is evolving, developing. We see it transform, shaped into something different, responding to context.
Harrison has been a consultant for Treme from the start, meeting with David Simon when he was still working on The Wire. In fact, the characters of Delmond and Albert Lambreaux are based on the Harrisons. But when Delmond is shown struggling with his competing allegiances to New York and NOLA, that is where Donald parts company with his fictional counterpart. Donald has moved back and forth between the New Orleans and New York music scenes for years. In the city to record another album, I saw him again at the premier of season 2 of Treme at MOMA. We talked about the appearance of the Hot 8 Brass Band in the new season, performing their post-storm anthem, New Orleans, and how the band had sustained the loss of trombonist Joe Williams, shot by police in 2004, and then the shooting death of snare drummer Dinerral Shavers in 2006, whose funeral would be depicted in episode 5 “Slip Away.”
In addition to jazz consultant, as the Big Chief of Congo Nation, Harrison has also coached Clarke Peters on chanting and moving in his heavy suit as Chief Lambreaux. In the last episode of season 1, Lambreaux emerges in full regalia on Super Sunday 2006, and encounters Big Chief Donald Harrison on the street. The scene references one of the most important events in New Orleans in 2006, when Donald Harrison strolled out of St Augustine’s into the Treme in his stunning Congo Nation suit, and offered hope to all assembled that the culture of New Orleans would survive. Indians are now known in New Orleans as spiritual first responders.
Not surprisingly, as a Big Chief, Donald Harrison speaks in a language that can only be described as spiritual. With his hand on his chest, he said music comes from the heart – it is sent out from there, from New Orleans and has spread and influenced the music of America.
Though Harrison has been on-screen since the fist episode when he played in the New York City nightclub with Delmond, it was great to see yet another New Orleans local taking a bit more of a national spotlight in Sunday’s episode, playing alongside characters who are at least partially, reflections of himself.