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Sunday, July 10, 2011

JAZZ TODAY: Does TREME Hate Modern Jazz?

I'm a huge fan of Treme, the brilliant David Simon show on HBO about post-Katrina New Orleans.  While it is very different in tone from The Wire, Simon's new show (which just finished its second season a week ago) is similar in that it takes as its subject the culture of an American city.  And the culture of New Orleans is centrally about music.

Again, I love the show.  I love music featured on the show—which is primarily the blessed soul and R'n'B that is associated with greats such as Professor Longhair and Allen Toussaint.

But as a jazz critic, it is somewhat disconcerting to me that the show sets up jazz—or, at least, "modern jazz" as it has existed since the 1950s with its world capitol being New York—as a kind of villain.  It is, symbolically if not explicitly, the essence of soullessness and the embodiment of abandoning "home."  The character on the show who plays modern jazz, Delmond, is the son of the chief of a Mardi Gras "Indian" tribe who cannot really accept his son's version of New Orleans's great music.

The way jazz is used in the story is complex and fascinating, and I hardly mean to suggest that David Simon himself or the show's other creators actually "hate" jazz, but there's no question that the show uses jazz as a stand-in for the abandonment of certain core traditions—and therefore for the abandonment of New Orleans itself as a city that needs to be rescued after tragedy.  Compared to Antoine Batiste, the warm and wonderful trombone player who starts his own "Soul Apostles" band or to Annie and Harley, street musicians from a larger folk tradition who use music to understand or seek their personal identities, Delmond seems like a spoiled kid in a fancy suit who plays music of technical but not heartfelt appeal.

Delmond, the modern jazz player on TREME
Read my full essay on the topic HERE at PopMatters.

Ultimately, Treme ends its second season (another has been ordered by HBO—yes!) by allowing Delmond and his dad to bring together modern jazz and traditional Mardi Gras music in a fascinating hybrid.  However, the price of such coming together is that Delmond leaves New York to move back to New Orleans and seems to have conceded that his father was right that this music simply could not be made outside of New Orleans.

It's more complicated than that, sure, but my point is this: modern jazz takes it on the chin as cold and boring, a kind of music that people just don't like or that requires you to "think" too much  rather than just enjoy.  That is unfair to jazz, which remains a passionate, diverse music that goes well beyond mere technical execution.  And it's a slightly lazy sign of the times that reminds me of political appeals that hold up for derision people with good educations in favor of "folksier" types to can "relate to regular people."

Not that I think David Simon is some kind of George Bush fan—hardly.  But the rigors of modern jazz can be thrilling too.  On that point, just a little, Treme is off key.


  1. I think that's a fair comment to an extent. Yes, we are guilty of a certain Gaullic chauvinism, a sense of exceptionalism, and this colors the view of musicians who leave to succeed. And if you are going to succeed in mainstream jazz you can't stay here. There's no audience. Many mainstream touring artists no longer stop in New Orleans.

    Then again Donald Harrison (the model for Delmond's character) was featured in this season and that must have been odd to sit in the bar scene and listen to Delmond describe his own project Indian Blues back to him)

    The flip side of that is we are raising a generation of young people who have been reintroduced to the trumpet as lead instead of the guitar. The flourishing brass bad scene offers at least the opportunity to be a "gateway drug" back into modern jazz.

    Mark Folse

  2. Mark, thanks for you comment. TREME fans should definitely check out Mark's TREME blog at BackOfTown.wordpress.com.

    I believe that New Orleans—as as scene and as a city—remains more open to modern jazz than the show has thus far depicted. It is educating kids about playing the music in a million obvious ways (and playing the brass band music and even soul music that takes front seat on the show is part of that), and it has created a small bur thriving avant-garde scene as well. (Note the Kidd Jordan that was playing on OZ just before Davis took over at the end of the last episode of the glorious second season.)

    It's the show itself that has set up modern jazz as a minor threat. It's interested to read that NO is not providing much of an audience for touring musicians. Sadly, I can say much the same thing for my town, Washington DC.

    Here's hoping that Delmond, as a vehicle for Simon/Overmeyer and the writers, can bring modern jazz into slightly better balance in Season Three. As much as I love the music the show does feature, I'd hate to see Delmond sitting in too often with Trombone Shorty or Bonerama. He has different (not bigger, but different) fish to fry.

  3. "Delmond" (loosely, "The World") isn't forsaking "modern jazz" because he's maturing into what he's about. The character is based loosely on modern jazz greats Donald Harrison, Jr and Christian Scott, both of whom "left" New Orleans only to reinvent their deep creative relationships with her root culture.

    I say good for the Treme team for puncturing and openly mocking the world of shallow and/or mal-informed intellectualism that would dismiss "New Orleans musics" as parochial and/or unfashionable and/or unsophisticated. Sometimes one has to go home and help one's daddy rebuild his house. Sometimes the fish from the old hole rubbed in new spice fry up the tastiest.

    I found the scene with Delmond's NYC girlfriend in the season 2 finale most telling.

    That said, the flipside of Delmond having it out with the New Yorkers is a mature Delmond renewing hostilities with his New Orleanians.

  4. i think they are talking more about modern jazz FANS and CRITICS than they are about the music.

    the fans and critics who turn it into a cerebral excercize and exclude music that isn't "pure" enough for them.

    Most new orleans musicians and fans are content with jazz, funk, R&B, hip hop and rock all mixing together.

    but Chief Lambreaux does the exact same thing to his son regarding his traditions...if it isn't exactly pure, its not right.

    Magic happens when they all realize that music is felt not thought, and allowing it to grow, mutate and breathe.

    let's not restrict this to jazz. DJ's who think that electro music played with instruments doesn't belong at their rave. fans of a classic rock band who don't want to hear a new song. opera fans who won't go see the production in the park because its not opera if its not behind a red curtain.

    close your mouth. open your ears. our preconceived notions of what is "right" are merely illusions based on the random perspective we have based on when we live. the pure jazz of the 20's or 50's was the piss-your-parents-off-by-listening-to-it rebellion music of its time.

  5. Eliot in New OrleansJuly 11, 2011 at 2:09 PM

    As you said, you're coming from your own viewpoint as a modern jazz critic. But as a native New Orleanian whose son is a jazz pianist, I have to tell you that "modern" jazz is just not the same here. I've been to New York and San Francisco for "jazz" festivals, and I can tell you that the music played here and the jazz played everywhere else is just not the same.

    Simon doesn't portray modern jazz as the "bad guy" per se, he just differentiates it from New Orleans music just as we do here. You said, "As much as I love the music the show does feature, I'd hate to see Delmond sitting in too often with Trombone Shorty or Bonerama. He has different (not bigger, but different) fish to fry."

    Well, Shorty, Bonerama, Kermit Ruffins--they ARE New Orleans music, along with Ellis Marsalis and more traditional jazz men.

    I think the show does a great job of portraying New Orleans music and the hybrid of sounds that it is--classic modern jazz as exists everywhere else will always have a smaller market here in the Big Easy.

    Of course, as Dennis Miller says, that's just my opinion-I could be wrong.

  6. I read the article and I don't think the show Hates modern Jazz, I think they are just trying to convey how people either have to defend or support either forms. Let's face it, no matter what the topic, many who deem themselves superior to whatever we do whether it be about cooking (remember those critics that talked bad about our butter filled cooking), music, art or any cultural history, we are mostly portrayed in the more unflattering way. However Mr. Simon is trying to show why we hold on and why OUR culture is so important to us and now others appreciate the things we have always held onto. I work with someone who once told me she Hated brass band music (from Philly) but she LOVES the show and wants to know so much more about the Indian Culture and other nuances. For that I am greatful to Treme!

  7. Eliot, Jon, and others --

    Thanks for weighing in. I really appreciate getting readership actually from New Orleans for this article. I hope you'll also check out an older column of mine, written just after my Halloween 2010 trip to NO, here:


    You folks have been making some great points, and I do not disagree -- the show's mission to describe and value the New Orleans culture require it not only to stick up for how NO music remains unique from the jazz that developed outside the city but also to dramatize the importance of NO musicians finding ways to embrace their identities as favorite sons of the city. Delmond's embrace of his father's culture is not necessarily a strike against the value of his other jazz knowledge and creativity.

    I too am grateful to TREME for hipping me to elements of the city that I didn't know as much about. During my 10/2011 trip to NO, I got to see Kermit at Vaughn's and I got to hear brass bands. And I could feel the connection between those more up-to-date forms and the older music of the city.

    That said, I think that some of the NO pride that you folks are expressing -- and I understand that you are doing it partly in response to unflattering/unfair portrayals of the city elsewhere -- ends up stereotyping the music (and fans of the music) that I am referring to. I suppose there are "over-intellectual" and "purist" jazz fans out there, but that's way to simple. I think it's also too simple to say that the best art is all about "feeling and the heart rather than thinking and the brain. When TREME makes it seem that simple, it's a bit off base.

    Again, however, thanks for your useful comments, folks! I love the show, I love NO's great hybrid music, and I love the city.

    And the food!

    -- Will Layman

  8. Eliot in New OrleansJuly 12, 2011 at 3:17 PM

    Just read the older column--I think you nailed it. Great description of Kermit and Shorty. Glad you had fun and come back!