'Treme,' Ep. 12: It's Gonh Be Funky

May 2, 2011

In November 2006, new problems were emerging in the rebuilding of New Orleans. To compound the lingering issues with police work immediately after Hurricane Katrina, crime is up again. Government agencies are spending freely with contractors via patronage networks, while working-class laborers are seeing relatively little of that money. There are proposals afoot to rezone the city and wipe out neighborhoods, and new politicians who are debating those ideas. Public schools are underfunded, and parents are taking notice. And, when it can afford it the least, a leading food authority lines up a broadside against the entire city's cuisine — and its culture at large.

Treme's trick is that these issues are all reflected in intersecting human dramas. In episode two of season two, these plotlines begin to take shape. With me again to help break it all down is New Orleans native Josh Jackson of WBGO. We start, as we always do, with a discussion of the episode's live music performances.

Patrick Jarenwattananon: I don't know if you feel the way I do about it, but this episode was pretty funny, no? I mean, any show that's willing to joke about modern jazz in a nuanced way ... Anyway, live on WWOZ, Delmond does "Joe Avery's Blues" unaccompanied — the same New Orleans standard that he was playing at Jazz at Lincoln Center with Christian Scott.

Josh Jackson: DJ Jeffy Jeff back-announces a song that he says sounds like Woody Shaw's "Escape Velocity," something Shaw recorded at the Village Vanguard. It is actually trumpeter Nicholas Payton's quintet playing "Concentric Circles." Anyway, everyone in New Orleans can identify with the first clarion call of "Second Line," a.k.a. "Joe Avery's Blues." I do like that Delmond's CD is called Walk Up. Lord knows I've visited enough jazz musicians in their fifth-floor walk-up apartments. "Modern jazz is a lonely road," Jeff says. Yes, with stairs.

PJ: One more jazz nerd-out up front. On WWOZ, Delmond says that "us modern jazz cats gotta come to Trane eventually." Jazz fans will understand that as a reference to John Coltrane, and that most people who have studied jazz after the '50s feel his legacy. But there's not a lot of Coltrane in the New Orleans tradition — or is there?

JJ: Coltrane's quartet played the Civic Theater in New Orleans in 1963. I've heard some apocryphal stories about that band in New Orleans. One of them was that Elvin Jones had to nail the kick drum down to the floor to keep it from falling off the stage. My kind of show! There are some Coltrane influences down there. Edward "Kidd" Jordan, for sure. Nat Perilliat, the saxophonist in the classic Ellis Marsalis quartet, must have listened to Trane. Earl Turbinton, definitely. More recently, players like Tony Dagradi, Clarence Johnson and Tim Green have come to terms with Coltrane's music.

Modern jazz is a tough sell in New Orleans. The harder it is to find the dance, the harder it is to sustain an audience. Antoine Batiste refers to this a little later. He wants to play "music that don't get played no more, but people wish it did because you can shake your [butt] to it."

PJ: The next music scene is pretty short — it's Sonny playing music on Royal Street in the French Quarter when he gets jacked for his tips by some kids. People must be getting desperate if they're robbing musicians.

JJ: Not a good look. At least we get to hear Bobby Charles' "See You Later Alligator." The very title of that tune makes it a swamp-pop classic.

PJ: Briefly, Sonny also witnesses a kid playing "Big Chief" on an electric keyboard at the music store, a la Professor Longhair. This season of Treme continues to show kids learning music despite, say, a woefully underfunded public school system that can't even fund basic classroom supplies, much less music classes.

JJ: Fortunately, the musicians have always been there to mind the gap.

PJ: In other news, Kermit Ruffins is back! He's filmed playing one of his weekly gigs, where, among other things, he lets Antoine Batiste sing Ray Charles' "I Got a Woman." Batiste is getting some ambition to him in wanting to lead a band — "The Soul Apostles," he fantasizes. (Are you as excited for/amused by this storyline as I am?)

JJ: I just wanted to mention Renald Richard, a trumpet player who co-wrote that song with Brother Ray. Richard wasn't originally credited, because he left Ray Charles' band before the song came out. That has been long resolved, and Richard has definitely enjoyed the royalties on that one (Kanye West, anyone?). God also gets a 10 percent tithe, since that song is based on "Jesus Is All the World to Me."

The Soul Apostles: I'm down with that name, and for getting Miss Wanda Rouzan to sing. She's looking so good! Will there be a steady gig for the band? Well, there's a little bar run by LaDonna that's looking for entertainment. This could get interesting.

PJ: It also seems important to mention that Kermit brings in Congressman Jefferson to give a brief speech. Jefferson attacks his Republican opponent about the "green dot plan." Care to explain?

JJ: The Urban Land Institute first proposed that the size of the city's footprint should shrink after Katrina. It was political poison. Then it floated a proposal to turn the lowest-lying areas in New Orleans into drainage parks. The people who had lived under those green dots on the map were not so happy. There's nothing better than a land-use issue to galvanize and mobilize the community.

PJ: Davis is up to his rear in bounce music these days. After getting fired from WWOZ for playing bounce (sample tune: Cheeky Blakk, "Pop That P--"), he finds himself in the club (with his crazy aunt) watching bounce stars Big Freedia and Sissy Nobby, and talking to Katey Red. At this point, it might be important to mention that 1) bounce music is a highly sexualized, specific-to-New Orleans strain of hip-hop; and 2) a few of its best-known performers are gay/transgendered/otherwise queer.

JJ: How can you deny a dance like that? Those are some serious assets.

PJ: There are a lot of brass bands in New Orleans, but the Hot 8 Brass Band — which performs "New Orleans After the City" toward the end of this episode — seems to be pretty well known for a few reasons. First, it's one of the groups that is very into mashing up the old instrumentation with black popular music of the last few decades (they do a great "Sexual Healing," I can recall). Second, it's been through an awful lot in the last few years, and one of its associates getting robbed at gunpoint isn't helping.

JJ: Even before that, Antoine meets Hot 8 trumpeter Terrell "Burger" Batiste at a Mem Shannon blues gig. Mem was a cab driver who became a blues singer. He's singing "Who Are They."

At their gig, bandleader Bennie Pete references a few incidents regarding the Hot 8 Brass Band. Its trombonist, "Shotgun Joe" Williams, was killed by NOPD in the 9th Ward. Details about that are a little sketchy. Burger, who we see in a wheelchair, lost his legs in an auto accident. Unfortunately, this is not going to be the end of misfortune for that band.

PJ: There's an awful lot to unpack in this episode outside music. First, Janette's storyline, lonely as it is (how great is it that Ziggy from The Wire is her stoner roommate?), introduces a certain takedown of all New Orleans culinary culture, by the food writer Alan Richman. One might here note that the writing staff brought in celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain to consult on this storyline — and Bourdain and Richman hate each other's guts.

JJ: When you start an article by trashing fried oysters from the beloved (and now closed) institution Uglesich's, don't expect to find many fans in New Orleans. Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, however, is required reading. I'll leave it there.

PJ: Also, the new storyline that Toni Bernette is pursuing has to do with another Danziger Bridge case. (How great is it that LeToya Luckett from Destiny's Child is her secretary now?) This is a story that won't be resolved neatly, I can tell.

JJ: The Danziger Bridge case is going to require a lot more reading than a paragraph from me. Treme was nice enough to include the NOPD side of the story from an operational standpoint. Yes, this was a stressful, chaotic environment. But when you read the full details of the case, you'll discover some real abuses.

PJ: Where do you think the Nelson Hidalgo plot is headed? Here's what it looks like to me: A slick Republican politician arrives in New Orleans to make money from FEMA contracts and quid pro quo networking and sucking up to the wealthy, but falls in love with the city's culture and eventually faces a choice whether to seriously screw its working-class residents or not.

JJ: I'm not hopeful. At this point, he's just another in a long line of carpetbaggers feeding off government largesse. Tragedy is big business.

PJ: To wrap it up, we get another signature David Simon montage to music, this time for Thanksgiving. I'm looking at a deep-fried turkey and listening to "Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky" — Dr. John's version, I believe. Any other background recordings you thought worked especially well?

JJ: I wanted to hear Lee Dorsey sing the original "Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky (From Now On)." I love Dr. John, but give Lee Dorsey some props!

That was Snooks Eaglin singing "Nothing Sweet As You" in the background at Pokey's Tavern. Hearing Professor Longhair sing "Cry to Me" while Darnell fired Davis had some humor. And the music for the end titles, Clarence "Frogman" Henry's "Ain't Got No Home," has a whole different meaning in the context of post-Katrina. Funny how music can do that, yes? Copyright 2011 WBGO-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wbgo.org.