Meet Me in Harlem to Tune into Treme

I’ll confess: Aside from NBA action, I don’t watch much TV. But the HBO series “Treme” is different: It’s required viewing in my home.

“Treme” will begin its fourth and final season on Sunday, Dec. 1. Every Tuesday evening in September, I will, for the third consecutive year, host “Tuning into Tremé,” at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, within the musuem’s “Jazz for Curious Listeners” series: It’s more a laid-back discussion group than a class, pegged to some great TV watching.

The museum is one of New York City’s great cultural resources: Its combination of historically significant holdings, jazz sensibility and neighborly attitude reminds me of the New Orleans I love, not to mention the Harlem legacy that inspired the place.

As for the HBO show, I believe it is much more than a cable-TV drama: It’s a vehicle toward appreciation of the stuff that’s typically lost in mainstream media presentations of both jazz in general and New Orleans indigenous culture. In a 2010 cover story for the Village Voice timed to the HBO’s show’s premiere season, I wrote:

For jazz fans, [“Treme”] provides the most significant television profile since Ken Burns’s Jazz series (and this time focused on living musicians playing material that moves beyond a late-1960s aesthetic). Inside New Orleans, there’s a specific sort of raised expectation: that Simon and company will get things right; that they will surely sidestep the tone-deaf caricature offered by, say, 2007’s ill-fated Fox series K-Ville; that in crafting a series about The City That Care Forgot, they care.”

And this:

If Treme has served as an advertisement for New Orleans music, it has also done something deeper, if less obvious. The show’s plotlines have delved into the ironic and troubling disconnect between the city’s marketing face, which highlights culture, and its policies, which often neglect or even suppress that very culture, especially as expressed in the streets. Likewise the show has reflected how the cultural community provided galvanizing leadership during crisis.

When I interviewed David Simon in 2010 about his new series for The Wall Street Journal, he told me:

“We want to consider whether or not what is essential and rare and unique about New Orleans, and what it provides the American character, is going to survive in a form that is self-sustaining and organic, not just a museum piece.”

and he continued:

“Apart from culture, on some empirical level, it does not matter if all New Orleans washes into the Gulf, and if everyone from New Orleans ended up living in Houston or Baton Rouge or Atlanta. Culture is what brought this city back. Not government. There was and has been no initiative by government at any level to contemplate in all seriousness the future of New Orleans. Yet New Orleans is coming back, and it’s sort of done it one second-line at a time, one moment at a time.”

In my writing, the HBO show has served as a good window through which to frame the complicated issues that often swirl around, say, a brass band on a New Orleans street.

In these Tuesday evening sessions at the museum, I use the HBO series as a springboard to wide-ranging discussions about New Orleans jazz culture—the ways it is celebrated as well as the  tensions that surround it. I’ll show clips from forthcoming “Treme” episodes and draw upon my own extensive reporting from New Orleans and many other sources. We’ll have informal discussions with guests—on Nov. 26, “Treme” co-creator Eric Overmyer; and on Nov. 12, pianist and composer Courtney Bryan.

Below is a more complete description, along with details. Please note: The Nov. 12 session will be held at Maysles Cinema, another great Harlem institution.

Jazz For Curious Listeners: Tuning into Tremé with Larry Blumenfeld: The HBO fiction and the New Orleans Reality

In Sidney Bechet’s memoir, “Treat It Gentle,” the late, great clarinetist’s real grandfather is supplanted by Omar, a fictional figure based on a folk tale, all the better to convey stirring truths about the true origins of New Orleans jazz. Real and imagined intermingle pointedly in New Orleans, in all walks of life. Set in New Orleans, David Simon’s fictional HBO series “Treme” picked up three months after the floods that resulted from the levee failures after Hurricane Katrina. Culture, which in New Orleans means a tight braid of music, cuisine, dance, visual art, and street life, is the primary focus of the series, as indeed it was and is the defining element of the city’s recovery and renewed identity.

These 90-minute conversations are led by writer Larry Blumenfeld, who covers jazz regularly for The Wall Street Journal, writes the “Blu Notes” blog at, and who has written extensively about New Orleans since the flood.

Tuesdays in November, 7-8:30pm

Tuesday, November 5: Glorious Noises and Noise Ordinances

Tuesday, November 12: What is New Orleans Tradition? With special guest, pianist Courtney Bryan @ Maysles Cinema

Tuesday, November 19: It Happens in the Street

Tuesday, November 26: The “New” New Orleans with special guest, Tremé producer Eric Overmyer

I’ll be back at the museum on Nov. 14, to participate in the Jazz Museum’s “Parallax Conversation Series” with Ben Jaffe, Creative Director and tuba player for the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (the Preservation Hall band will be in NY for a Nov. 16 concert at Harlem’s Apollo Theater.)

National Jazz Museum in Harlem

104 E. 126th Street

Harlem, New York, 10035

(for location and direction, look here)

Art courtesy of HBO

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