I’ve been teaching a class, “Tuning into Treme,” at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. Not an academic thing for grades or credits. It’s more a discussion group pegged to the HBO series “Treme,” which begins its fourth and final season tonight, and opened its first one by placing us in New Orleans, three months after the floods caused by the levee failures that followed Hurricane Katrina.
My guest for the final class, this past Tuesday was Eric Overmyer, David Simon’s longtime collaborator and a co-creator of the series. At the jazz museum, in a gentrifying neighborhood that has never forgotten its storied past staked largely to jazz culture, we’ve screened clips from the show and used fictional storylines as windows into life and culture in the real New Orleans: styles of music, from traditional jazz to rock to funk to bounce (and more), that trace a defining American rhythmic imperative out of Congo Square, where African slaves once drummed and danced on Sundays; Social Aid & Pleasure clubs who fancy-dance through streets behind brass bands in Second Line parades that are as much examples of successful community organizing as they are rolling parties; Mardi Gras Indians, walking proud in massive feathered and beaded suits and speaking in inscrutable dialects to hand-drummed rhythms; architecture, cuisine, literature and visual art that are every bit as distinctive and inseparable from the city’s music; a particular brand of political dysfunction and cynicism that makes life seem simultaneously liberating and oppressed, full of grand possibilities while also damned to familiar frustrations; an unusual blend of provinciality and worldliness; an uneasy balance of everyday tenderness and random violence; and the city’s disturbing ambivalence to the point of suppression, even in the wake of Katrina, to the glorious culture that is its calling card.
From its start, “Treme” has been staked to intertwined stories of some half-dozen characters—some musicians, some not—and their interlocking worlds within New Orleans. I recognized it right off as presenting a teachable moment—if a bit too stridently so as expressed in Season One, with greater elegance since, and always with nuance and depth. At the least, the show was fuel for an intelligent conversation about what we mean when we say we know what it means to miss New Orleans.
When I spoke with Simon in 2010 at his production office in New Orleans’ Lower Garden District, he was reluctant to draw a strong connection between his former series and “Treme.” Yet he described a natural progression of thought, and a thesis. “‘The Wire’ was a tract about how political power and money rout themselves,” he said. “But there was no place to reference on some level why it matters, emotionally, that America has been given over to those things. This show is about culture, and it’s about what was at stake. Because 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 crawfish étouffée at a time, one moment at a time.”
If you’re reading this and if you’ve been watching “Treme,” I’d like to know how you feel about the series.
Photo: HBO/Paul Schirladl