Unlike the previous installment, episode four of Treme's second season has few major plot twists. That leaves a lot of time to look at the lives of "average" working musicians — both on and especially off stage.
The Antoine Batiste-as-bandleader storyline is seemingly engineered for this very purpose. He needs a teaching job to afford middle-class creature comforts: gifts for his kids, jewelry for his girlfriend. In the meantime, he's also herding cats: auditioning new band members (Sonny), dealing with their departures (Raymond leaves for Dumpstaphunk) and busy schedules (his guitarist can't work on Christmas), organizing sideshows (c'mon, you all thought he was going after the hot women for another reason), calling rehearsals, writing arrangements, dealing with band members who won't read his arrangements, lining up gigs with surly bar owners who may be ex-wives. That's a lot to deal with, and none of it is paid.
Meanwhile, there's also Davis trying to deal with the frustrations of the studio and the record business, Delmond developing new repertoire which might actually reach the mainstream, and Annie brushing up with fame and professional artist management. Even when we hear that — spoiler alert — Hot 8 Brass Band snare drummer Dinerral Shavers is shot and killed, we're told his bandleader Bennie Pete reacts with a mixture of grief and "How am I going to find a substitute for Thursday" worry. These are the relatively invisible, insider-y things that go into music-making in public. And kudos to Treme, this episode in particular, for telling those stories.
To talk about some of the music itself, and whatever else comes to mind, I'm again joined over email by New Orleans native Josh Jackson of WBGO. As you may know, we do this every week.
Patrick Jarenwattananon: So maybe it's not the first live-music scene in the episode, but it's one of the biggest. Folksinger Shawn Colvin comes to town and invites up Annie, whom she saw on Frenchmen Street the previous evening. Does Colvin have any particular New Orleans connections? Or is all this mainly that Annie's career is on the rise, and the music business presents new hurdles when you raise your profile?
Josh Jackson: Shawn Colvin represents Austin's singer-songwriter scene more than New Orleans. She passes through town to play House of Blues in support of her recording These Four Walls. Annie joins her on "I'm Gone," from that recording. I think the point of this thread is that Annie will have some difficult decisions to make when she's ready to have a go at this music career.
PJ: We also see Annie playing some serious classical music for Davis on Christmas morning.
JJ: This may have been a comfortable setting for actress Lucia Micarelli, a classical violinist, but I wouldn't call it an easy one. The finale of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E Minor is a formidable fingerbuster — even though Itzhak Perlman makes it look easy.
PJ: The actual first live music in the episode is Davis "rapping" his rant about Teach for America undercutting veteran teachers in New Orleans — not the first time we've seen that opinion voiced in the show. (Steve Zahn really plays that character such that we cringe at and not with him, which I think is the intention.) It can't be unintentional that Antoine Batiste is paired with an experienced band director who is trying his best despite being woefully underfunded — and also that a teacher has committed suicide on Christmas eve.
JJ: One of the many things that the federal flood inundated was the underfunded and underperforming public education system in New Orleans. Rampant corruption was exposed at the higher levels of the bureaucracy. The teachers union was effectively dissolved. Charter-school advocates and idealistic new teachers saw an opportunity to reshape public education. Their messianic zeal met head-on resistance from some locals. Meanwhile, good teachers were trying to reconstruct their own lives. Some were very depressed.
We learn about the shortage of instruments for school marching bands. Those programs are a critical part of the parade culture in New Orleans, not to mention a way to keep young folks focused on a productive activity. Organizations like Music Rising and the Tipitina's Foundation secured millions of dollars of new and used instruments.
PJ: Speaking of Davis, his hare-brained scheme this season is to achieve bounce-music stardom. ("Galactic has its way with the Hot 8 front line before sleeping around with Lil Wayne," he envisions.) But as the quality of his music shows — especially his "slow jam" — and how Katey Red riffs on his tendentiousness ("ya buggin' me, and ya ug-a-lee"), I think part of the point is to show that, despite his heart being in the right place, he's slumming it, too, like the young teachers he criticizes.
JJ: As Aunt Mimi says, Davis is "Newman-educated" — that means he attended Isidore Newman School, one of the elite private schools in Uptown New Orleans. This is not a place where songs like Katey Red's "N- - - - - Out There (Playa Hatin')" are created. He derides the outsider, even though he's guilty of the same missionary spirit. When he's in the studio, he calls out Katey Red for texting. She was probably writing rhymes on her phone.
PJ: Meanwhile, the Antoine Batiste band is taking shape. His repertoire is really classic funk and soul stuff, even if it's not all New Orleans material. Al Green's "Love and Happiness." The theme from Shaft. The Meters' "Fire on the Bayou." (Antoine commends his drummer for sounding like Zigaboo Modeliste.) James Brown's "Make It Funky." And, of course, "Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'." And who's that Japanese guitarist he likes working with?
JJ: Antoine is learning two thankless jobs at once: teacher and bandleader. The band is getting tight now, thanks to some great players. Herman Jackson is a very good drummer. Antoine compares him to Zigaboo Modeliste, an original member of The Meters and one of the exponents of the New Orleans funky-drummer profile. June Yamagishi is the lead guitarist of a local band called Papa Grows Funk. He also played with the Wild Magnolias, the Funky Meters and a host of New Orleans originals.
PJ: Two more things about that story. One: The Sonny saga says a lot about the liabilities of musicians who are drug addicts, no? Two: The snare drummer Dinerral Shavers of Hot 8 Brass Band has been accidentally shot and killed. He's an associate of Soul Apostles trumpeter (and real-life Hot 8 band member) "Burger" Batiste, he of the wheelchair.
JJ: Some great musicians have been junkies, but great musicianship means nothing if you can't get a gig and keep it. Most bandleaders would rather take an inferior player who will make the gig over a talented addict. Sonny has limited skills, and may be blowing his shot at a steady gig. "It's a small town, and word gets around."
In real life, Dinerral Shavers was one of nine people murdered in a week's time. Another was the Harvard-educated filmmaker Helen Hill. Both of these senseless acts removed hope from a lot of citizens. Spiritually, the rebuilding of New Orleans was at its nadir.
PJ: It strikes me that something ought to be said about the Delmond storyline, too. We see him listening to Jelly Roll Morton, especially the great Library of Congress recordings, while he realizes that he wants to start masking Indian and wants to make a modern New Orleans record. He's talking a lot these days about capturing the essential appeal of traditional New Orleans jazz and bringing it into modern jazz. Modern jazz, as we see, isn't currently doing his career many favors.
JJ: He makes a great point to his girlfriend, Jill. She hears traditional music and associates it with a refrain from "Ol' Man River": "Tote that barge, lift that bale." Racism is the ugly truth of American history, and yet something so remarkable like Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver's "Tom Cat Blues" exists despite that. What are we, if not an extension of our history? Ragtime is American classical music, and this thing we call jazz came out of it.
The essential appeal of New Orleans music is that it makes bodies move. And that's the still point of a turning world — where the dance is. It was functional street music and dance-hall before it was jazz club and concert-hall music. At one point in this episode, Delmond mentions Oscar "Papa" Celestin, founder of the Tuxedo Brass Band. A lot of famous musicians were part of that band.
PJ: Also, this week in inside references, we have food critic Alan Richman actually getting a Sazerac (or on-screen facsimile) thrown in his face, Sylvester Francis actually showing his cultural museum, and then-councilman Oliver Thomas actually accepting a bribe of Saints playoff tickets. (I looked it up, and that year, the New Orleans Saints actually did make the playoffs, and actually did play the New York Giants on the Sunday before Christmas.)
JJ: The Saints really put a hurt on them in that game, too. I think everyone in New Orleans cheered when Janette throws a Sazerac, a New Orleans original (and the oldest American cocktail), in Richman's face. This one probably had extra bitters. Single take?
Sylvester Francis runs the Backstreet Cultural Museum, a must-see collection of Indian suits, social aid and pleasure-club items, and other artifacts. Never mind that it's located in an old funeral parlor — everything inside is a living tradition. The music in the background is "Les Ognons," from the classic Baby Dodds Trio album.
PJ: Finally, this being a Christmas episode, we get to hear a lot of New Orleans musicians play Christmas songs as background music. What did you hear?
JJ: I heard Ingrid Lucia singing "Zat You, Santa Clause?" in the bar with Davis and Aunt Mimi; Theryl deClouet a.k.a. "Houseman" with "Pimp My Sleigh" on the jukebox at Ladonna's; Aaron Neville's "Louisiana Christmas Day" on another box at Gigi's; bluesman Sonny Landreth's "Got to Get You Under My Tree"; and New Birth Brass Band playing "Jingle Bells" after the Soul Apostles gig. Pianist Tom McDermott played two holiday songs in the James Booker rolling style piano: "Deck the Halls" at the police station and "Let It Snow" on the end credits. And there's Louis Prima's classic, "What Will Santa Claus Say (When He Finds Everybody Swinging)?" at the Bernette home.
But wait — there's more. Gentilly Jr., a DJ on WWOZ, plays Betty Carter's "Let It Snow" when Antoine is at home. Big Joe Williams (not the Count Basie vocalist) sings "Christmas Blues" during the final montage, and the title of the episode, "Santa Claus, Do You Ever Get the Blues?" is from Roomful of Blues. Everyone gets the blues.