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Jazz for Curious Listeners
Tuning in to Tremé: Big Chiefs and Second Lines
May 4, 2010

Set in New Orleans, David Simon's new HBO series “Treme” picks 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 identity and its recovery. Familiar faces from Simon's actors' troupe show up as fictional cultural fixtures: Wendell Pierce (detective Bunk Moreland on The Wire) plays Antoine Batiste, a trombonist we first encounter subbing with the real-life Rebirth Brass Band. Clarke Peters (detective Lester Freamon on The Wire) plays the Mardi Gras Indian Chief Albert Lambreaux, chanting out some of his best lines while beating a tambourine. The true-life heroes of New Orleans jazz figure prominently too: In addition to Rebirth, the list of musicians making cameo appearances, often in performance, includes trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, saxophonist Donald Harrison, and Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, and drummer Bob French. These 90-minute conversations, led by writer Larry Blumenfeld, who has written extensively about New Orleans since the flood, will use the HBO series to frame a wide-ranging consideration of jazz culture in New Orleans and its role in recovery. Excerpts from the show will be screened, and special guests-musicians, participants in the series, and scholars-will join in the discussion. 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. What can the fiction of “Treme”-which is named for the “Tremé neighborhood in New Orleans, long a hothouse for jazz culture-tell is about the city's real culture before and since the flood?

In our first session we will see the manner in which “Treme” plugs directly into an indigenous culture that has served as a lifeline for a New Orleans still inching toward recovery. That lifeline is extended principally by traditional jazz and brass-band musicians; the Social Aid & Pleasure Club members that mount Sunday parades; and-perhaps the most mysterious and essential group of all-Mardi Gras Indians, who dress in elaborate feathered and beaded suits four times a year. We'll consider the roots, traditions and depictions of these culture-bearers and their connections to familiar music.

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