New York City is getting a bum rap! We’ve watched the theme as it slowly develops in the Simon psyche – this New York vs. New Orleans thing. New York’s glowering chef Enrico Brulard (based on real-life kitchen nazi David Bouley) verbally abusing poor Janette Desautels (real life Susan Spicer?) who valiantly suffers in exile (“Listen to the fish!”).
Or the know-it-all Gotham City Jazz Geek who sends his unschooled New Orleans brother, Delmond Lambreaux, down the path of Facebook social maketeering, not to mention the scene at Dizzy’s jazz club in New York during the first episode of the second season, wherein some hipper-than-hip New York musicians diss traditional jazz as “Dixieland.” Oy gevalt!
It is refreshing that another arch villain, Sonny, the wanna-be musician who has steadily acted so lowdown and mean, has another, more noble side to him. In several episodes, he is identified as one of those early responders out in boats rescuing folk from the rooftops. Small detail, but one that adds texture, makes Sonny more complex and interesting--and his character a lot more real.
There seems to be a basketful of such one-dimensional villains throughout Treme—Nelson Hidalgo from Dallas looks as if he’s gonna be one.
Then there’s Darnell Nichols, WWOZ’s general manager whose role is uncharacteristically one of supervising on-air personnel (the job of the program director). Of course, we at WWOZ long for Darnell to become more than a comic book caricature of the kind of program director most often found in commercial radio stations. WWOZ’s staff is a lot more than what Treme gives us. The station’s 500 volunteers are supported by a dedicated, hard-working core of workers challenged by the enormity of demands that emanate from this city’s uber-rich musical universe. (BTW – no one tells WWOZ DJ’s what CD to play.)
A friend of mine who writes a column for the New York Times tells me that he detects a pattern in Simon’s oeuvre wherein managers and executives are almost universally demonized. He cites the portrayal of real-life Baltimore Sun Editor Bill Marinow, who, as the Managing Editor of the Wire’s Baltimore Sun, was Simonized into just one more cardboard villain. By all accounts, the real life editor was really a good guy who stood up to the downsizing of the Sun’s newsroom.
And then, there’s poor ol’ New York City itself. No quarrel with David Simon’s thesis that the Big Apple is the most self-absorbed, self-centered city on the planet. Here’s a place that can out-do every other Chamber of Commerce in America when it comes to small town boosterism!
But, maybe the reason I’m having a problem with Treme’s New York, is that I’m writing this particular blog from that city. The Jazz Foundation of America generously flew me and a bunch of New Orleans musicians, including the two John Brothers (not to be confused with the Jonas’s) – Deacon and Dr. to attend the Foundation’s Annual Gala Concert event at the Apollo Theater--“Great Night in Harlem.” They even produced a special tribute segment to the music of New Orleans, these New Yorkers did. And by the way, the Jazz Foundation of America, headquartered in New York, has worked tirelessly and spent many thousands of dollars to support the basic needs of post-Katrina New Orleans musicians.
But everywhere I went in New York—talking to the folk at Woodstock’s WDST-FM, the wait staff at Harlem’s Lido Restaurant, the roomful of public radio producers at a reception hosted in lower Manhattan’s WNYC-FM by the Association of Independents in Radio—everywhere I went, the people of New York expressed their love openly and unreservedly for New Orleans, its music, its culture and, yes, its food.
Larry Blumenfeld, columnist for the Wall Street Journal, writes regularly on the music of New Orleans. And starting in June, he will be hosting a weekly gathering at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem to look at the music, history and cultural issues raised by Treme. Most likely those who attend will be New Yorkers enthusiastic about our city’s way of life.
And then there’s Josh Jackson’s excellent commentary on Treme, in his weekly Blog Supreme. Admittedly, Josh hails from our neighborhood (nearby St Charles Parish), but he’s been living in the New York area for years now, working at Jazz Giant WBGO-FM (Newark/New York) and writes one of the most knowledgeable and loving blogs on Treme among the handful of great ones out there.
By the way, there’s a character in several of last season’s episodes by the name of Paige Royer, actually the name of a local resident who, as Dave Walker reported in his “Treme Explained” column, “won the honor of having a character named after her at auction during Treme’s 2010 My Darlin’ New Orleans benefit.” Only, for the purposes of today’s meanderings, it must be added that Paige originally hails from New York, and still maintains a residence there.
And, oh yes, Blake Leyh, Treme’s brilliant music director and clearly as in-love with New Orleans music as any of us—from New York.
So, I’m not thinking it’s so much about the “New York vs. New Orleans” thing. Gotta be something else.
In my experience, about 10% of the people in New Orleans, and about 1% of the world have what I call, “the New Orleans gene.” Whether you live here or in New York, you either eat franchise food and live in a USA Today/Clear Channel world, or you insist that everything that you take in, be an act of celebration. Those folk are the “happy few” I say have the “New Orleans gene.” The first time they hear a Booker or Professor Longhair or an Earl King song, that gene turns on and they’re viscerally connected forever to this city. Whether they’ve ever lived here or not.
My feeling is that the Alan Richman’s of the world will never get us, not because they live in New York, but because they filter the world through their own self-importance. [See Dave Walker’s Treme Explained, nola.com May 1, 2011: “GQ restaurant writer Alan Richman, winner of 14 James Beard Foundation Awards, wrote about the New Orleans post-Katrina culinary scene for the magazine's October 2006 issue. ‘I think people either take to the city or they do not,’ he wrote. ‘They buy into the romance, or they abhor the decadence. I know where I stand.’"] There’s plenty of Alan Richman’s right here in New Orleans. It’s more of a “roots vs. suits” thang.
As for New York. Like WWOZ’s (and the Times-Picayune’s contributing reporter) and a Treme consultant, Alison Fensterstock was once famously quoted: “New Orleans is the only city that when you love it, it loves you back.” And I believe Alison originally hails from-- oh, oh,—New York.