Tuesday, May 3, 2011
Under Heavy Southern Manners
Besides deriving a great deal of entertainment and musicological information from the HBO series "Treme," I find myself learning manners and unlearning various cultural prejudices.
On a trip to New Orleans that happened immediately before we started watching the series, we walked into Louisiana Music Factory -- a brick and mortar record retail store on the notorious tourist strip, Decatur Street, that prides itself on a very extensive collection of music by New Orleans and Louisana related artists. I was a little buzzed and feeling a bit on the arrogant side as a long time student of non mainstream musics. I walk up the counter asking for a recommendation for local funk. The man pulls out the latest Galactic CD and I turn up my nose, saying: "Ya got anything that I wouldn't find Amazon that I wouldn't have heard of?" To which he testily replied: "There hasn't been a good local funk band since the Meters broke up!" And then pulled out the first Dumpstaphunk CD. This in fact wound up be a major find in my mind -- a rip snortin', butt shakin', hard edged EP - very funky, very hooky. Great stuff.
Eventually we see the episode where Elvis Costello is recording with Allen Toussaint and as the session breaks up, the horn section invites Elvis to the Spotted Cat (I thinks) to see Galactic and the latter responds "That's white guys playing funk?" Everyone in the room including Touissant -- all African-American -- immediately starts heaping the kudos on Galactic and Costello half heartedly agrees to make the scene; which he never does. The scene shifts to the gig and Galactic in fact sound amazing, playing to a very racially mixed crowd all getting down. And it hits me -- I had been just as much a biased twerp as Elvis friggin' Costello - OUCH!
Another case in point -- we've been visiting New Orleans about yearly since about 1996. Clearly we love the place. But had pointedly been dreading and avoiding the "Dixieland Band" scene -- live gigs, recordings etc. IF we went to shows it was more the Alt Rock outfits like James Hall's Pleasure Club. The brass band and "Hot Jazz" just seemed too hambone and contrived to pander to corny tourists' expectations. But when the first "Treme" opened with Rebirth Brass Band leading a second line...my head nearly exploded! What an incredible and, to my virgin ears, unique rhythm! The rowdy but expert interplay between the brass instruments was utterly intoxicating. A couple weeks after watching that episode, I'd forgotten exactly what music had appeared but just recalled there was something unusual and insanely insinuating...which led me to a bit of exploring into the brass band tradition, current and going as far back as I readily could. I dug thru my collection and found a collection of country brass bands recorded for the Smithsonian Institute, a Dirty Dozen Brass Band collection and made various strategic purchases online and on a return trip to New Orleans. Last trip thru I couldn't believe our luck when we stopped at Cafe Du Monde and one day found the Tornado Brass band playing for tips out front and another day discovering an outfit of adolescents taking their first tentative stab at this.
In the opening episode of the second season of "Treme" the character Delmond Lambreaux is hanging with a buncha New York jazz hepsters after performing at some snazzy club high in a NYC skyscraper. Talk turns to New Orleans and they wind up congratulating him on NOT sounding like he's from New Orleans and avoiding the "minstrel show" influence of a music scene that consciously panders to the tourist trade (as if NYC and its jazz clubs could survive two weeks without its tourist trade!) Up to now, Delmond has pointedly been trying to, at least outwardly, deny his roots, but suddenly he comes out swinging, talking about Hot Jazz being, in fact a living tradition. And quickly the scene cuts to Bonearama performing at Tipitina's to a packed crowd, playing music that sounds nothing like post-bop jazz abstraction or like anyone's idea of "Dixieland." The music is funky, swinging, original and PEOPLE ARE DANCING TO IT. When is the last time anyone danced to jazz in NYC outside of a big band revival show at Roseland (can't say if those even happen anymore)? And yet jazz WAS dance music! In fact it was sexing music created to accompany the shennanigans in the brothels of Storyville, the otherside of Rampart Street from the French Quarter. SO -- again I realize, in these Northern hepsters, what a tool I'VE been for many a year.
And no doubt i'm still a tool. But I'm being learned.