Jazz Fest Diary: Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse & More

Whether it’s pre-Jazz Fest anticipation or something else, New Orleans feels like it’s on an emotional upswing.

Mitch Landrieu, stepping down as Lt Governor and being sworn in as the city’s new mayor in less than two weeks, is listening to citizens and putting together his staff; Landrieu, voted in with strong support from blacks and whites alike, is one of the good guys, a vocal proponent of the arts economy.

Saints pride is still in full springtime bloom, with residents and visitors alike contiuing to revel over the end of the “Ain’ts” era, as a billboard near the SuperDome points out.

“Treme,” David Simon‘s superb new HBO series, focused on the lives of musicians and others in New Orleans, just after the storm, is the talk of the city, and the nation.

The 41st annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival kicks off tomorrow, following a successful French Quarter fest.

And then there’s this: Real jazz is back on Bourbon Street.

Wednesday night, trumpeter Irvin Mayfield celebrated the one-year anniversary of his Jazz Playhouse. It’s a plush nightclub inside the Royal Sonesta on Bourbon Street, a place, filled with the sounds of straight-ahead jazz (bebop, modern, post-bop, whatever you want to call it) and trad jazz.

Mayfield celebrated the occasion with a long evening’s worth of performances and jam sessions, in collaboration with the guys from his New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, and special guest trumpeter Kermit Ruffins (who plays himself on “Treme”).

The show was such a success that at one point potential patrons couldn’t get in.

Mayfield, who leads his own group in addition to fronting the NOJO and playing a major role as a musical ambassador for New Orleans, turned in a gorgeous version, muting his horn, of “My Funny Valentine.”

Shortly later, joined by a group including saxophonist Aaron Fletcher, he offered a long, rousing medley, with “This Little Light of Mine” segueing into “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “The Saints Go Marching In” and “We’re Gonna Second Line.” Along the way, he engaged the cheering, singing, fired-up crowd in the Saints’ “Who Dat?” chant.

Earlier in the evening, at a reception honoring the club’s anniversary, Mayfield and his partners in the club, as well as pianist David Torkanowsky, talked about the significance of the Jazz Playhouse.

Torkanowsky recalled the high-quality jazz — by Al Hirt, Louis Prima, Pete Fountain — that was heard when he first strated playing Bourbon Street several decades ago, before the French Quarter started  “slow and steady slide into ‘Girls Gone Wild’.”

Mayfield’s club, Torkanowsky said, is “a symbol of hope that this street will come back (for good jazz). You can make money monetizing a true representation of this city through its culture.”

Also on hand for the reception was Wendell Pierce, AKA trombone player Antoine Batiste on “HBO.” He helped cut the cake (see pic) and added a bit of celebrity to the proceedings.

In town for Jazz Fest? The Jazz Playhouse offers a long list of great shows over the next 10 days or so, including shows feturing Mayfield, Torkanowsky, pianist Ellis Marsalis, drummer Jason Marsalis, singer Johnaye Kendrick, fiddler Amanda Shaw, Bob French and the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, and tributes to Danny Barker.

For more information go to Mayfield’s site or the Royal Sonesta site.

America Needs It Some “Treme”

“America needs it some Kermit,” the New Orleans DJ and sometime musician played by Steve Zahn says, about halfway through the first episode of  HBO’s “Treme,” which debuts tonight on the heels of much critical praise.

Davis McAlary (Zahn), inspired by real-life scenester Davis Rogan, is talking to trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, his bandmates and friends after a show at Vaughan’s, a tiny, shotgun-style bar in the Bywater, where Ruffins has a long-standing Thursday night gig.  In the scene, Davis is lamenting Ruffins’ failure to at least say hello to Elvis Costello, who’s in town for a recording collaboration with pianist-songwriter Allen Toussaint.

Ruffins and Costello play themselves, as does Vaughan’s, where Ruffins plays and cooks barbecue for his listeners.

That authenticity, in a show created and produced by David Simon and Eric Overmyer (“The Wire”), with help from the late David Mills and novelist George Pelecanos, as well as New Orleans writers Lolis Elie and Tom Piazza, has everything to do with why fans of New Orleans music and culture — including native New Orleanians, I hope — will be enthused by “Treme.”

Why? Because Mills and Co. got it right: the broken-down, hardscrabble hand-to-mouth feel of New Orleans, in the months and years immediately following Hurricane Katrina; the unique cultural milieu, as defined in part by the city’s cuisine and Mardi Gras Indian traditions; the brass-band scene.

As is true about New Orleans, music is soaked into the fiber of “Treme,” as demonstrated by:

  • That aforementioned scene at Vaughan’s, where Ruffins and his Barbecue Swingers play “Skokian”
  • A native New Orleanian trumpet player makes it big in New York, with a scene shot at the Blue Note – Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton, anyone?
  • Rebirth Brass Band plays “Feel Like Funking It Up” and the Stones’ “It’s All Over Now”
  • Treme Brass Band plays “A Closer Walk With Thee” during a post-funeral parade
  • McAlary sits at a piano for a few bars of Professor Longhair‘s “Big Chief.”
  • McAlary goes to WWOZ-FM for his weekly show, and rails about being forced to play “the New Orleans canon,” although it’s apparent he loves every bit of it – he goes gaga over a Dave Bartholomew box set, and he blasts NOLA hip-hop just to annoy his genteel, classical-loving neighbors.

The storyline largely centers on the ups and downs of trombonist Antoine Batiste (New Orleans native Wendell Pierce) and McAlary, as well as secondary characters including a professor (John Goodman) raging at the federal government’s decades-long failure to bolster the levees; his wife (Melissa Leo), an attorney fighting for the rights of the dispossessed; a Mardi Gras Indian chief (Clarke Peters) who returns to his devastated home, and hopes to reunite his tribe, the Guardians of the Flame; a bar owner, Antoine’s ex-wife (Khandi Alexander), mourning her brother, apparently lost in the storm; and  a chef (Kim Dickens) desperately trying to rebuild business for her popular neighborhood restaurant.

As might be expected from Simon, the various strands of the larger narrative — NOLA’s return from the brink of disaster — are smartly woven together in the first episode, directed by Agnieszka Holland. The characters are compelling, as are their stories.

Which brings us back to Kermit. Yes, America needs Kermit and his joyful, good-time music, rooted in New Orleans traditional jazz.

And America needs “Treme,” a show that serves as a necessary reminder of all the reasons — music, food, culture, a group of survivors who won’t quit — that New Orleans still deserves to be celebrated as one of our country’s great treasures. It’s “a city that lives in the imagination of the world,” according to something Goodman’s characters says.

Ultimately, “Treme,” which will run 10 episodes for its first season, wants to figure into the continuing rebirth of New Orleans, to play a role in furthering that economic and spiritual renaissance.

It’s off to a great start.

“Making ‘Treme’ ” – Tonight on HBO

Just got the word from Basin Street Records head Mark Samuels: “Making ‘Treme,’ ” a behind-the-scenes look at “Treme,” a new series focused on New Orleans music and culture, post-Katrina, airs tonight on HBO.

Kermit Ruffins, the charismatic trumpeter and singer who plays himself on the series — like anyone else could step into that role — has recorded for Basin Street since 1998. His latest CD, “Livin’ a Treme Life,” was released last year. “Treme” debuts on April 11.

Check out Kermit’s version of “St. James Infirmary,” recorded at Tipitina’s, below.

And here’s a long New York Times piece, written by Wyatt Mason, on how David Simon (“The Wire”) went about creating “Treme.”

Key graph from Mason’s story: “As much as crime of every kind was central to “The Wire,” music is the focus of “Treme.” New Orleans-born and Juilliard-trained Wendell Pierce (William “Bunk” Moreland in “The Wire”) plays a trombone player looking for any gig he can get; Steve Zahn plays a feckless singer-songwriter with an allergy to paying work. As in “The Wire,” many nonactors, in this case professional musicians, have been cast in “Treme” in leading roles: the violinist Lucia Micarelli plays a street musician; a charismatic local trumpeter, Kermit Ruffins, plays himself; and dozens of other musicians — from Dr. John to Elvis Costello — appear in smaller parts. The cast is different from “The Wire,” however, because a number of more famous actors are part of “Treme.” John Goodman plays an English professor-novelist enraged by federal and municipal post-Katrina intransigence; the Academy Award-nominee Melissa Leo is a civil rights attorney with a soft spot for starving artists; and Clarke Peters, the distinguished stage and screen actor memorable in “The Wire” as the miniature-furniture-making detective Lester Freamon, plays an independent contractor and a Mardi Gras Indian chief.”

HBO’s “Treme”: Required Viewing?

The forthcoming HBO series HBO “Treme” could be required viewing for fans of New Orleans music and culture, and for those who became addicted to the pleasures of series creator David Simon‘s “The Wire.”

“Treme” looks to be grounded in authenticity, thanks in part to the fact that New Orleans good-time trumpeter and singer Kermit Ruffins is playing himself, and noted NOLA-based music journalist Tom Piazza is contributing to the script, as is New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter Lolis Eric Elie, co-producer of a 2008 documentary on Treme.

More bona-fides: New Orleans saxophonist Donald Harrison, Jr. is a consultant on the series, and so is Crescent City pianist and music scenester Davis Rogan. Simon’s presence says something (good) about “Treme,” too.

Anticipation for the series, which starts on April 11, likely is spiking this week, thanks to the just-released trailer, which includes cameos from famed NOLA pianist and composer Allen Toussaint and rock-rooted musical explorer Elvis Costello, who teamed with Toussaint for The River in Reverse; the two turned in a terrific Jazz Fest set in support of that 2006 album.

Check it out: Treme

And below is an on-the-set trailer:

My earlier post on “Treme” is here.

HBO’s “Treme” Actually Gets New Orleans Music/Culture Right?

The more I hear about forthcoming HBO series “Treme,” the more I’m encouraged that producer David Simon (“The Wire,” “Homicide”) is going to get it right, in terms of artfully and accurately capturing the homegrown music and idiosyncratic culture at the heart of what makes New Orleans the only city of its kind in the world.

There are some good signs that Simon will do so, as related in jazz journalist Larry Blumenfeld‘s recent Wall Street Journal piece on the series, which takes its name from the neighborhood thought to be the oldest African-American neighborhood in the U.S.:

  1. Irrepressible trumpeter, barbecue maker and raconteur Kermit Ruffins, as New Orleans as New Orleans gets, is playing himself, and reportedly will get substantial screen time in the series, which focuses heavily on Mardi Gras Indian tribes and brass bands.
  2. Eric Overmyer, Simon’s longtime associate and a co-creator of “Treme,” for more than two decades has resided part-time in New Orleans.
  3. The writing staff includes NOLA-based author Tom Piazza, whose short book Why New Orleans Matters was an essential post-Katrina read, and New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter Lolis Eric Elie, co-producer of a 2008 documentary on Treme.
  4. Wendell Pierce (“The Wire”), who plays a trombonist, is native to NOLA’s Pontchartrain Park neighborhood.
  5. Underappreciated jazz and funk saxophonist Donald Harrison, Jr. is an advisor on the series. So is pianist and music scenester Davis Rogan. Rogan is working closely with actor Steve Zahn (Rescue Dawn), who portrays a local music devotee and DJ.
  6. Elvis Costello, a huge supporter of NOLA music (he teamed with pianist/composer Allen Toussaint for 2006’s The River in Reverse, and the two collaborated for a terrific performance at Jazz Fest) plays himself.

“It’s easy to get it terribly wrong, and terribly hard to get it right,” Simon told Blumenfeld.  “‘This won’t be ‘The Wire’ with a better soundtrack. It’s a completely different animal.”

I’m holding Simon to his pledge of authenticity. For the rest of the WSJ piece, click here.

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The series’ first 10-episode season will debut in April, according to a Nov. 8 report in the Times-Picayune.

“That this decidedly oddball project – set among the quirky denizens of a floodwall-failed city, it fits no recognizable TV genre – is proceeding at all counts as a small miracle,” Dave Walker wrote in the T-P.

Stay tuned.

(photo, above, left to right: Zahn, Ruffins, Pierce).