Play for That Money

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The final, abbreviated season of the HBO television show Treme, airing now, is an opportunity to reflect on what that series has done better than any other recent television experience: depict the working life of creative people. Over the course of its four seasons, Treme never garnered the popularity of other HBO dramas like The Sopranos, and never won the critical acclaim creator David Simon earned for previous work, notably The Wire. But in focusing on post-Katrina New Orleans and characters in and around the city’s music scene (with regular cameos from real-life musicians), Treme offers a much deeper view of art-as-daily-work than television usually provides.

The series’ first episode, “Do You Know What It Means,” opens with the trombone player Antoine Baptiste, who has been displaced to the suburbs by Katrina and now faces some of the signature problems of a modest artistic career, such as lack of steady income, a deteriorated industry, even lack of access to transportation (Antoine’s negotiations with taxi drivers are a running theme of the show). When we first meet him, he has been hired as an add-on musician for a jazz funeral. Even within this iconic New Orleans moment, the practicalities take precedence: after first settling on a fee, he falls into an easy rapport with the other musicians, all twenty years older than himself. He razzes the elderly trumpet player next to him, “Don’t flat that B, Bunchy.” Then: “Play for that money, boys. Play for it.”

Here is Treme’s vision of the artists’ life: community, money, the next gig. Essentially a freelancer, Antoine, played with a rake’s charm by Wire veteran Wendell Pierce, earns his way by hustling, cajoling and sometimes outright pressuring better-known musicians for work. As the series progresses Antoine attempts to start his own band, hiring musicians, booking gigs, and generally facing all the headaches of the artist-as-administrator. To make ends meet on a daily basis, he also takes a part-time job with the public schools, with all the struggles one would imagine in that situation. What writing teacher wouldn’t see themselves, just a little bit, in Antoine’s role as assistant band director, working with the unmotivated, the underfunded, the occasionally inspired?

At a different end of the status spectrum is Delmond Lambreux, an acclaimed trumpet player now based in New York, where he is often asked to represent the New Orleans music scene. In his ambivalent relationship to his geographic and musical identity, Delmond is a stand-in for every artist who has found an audience based on his identity—substitute black, Jewish, southern, or other markers—but also strains against the essentializing limits of that identity. Unlike Antoine, who often can only see as far as the next paycheck, Delmond is free to ask, What Is My Subject?, and his attempt to develop a sound that reflects both his origins and his own vision becomes Treme’s forum for engaging big aesthetic questions. (He has some notable daddy issues, too.)Treme Season 2

There’s also street musician Annie Tee, played by violinist Lucia Micarelli, and New Orleans DJ Davis McAlary, played by Steve Zahn with his usual frenetic energy. Davis, a true believer with modest skill, embodies a type that is common to any artistic scene, serving as a producer, promoter, only occasionally getting his time in the spotlight. In literary terms, he’s an editor and publisher, but all he wants to do is write a novel. Annie, on the other hand, has enormous talent and potential, but must work through the process of seeking mentors and feeling her way through the arc of her career. Here, with Micarelli, Zahn, and series regular Steve Earle as another street musician, we see the process of art being made, as well as the inevitable challenge of making that work public for the first time. Over and over, we see these musicians and others honing their craft. We see them trying projects and failing. We see their self-sabotages, their occasional intoxicating successes. While Treme is purportedly about life in New Orleans post-Katrina, and there are a number of other subplots and interests, the show returns to scenes like the above often enough that Art, The Making Of, feels like the real subject at the series’ core.

Treme’s focus on the day-to-day life of musicians certainly doesn’t appeal to everyone. Writing for Grantland, Alex Pappademas says that “The real problem is that when Treme‘s musician characters aren’t playing music, they’re talking about it. I like to think of myself as somebody who likes music a lot… whenever anybody on Treme talks about music, they make it sound like something I would hate.” Perhaps the difference, for me, is that I’m not invested in the dialogue about music as it particularly relates to music. I’m no aficionado of New Orleans sound—I like it fine, but that’s it—so I’m not a disappointed fanboy feeling like the show has gotten the place or the music wrong, or that they’re talking something I love to death. I relate to the show in a much more basic way, as an artist who is thrilled to see characters grappling with the daily concerns of living a creative life, without a murder plot or courtroom showdown or other tired TV tropes getting in the way.

Treme’s great rival for depiction of the creative life is, of course, Mad Men, which engages these issues through a much different lens: primarily, creativity as it serves the cause of business, with the concomitant promises of money and status. Like Treme, Mad Men is interested in the creative process; its scenes in the pitch room and at the copywriters’ desks deliver a rich sense of how ideas emerge and are shaped. It also offers a critique of how those ideas are socially received: as scholar Julie Robert writes, Mad Men draws attention to the fact that in its world, “A good idea is more likely to be recognized as such if it comes from one of the established, white men in the room.”1

Treme has never developed the cultural cachet or the devoted following of Mad Men, probably because it failed to create a singular focus as compelling and as attractive as Don Draper.  But it deserves a place with Mad Men because it gives us a sustained examination of creativity embodied by multiple characters. The artists on Treme range from young to twenty-something to middle age to elderly. Some are people of color and some are white. They differ in aesthetic style, talent level, devotion. They succeed and they fail in a way that is recognizable to writers, painters, photographers, dancers, others of us in the so-called ‘creative class.’ Goodbye, Treme. We’ll miss your music. We’ll miss your musicians even more.


1 Robert, Julie.“Mad Men’s Deceptive (Critique of) Creativity.” Cultural Studies Review 18.2 (2012): 262-77.

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