“New Orleans is different than a lot of other places in that way,” explains Leyh, who works intimately with the musicians on the extraordinary number of live performances on the show, producing, mixing and arranging. “In New York City, there are tons of musicians, but being a musician is supposed to be a bohemian endeavor. You’re supposed to be an outsider, or a cutting-edge person who’s willing to give up everything for your creative expression. In New Orleans, there’s this huge community of musicians where it’s more a normal part of the social fabric—people who are just regular, whose gig is playing music, and they’re hustling how everyone else has to hustle.”
Treme has made a good start presenting the complicated world of the business of full-time musicians—especially in post-Katrina New Orleans, where gigs meant feeding families and paying jacked-up rents as much, or more, than rebuilding the city’s soul. From Mardi Gras Indians to French Quarter buskers, music is shown at street level. The show has also put its money where its mouth is for real New Orleans musicians, hiring dozens to appear as themselves. Just a short list would include trombonist Glen David Andrews, his cousin, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, trad-jazz pianist Tom McDermott, guitarist Deacon John, punk rock drummer Paul Artigues, sousaphone and bass player Matt Perrine, pianist Joe Krown, rapper Katey Red, singer John Boutte, the New Orleans Jazz Vipers, and trumpeter Kermit Ruffins. Artists like Lucia Micarelli, Steve Earle and his son, Justin Townes Earle, have made appearances on the show. Dr. John leads a recording session in one episode. In another, Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello appear to recreate their own December ‘05 sessions for their celebrated 2006 album The River In Reverse.
Their scene was shot at Piety Street Studios in the Bywater neighborhood, where the real album was recorded, and with the horn section that played on it: “Big Sam” Williams, plus the horns from Toussaint’s ‘70s studio band, Chocolate Milk. The writers try to keep real people based in real time, so some of New Orleans’ favorites actually will not appear live on the show during its first season, which ends in March 2006. According to Simon, the Neville Brothers won’t appear, as they didn’t return to the city for almost three years after Katrina. Juvenile, though his album Reality Check was No. 1 on the Billboard hip-hop and R&B charts in 2006, spent the two years after the storm in Atlanta while his Lakeview home was rebuilt, so he won’t turn up on the show.
Trumpeter Kermit Ruffins was approached almost five years ago about the idea of playing himself on the show (Wendell Pierce’s trombonist character gigs with Kermit on the show.) Presented as a local musician with no interest in pursuing gigs and connections in the “outside” world on the show, he’s the real litmus test for accuracy; is the Treme Kermit, who wants to stay in the ‘hood, smoking weed, running a corner bar and eating barbecue, the real Kermit?
“There’s accuracy on there,” says Ruffins. “It gets to the point where you don’t want to live nowhere else, even if there is a hurricane. Where are you going to go—Florida? You don’t have to travel, and you can make almost the same money. I traveled all over the world doing festivals. I woke up one morning and said, ‘I’m not doing this anymore.’”
All the music on the show is recorded live, from second lines to studio session scenes. When an actor must “play” onscreen, a real New Orleans musician plays the part just out of the camera’s range. Trumpeter Shamarr Allen plays trumpet for Rob Brown’s character Delmond Lambreaux; Wendell Pierce’s trombone parts, when he performs as Antoine Batiste, come from the horn of the Rebirth Brass Band’s Stafford Agee. Both musicians also tutor their actor counterparts on how to look the part for each song.
Simon says, “It’s still live, but we’re serving the artifice of the story. And the actor needs to know his part, where his fingers should be and his mouth, in terms of embouchure and the exhale and all that. We’re trying to get to that point where you’re feeling it, credibly, that Wendell’s playing. But at the same time, what’s required is the sound of a professional musician.”
“I kind of decided early on and pitched it to them—Look, we need to record all this music live on set, which is very different than the way it’s normally done on a TV show or a film,” Leyh explains. The advantages are many to pre-recording music for the screen, he says—from dictating the intensity of a solo in advance to simply knowing a track will be the same throughout any changes made with the actors.
“But when you do it live, it’s really what we’re trying to do with so much of the show,” he says. “The things we’re trying to portray are worlds that really exist. It just makes sense to have as much of the stuff going on in that world be as close as possible to the way it normally is. To take the Rebirth Brass Band into the studio and record a week before and then pantomime to it would be, to me, kind of a disaster. And why? They do this normally. So why not just have them do it, and put the technical challenge on us, and let them do what they do?”