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Treme Episode 9: Musicians Seal the Deals

Most of the musicians on Treme play themselves. Others are given small acting roles, and a very few are actually both musicians and actors playing out storylines that overlap with real history. We saw how slippery that ground can be right at the beginning of Season 3 when Glen David Andrews reenacted his arrest for second-lining in honor of Kerwin James while in real life he was being hauled up on bogus attempted murder charges which were later dropped, but only after his name was smeared all over the front page of the Times-Picayune.

Irvin Mayfield has the most difficult and controversial role of any musician in the show. He was initially portrayed as the musician developers could go to when they wanted a favor from the administration of Ray Nagin immediately after the flood. At that time in real life, Mayfield was indeed promoting a plan for a National Jazz Center that never materialized. This season there’s a new mayor, Mitch Landrieu, and the storyline has developers needing to curry favor with musicians Delmond Lambreaux and his father Big Chief Albert Lambreaux in order to work with Landrieu. But Mayfield is still in the picture, advising the younger Lambreaux on his role. The part is so complex, Mayfield and David Simon sat down to hammer it out between them, and Mayfield’s take on the exchange is fascinating.

Swenson: I’m fascinated by the role you play as a bridge between the developers and the musicians’ community.
Mayfield: As an artist I always thought it’s an interesting lifestyle, working with actors. And I have a lot of actors who are friends because I went to high school with actors, with writers, with visual artists and of course musicians, jazz musicians and classical musicians. We did all of that at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. When I’m spending time with folks on a movie set, I just relate to it as just hanging around with a bunch of actors because I’m used to that. I’ve been around that culture, I’ve done a lot of acting, so I understand that and I consider myself an actor. I appreciate it, but you know, it’s like photo sessions and I’ve done more photo sessions than probably anything. To boil this long-winded explanation down to one sentence, I always feel like I’m wasting my damn time when I’m doing it. It’s not my chosen profession. If I spend all day on a movie set, I just feel like I’ve wasted a whole day. It’s just not how I want to spend my time. It’s like if I’m writing a lecture, it never feels like it’s as productive a day as if I’m writing music.

Swenson: One of the things that Treme does so well is articulate the ongoing problems that New Orleans faces. You interface with the business people and show that musicians can do that, that it’s not necessarily an oppositional situation in every case.
Mayfield: I have to challenge you there, John, because realistically the higher up you go, it’s less of an issue. Frank Sinatra didn’t have that issue. Louis Prima didn’t have that issue. Louis Armstrong himself. Here’s a man who owned a Negro league [team], he was a film star, a music person and an ambassador of goodwill. He defended his own ideas as a public persona in a tremendous amount of battles with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie when they first came out in defense of the old vs. the new. I don’t think the city has had an issue with this. I think what we haven’t done is built the tools that are necessary. Remember we still live in a town that does not have a school named for Louis Armstrong. That’s the problem with New Orleans. You have to stand in defense and fight for that kind of shit.

Swenson: Did you have an exchange with the writers about all of this?
Mayfield:
I love David Simon. I like his attitude and his persona and his vibe.  And I know a lot of the writers. I know those guys but honestly the difference is, and I’m saying this as gingerly as I can and I think David Simon can appreciate it because he’s kind of a no- bullshit guy: they don’t look at this shit from the perspective I look at it.  We may be in a global fight together, but I am in defense of the fight in a different position. I think I have a unique perspective on it, because of where I’m sitting I have to look at it like I play the trumpet and I have to sit back and say, “Damn, there’s another man who played the trumpet who actually was a genius, one of the greatest geniuses of all of American history, and he had to leave his own hometown.”

He was signing his letters “red beans and ricely yours” all these years, yet he didn’t want to be buried here. He didn’t want to come back because of the type of prejudice he faced when he came home. No school named after him. There’s still a fence up now through how many years? There’s still a fence up around Armstrong Park. You like Mitch, great, you like Ray, great, Sidney Barthelemy, fine, but there’s a fence up, man. So when it comes to that kind of shit I just have to sit back and scratch my head. That’s what the time of day it is for me, that’s where the fight is right now. When I sat with David Simon I was more like trying to explain to him what this is about. He said, “What is the deal?” I said, “Let me tell you the irony of this. It’s when people will tell you that they’ve got a problem with you because you volunteered your time on the library board and they’ve got a problem with you because you volunteered your time working for one mayor and then another guy who’s your friend becomes mayor and his team doesn’t like you because you volunteered your time for the library, and then the guy who came before both of those guys, you sit down with his friends and they say, ‘I heard that you aligned yourself with somebody else.’”

The reality is that I joined the library because I live in this town. I think that what we were dealing with was so complex Simon was trying to figure out, “What kind of character do we create?” He asked me what I thought and I said, “At the end of the day it’s all made up. You’re trying to tell a story. So really it doesn’t matter as long as the story is really good.” People won’t remember what board I was on or what I did to create the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. At the end of the day, no one is going to remember any of that. It doesn’t help me sell any records. I did it because I thought it was important. The things that I put into the music are my spirit, my emotion. My life as a public figure is different.  The reason you do these things is not for the roses. You do it because you love the place. I love New Orleans. I live here, I pay my taxes here, this is where I want to be.

Folks think power is in City Hall in those elected offices. I believe the people in the most powerful positions are the artists, because our shit lasts. We’re the sculptors, we’re the painters, we’re the second line, the pot of gumbo. We supersede any political office. Even religious leaders need the arts to communicate the message of god.

In closing, Davis and the R&B Opera

The Davis haters are gloating because the R&B Opera was left off the list of releases on the label he owns with Aunt Mimi. This is supposedly a death blow to Davis, they note with the usual glee at his perceived demise. I love this stuff because these musical carrion crows always end up dining on their own words, and clearly Davis is inspired by the end of the last episode to write the song that inspired the whole Davis part in the first place, “I Quit.” I know this for a fact because I wrote the review that attracted Simon to the Davis character in the first place, and “I Quit,” a great piece of self-affirmation, is what really hooked Simon. This will not be a minor plot angle. My money is still on Davis.

–John Swenson