Treme Season 3, Episode 4: Music Is the Message

In last night’s episode of Treme, “The Greatest Love,” Davis McAlary is in Piety Street Studios with producer Mark Bingham, trying to convince him to donate studio time to record his R&B Opera. Davis enlists saxophonist Kidd Jordan, who is also in the room, in support of the project. Davis, Jordan and Bingham go back and forth exchanging superlatives about the album. Davis is dead serious while the other two are mocking him in a clean variation on “doing the dozens.” Instead of trading insults they’re trading adjectives.

“It went on and on. It was hilarious,” said Bingham. “I don’t know how much of it made it into the show but we had a lot of fun with it.”

The moment was particularly auspicious because Davell Crawford was actually in the studio while they talked, singing a gospel song with his grandfather, James “Sugar Boy” Crawford, who passed away only months after the scene was filmed. Like so many other New Orleans music institutions that are no longer with us, Treme documented Crawford for posterity.

Bingham noted that the original script called for Frankie Ford to be in the scene, but something came up and Kidd Jordan was brought it at the last minute. That adds two pertinent footnotes to the episode, one a piece of real history and another relating to the fictive story that runs alongside it. Jordan actually played in Sugar Boy Crawford’s band at one point, creating the kind of historical irony that delights hardcore fans of New Orleans music. And it’s interesting to know that Frankie Ford was supposed to be included among the R&B greats populating the opera. We only find out incidentally who is in and who is not based on Davis’ actions in the show. We know he’s enlisted a few R&B legends, including Al “Carnival Time” Johnson and Clarence “Frogman” Henry, and we know that John Boutte and Sugar Boy Crawford turned him down. Who else might be included in the project? We’re just going to have to keep watching the rest of the season to find out. And here’s another clue. Stay tuned for an announcement about the lineup for OffBeat’s Best of the Beat award show, which takes place January 18, 2013.

McAlary is the most puzzling character in Treme. While every other major character goes through dramatic changes and shows a marked story arc through the first three seasons, Davis is exactly the same guy he was when he jumped out of bed to join a second line in episode one. The show’s writers continually cast him as a buffoon, comic relief against the dreadful landscape of a ruined city. Yet Davis is the one who plays the great music as a DJ, who organizes the outrageous party with a terrific impromptu band, who brings producer Don B into the picture, and who writes so many of the great original songs in the series thanks to his real life avatar Davis Rogan. If Rogan thinks of his songs as his children, he probably views the Treme writing team as child molesters.

Yet who could resist the opportunity to draw as broadly comic a figure as McAlary? This is no Sancho Panza providing the foil for the hero, he’s a freestanding entity who gets to tell the uncomfortable truths, even if they are cloaked in ridiculous garments. What’s with the sombrero he wears as a New Orleans tour guide? McAlary is shaping up like a Shakeapearean fool, the self-effacing apparent nitwit who actually knows more about what’s going down than the rulers of the city do.

And that’s all because Davis McAlary is always focused on the music, which in the end is the only thing that really counts in this drama. It’s his life’s blood, his reason for existence. At the moments when Davis loses his band to the young rapper he nurtured or watches his girl friend achieve the stardom that eludes him, Davis is at his best, approving of and encouraging their success even as he has a hard time hiding his own personal disappointment. Davis knows every failure is something ephemeral because there will always be more music to celebrate behind it, more adventures to pursue. The Treme writers may come up with mocking lines about Davis and his opera, but his intentions remain good and his determination to keep pursuing his idea against all odds has a nobility of its own. I have never rooted harder for Davis than I’m rooting for him now.

—John Swenson