Wired into New Orleans

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Simon's new series draws its name from Tremé, which is considered by some to be the oldest black neighborhood in America and has long been a hothouse for New Orleans jazz. When I arrive at Lolis Eric Elie's house there, workmen are attending to floorboards in need of replacement due to termite damage. A New Orleans native, Elie bought this home some 12 years ago. He pulls out a hardbound copy of New Orleans Architecture, Volume VI: Faubourg Tremé and the Bayou Road, which explains that the house sits on property originally deeded to College d'Orleans, sold for $250 in 1827. He points to a piece in that day's Metro section of The Times-Picayune, regarding the partial collapse of a building on South Rampart Street, in the historic Back o' Town section, where early jazz history was scripted by the likes of Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong.

"The fact that David and Eric have chosen to do this show," Elie says, "is testimony to the power of New Orleans culture and the effect that it's had on their lives. The show will help these things stay alive, because it will place a value on them. Part of what's so frustrating about New Orleans is I don't know of any Louisiana politician who really understands our culture and values it appropriately. Perhaps having an outsider who has a degree of notoriety and outside validation might possibly, in my most optimistic moments, help people understand how precious—and, these days, fragile—all this is."

Titillation tends toward tedium as a lithe stripper mounts her pole for the sixth time at the Déjà Vu Club on Bourbon Street, later that November day. McKay, the director, reminds her of the routine: up the pole, spin slowly, flip upside-down while removing bra, hold, then slide gently toward the floor while spreading legs. Meanwhile, the room fills with clouds from the cigarettes smoked furiously by extras. McKay and producer Anthony Hemingway hover over a playback screen: There, visible between the stripper's legs, is Pierce as Antoine Batiste, performing with the J.T. Ka-nection Band (who really do work at a topless bar), playing Parliament's funk classic "Up for the Down Stroke." His character is none too pleased to be working such a gig. But desperate times, in Katrina's wake, call for desperate measures.

Truth is, making music in New Orleans has, historically, often meant a marginal living; the flood exacerbated this reality, submerging not just homes but careers and a good chunk of the local music business. Around Katrina's second anniversary, a "Musicians Solidarity Second Line" featured dozens of musicians carrying, but not using, their instruments: not a note played, not a step danced. A slow, steady rain lent dramatic drips to homemade signs reading "Living Wages = Living Music" and "Imagine a Silent NOLA." Even those who've surmounted financial hurdles often encounter a more insidious challenge: the sense that they're not exactly welcome back. "There's a feeling among many that some of our older cultural institutions, like parades and jazz funerals, are in the way of progress and don't fit in the new vision of New Orleans," says Michael White, a clarinetist and Xavier University professor. "That they should only be used in a limited way to boost the image of New Orleans, as opposed to being real, viable aspects of our lives."

There's plenty of evidence to support those fears. In October, musicians were arrested during a funeral procession and charged with "disturbing the peace"—in Tremé, of all places. At Mardi Gras Indian gatherings, the spectacle of black men looking fierce in eight-foot-tall suits of feathers and beads has lately been overtaken by the sirens and flashing lights of NOPD cruisers, enacting their own display of power and domain. The most dramatic of these episodes occurred in 2005. But even this year, Mardi Gras Day featured such a standoff: "Mardi Gras Indians Concerned About Police Antagonism," read the headline to Katy Reckdahl's March 8 Times-Picayune piece. And in 2007, Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs—whose historical roots in 19th-century black benevolent societies held new relevancy in post-Katrina New Orleans—took to federal court to challenge the city's hiking of police security fees for their parades. They won. The suit invoked First Amendment rights, insisting that permit schemes "effectively tax" such expression. "Should the law not be enjoined," the complaint stated, "there is very little doubt that plaintiff's cultural tradition will cease to exist."

At her law office in a MidCity shotgun house, Mary Howell, whose work inspired Melissa Leo's Treme character, recalls how she began defending musicians on a regular basis more than three decades ago. A nearby picture frame holds Matt Rose's 1996 photograph, which ran in The Times-Picayune, of musicians marching after one such incident: There, next to a 10-year-old Troy Andrews on tuba, is a teenage snare drummer wearing a sign: "I Was Arrested for Playing Music." The French Quarter's Jackson Square, where cheeseheads from Chowderland regularly encounter standard-bearing musicians, has long been contested space. Worse still, Howell explains, in 1974, the city passed a zoning ordinance that actually prohibits live entertainment in New Orleans, save for spots that are either grandfathered in or specially designated as exceptions. The very idea is mind-boggling—a city whose image is largely derived from its live entertainment essentially outlawing public performance. In practical terms, it's "vague and overbroad enough," says Howell, "to be ridiculous."

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Larry Blumenfeld