Archive for category: Music

Allen Toussaint (1938-2015)

10 Nov
November 10, 2015

I woke this empty morning to the sudden departure of a great and good man.

There will be many better, more comprehensive tributes today from musicians, music lovers and New Orleanians who knew him well, so don’t stop here without going further to celebrate Allen Toussaint’s life.  I met him on only a handful occasions and then only in a professional setting; others can attest to so much more.

But there are a couple of warm anecdotes that I treasure and that ought to be added to the day’s reflections on a gentle, giving soul and one of the finest composers who ever created American music.

I had a few rare opportunities to share time and space with Mr. Toussaint during our four seasons of filming “Treme” in New Orleans, on those occasions when he allowed us to portray his person and his music as part of our fictional, post-Katrina narrative.

Among other things, “Treme” was our attempt to depict the New Orleans music community as organically as we might in a make-believe television version, and to give voice to some of the extraordinary talent and craft of that city’s song.  There could be no attempt at such without Mr. Toussaint engaged.

He understood our intentions and purpose immediately and made himself available not only to honor his own artistic contributions — which are vast and enduring — but those of other artists, for whom he arranged live, on-camera performances and then accompanied with his requisite precision at the piano.  He gave himself over to these moments easily and warmly.  Irma Thomas, Dave Bartholemew, Lloyd Price, Art Neville were all out front on the show with Mr. Toussaint’s backing, and it occurred to me only later that he had given so much care to the performance of others that we had, in the film, more of the man’s music performed by others than by the man himself. I regret that and fault our planning, though Mr. Toussaint, typically, never mentioned it.

Independent of the film, Mr. Toussaint performed a version of “The Greatest Love” as a duet at the now-gone Piety Studios in the Bywater, with Elvis Costello on vocals.  It strikes me now, this morning, as one of the most singular moments of musical performance that I have ever witnessed.  We recorded it for an HBO video release at the time; if I can locate a download, I will post it later today and your breath, too, can be taken from you for some moments.

But for the man’s charm, I can offer three small anecdotes from that same day in the Piety studios.

In the first, I sat behind Mr. Toussaint in the control booth while he rehearsed his hand-picked New Orleans horn section on the lines of “Tears, Tears and More Tears.”  This collective, an all-star revue of the city’s best brass players, also included one Wendell Pierce, who was, as a “Treme” actor, pretending to be a part of that august group.  Mr. Pierce, who had been trying to learn some of the trombone he was pretending to play, had it in mind to contribute in some small, personal way to the musical moment.

Quietly, he slipped off the bone’s blocked mouthpiece and put in the real one, and then, as Mr. Toussaint talked about unrelated matters with Mr. Costello, scarcely paying attention to the rehearsal, Mr. Pierce attempted to add a few notes to the arrangement.

Mr. Toussaint wheeled.

“What was that?” he inquired, hitting the control room button.

The horn men stopped.  All of them knew, but none of them felt an immediate need to give up the imposter, so Mr. Toussaint asked each to play his line individually, nodding softly at the notes.  And then, finally:

“Wendell?  Did you play something?”

“I, um, I might have let a few notes go.”

“Wendell,” said Mr. Toussaint quietly, with the trace of a smile.  “Please don’t.”

And later that evening, there came an even more wonderful moment when our film director, Jim McKay, attempted to call action to a scene not merely by rolling speed on sound and calling camera and action, but by actually — I kid you not — attempting to count down Mr. Toussaint’s band, as if he were Lawrence Welk coming out of a commercial break:  “And-ah-one, and-ah-two, and-ah…”

The musicians stared at him blankly, fixed and immobile.

Quietly, at the piano, Mr. Toussaint gave a small cough to break the stillness.

“Sorry about that,” Mr. Toussaint said.  “Some sheep only follow one shepherd.”

After which, he kicked them off.

I have another memory  of that special day, which involves Mr. Toussaint noodling at the piano in a lighting delay — a tune very much unfamiliar to me, but not to my wife, who though no student of New Orleans rhythm & blues is nonetheless a maven when it comes to Broadway musicals.

“Excuse me, Mr. Toussaint,” she said gently, as if she barely had standing to inquire.  “But is that the overture to Brigadoon?”

He lit up.

“Why yes, young lady, it most certainly is.”

And he played it for her proudly.  Later, there was a moment when we were listening to playback of a scene and Mr. Toussaint sat next to Laura on a bench, taking in the music, nodding his head thoughtfully.  And then, as the song concluded, he reached a long, graceful arm above his head and played a single note on a toy piano that was on a shelf above him.  He did so without looking, with one finger expertly poised.

It was the right note.  In the right instant.   Tink.

Then he lowered his arm and looked at my wife slyly and she fell promptly in love.

No worries, Laura.  I did, too.




“The highway’s jammed with broken heroes…”

08 Jan
January 8, 2014

He knew.

We can say this now with certainty if we ask ourselves one basic question about human nature:  What good does it do a political operative to screw over the opposition if you can’t then tell your boss about it?  Where is the  joy for any lickspittle hack in the office hierarchy if he or she can’t pull off a dirty trick against a political adversary, then walk down the hall and tell the boss just how well you did on his behalf?  What would be the point?

I’ve actually found New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s bluster and anger to be endearing at times, if only for the plain-speaking insistence on results.  I don’t find anger to be a particularly negative trait when that anger is offered on behalf of others, nor do I regard argument as anything other than a worthy endeavor if the argument is actually about something.  I didn’t agree with Mr. Christie on any number of issues, but I found him credible as a public servant.  He reminded me in some respects of the late Maryland Governor and Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer — Mayor Annoyed as we knew him, the angriest, melon-headedest white man in our tarnished state’s political firmament.  “Do It Now,” was Mr. Schaefer’s daily mantra, and while he could be stubborn and bullying at points — and petty and juvenile at his worst moments — he got quite a bit done during his tenure.  My city and state could have done a lot worse with more restrained and thoughtful leadership.

But even Mr. Schaefer’s petulance and childishness had its limits.  He might read a letter to the editor from a complaining citizen and call that individual in a cranky rage.  He might tell reporters off-the-record to go fuck themselves and their editors.  He might play every all-in-the-game political angle to reward friends and harm adversaries and take pride in the result.  He would not, however, snarl some Maryland traffic purposely, endangering residents of his state, to achieve the most petty kind of payback.  He wouldn’t purposely set his state’s performance back for a petty and vicious comeuppance.  Mayor Annoyed had spent too many years filling potholes to dig any of his own, for any reason.

For that kind of behavior you need someone really, really small.  For the anger and argument to become that self-absorbed and infantile, you need someone with even more selfish insecurity and fractured ego than Mr. Schaefer could offer.  You need someone who saw himself as being not only larger than the sum of his constituents, but larger than the commonweal itself.  Add in the potential for actually harming innocent people — ambulances unable to reach calls, school buses unable to transport children — and you have something that leaves the Schaefers of the political world entirely incapable.  For this kind of petty venality, you have to look to a Huey Long or a Richard Nixon, someone for whom any fealty to democratic processes and public service no longer matters when personal ambition and aggrandizement are at stake.

Think on this:  A 91-year-old woman in Fort Lee, New Jersey, unreachable by an ambulance with life-support equipment caught in a traffic jam engineered as Governor Christie’s retribution for the denial of a political endorsement, died later that day at an area hospital.  I’d like to know her name.  I’d like to see her photograph.  I’d like to hear from her family.  I’d like the governor to know her name, to see her photograph, to visit with and apologize to her family.  He owes them that much.

Because he knew.

If Mr. Christie didn’t order this mayhem himself, then he knew because the aides who achieved this carnage on his behalf were so successful in doing so that they could not have possibly held their silence.  Not over the course of four long days of maintaining the traffic snarl in Fort Lee. All of us who have worked in an office, who have experienced institutional hierarchy, who have seen the wages of unthinking loyalty to the boss — we know this much.  The same kind of people who would embark on such an action would not be able to do anything but run right down the hall to tell the governor how they had delivered pain to his political enemy.  They would then wait on their attaboy.  People of that ilk live for the attaboy.   Like cats with a fresh-caught mouse, they were bringing home a prize.  And there’s no joy for any housecat if the prize can’t be displayed to the master of the house.

I’m sorry for Mr. Christie, who seems in his better moments to be something of a leader.  But anger and argument lose all charm when they are employed for stakes so small, stupid and selfish.  He knew.  And he’s lying about it now.

Levon Helm

20 Apr
April 20, 2012

I can’t even begin to get good words around how much this man’s voice and musicality meant to me,  and how much his work colored my sense of American music.   From West Helena, Arkansas to the world.

We’re now filming the last episode of the third season of Treme.  In the original beat sheet for that episode, there is a story arc in which one of our characters performs with Helm and his band in Woodstock, at one of his legendary Midnight Rambles.  Helm himself had conversations with one of our producers about the possibility.  And having had the chance to attend one such Ramble in his barn there, I wanted it to happen badly.  Those homemade concerts were pretty damn magical, and I relished the thought of using the drama to cast a little more light on Helm and what he meant to roots rock’n’roll.

A couple months ago, we got word that Helm had again stopped singing, and, too, we had exhausted a good chunk of our travel budget for the production.  We published the script without the Levon Helm scene this week, but still hoped we’d get a chance to do it if we had the good fortune to get a fourth and concluding season for the drama.  Then the news.

“Rag Mama Rag,” was the song we wanted.  Helm on mandolin and vocals, Lucia Micarelli playing fiddle.