The clarinetist recalls gigging in the wake of K, his time writing charts for the HBO show and getting bumped by Wardell Quezergue.
Between the rendition of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," by Washboard Chaz, Susan Cowsill, Coco Robicheaux, Rosie Ledet & the Zydeco Playboys' two-stepping tunes at Rock N’ Bowl and Alex McMurray whaling on guitar as he sat in with Davis’ band during a rehearsal, this week's episode of Treme could've filled an entire night on the town. Okay, maybe part of one. The Buffa’s crowd laughed in cohesion at the abashed and frustrated look strung across Davis’ face while McMurray’s fingers danced down the neck of the guitar.
Al “Carnival Time” Johnson was at Buffa’s Sunday night, and he stuck around after the episode to mingle with all of his Carnival Timers. We were fortunate enough to get some of his thoughts on the show. “I thought it was great,” he said. “I noticed they had a lot of places in there, I saw Rock N’ Bowl.” When we asked him what it was like to be on the show, he said, “I really enjoyed it. Being a part of something as outstanding as Treme is really a pleasure and an honor.”
Providing the music this week was clarinetist Ben Schenck of the Panorama Jazz Band. We caught up with him to get his take on the show.
Aren’t We Hip?
"My wife and I have been following it pretty religiously. My wife is the big sister of the real Davis, Davis Rogan. I’ve known Davis Rogan since we were both in our twenties. He’s a great songwriter. His CD (“The Once and Future DJ”) that came out during Katrina, David Simon heard and dug it. That CD is all about his (Davis) quirky life. It’s like little funky episodes from his experience; about when he got fired from WWOZ, when strippers moved into his neighborhood, and those are things that show up on the show.
We watched last season and you have, what, eight months to think about it. So I was thinking I want to see this season; is it more than just about name dropping? Every time there is something from New Orleans, you kind of get the feeling that the producers are saying, ‘Aren’t we hip? We know about Zatarain’s,’ because New Orleans has all these things that the rest of the country doesn’t know. So I wanted to see if there was anything behind it, and it really does have strong character development and plot arc.
We’re Still Going to Be Out There
The Panorama Brass Band (a band that Ben leads) was in episode six for a minute, we play a lot of Mardi Gras parades. I don’t know if you remember, people were talking about like, ‘We’ll have to cancel Mardi Gras this year because of Katrina.’ And we were like, ‘Fuck you, man. We’re still going to be out there in the streets.’
(Referring to the scene with Davis’ band’s rehearsal)
It’s cool watching the rehearsal. There’s Davis (Rogan) and there’s Brice (Miller) and there’s Alex (McMurray). It’s crazy, like all your buddies are on. That riff right there, that’s one of Davis’ riffs from his old band called ‘All That.’
Accuracy is Boring
I don’t know if I have anything intelligent to say about the show other than I really enjoy it. I commend them for taking it on and think they’re really sincere, real honest. I think they’ve also set an impossible task. If you’re not a musician, I can imagine it’s very difficult to authentically represent what it’s like to be a musician, because music is so abstract, and there is a lot of jargon… I think if they tried to be a hundred percent accurate, it would probably be pretty boring. Being a musician is practicing a lot of scales. People don’t see the boring side of it, the phone calls, the rehearsals, and the hours practicing at home. But then, I think there’s also the aspect of…you got the gig, and there’s the vibe, and there’s the crowd, and there’s the music, and that’s the part that is selling. And with Batiste being a band leader now, there’s the band dynamics. As a band leader, you try to keep everybody happy, try to decide what’s right, make judgment calls, and when you screw it up, you got a lot of cleaning up to do. There is a lot to it.
Roll Over, Panorama
I got to write some horn charts for the show, which was cool (“Carnival Time” was one of them). If there is a gig on the show and the band wants to sound just like the record, Blake Leyh (Music supervisor for Treme) would send me a copy of the record, and I would basically transcribe it and make charts so that at the shoot, the trumpet player has something to read that will make him sound just like the record. I did several last season and a couple this season, and then they stopped calling me. Come to find out from Davis, they got Wardell Quezergue to do it. So I was like, ‘Ok, the Creole Beethoven, I abdicate.’
Watching the show, you’re trying to remember what it was like. You know… is this really what it was like? Can television really represent the mood of the time, and the vibe of the time, and the predicament? There’s the logistical level, but there’s also the intangible level, and that’s a very tall order. You know there’s no way they can get it right, and so we shouldn’t expect that. I can’t articulate that. I can’t tell you what it was like.
Bring Them Back
My wife and I came back December 3rd. And then we (Panorama Jazz Band) had our first gig on New Years Day ’06. It was a wedding at somebody’s house. Then, we started getting gigs through the Musicians Clinic. Musicians Clinic basically said, ‘We’ll pay the band. You go hook up a gig, because we know the venues and the musicians need to get the scene jumping, but there’s not the people here yet. The audience isn’t here yet, so we’ll pay the band, you just go get a gig and start playing. That will bring people back. That will bring the musicians back.’ We were doing a couple of gigs a week. We did a soup kitchen up on St. Charles Ave. in a church every week. We played the Palm Court. We got our gig back at the Spotted Cat. We just started playing everywhere we could.