It’s Thursday night in New Orleans, and trumpet player Kermit Ruffins is getting ready for his regular jam session with his band, the Barbecue Swingers, at Vaughan’s in the Bywater section of New Orleans.
A fan of the HBO series Treme, whose first season comes out on DVD on March 29, approaches Ruffins. Does he think his career is going to benefit from his exposure on the critically acclaimed series?
“I think it’s a good thing for all of the musicians in New Orleans,” says Ruffins, who was born and still lives in Treme. “It lets people know that we’re still here, still kickin’ it after Katrina.”
Created by David Simon and Eric Overmyer (Homicide: Life on the Street, The Wire,) Treme is set three months after Hurricane Katrina, and follows a group of characters as they try to put their lives back together.
Ruffins is just one of the more than a dozen celebrated musicians from, or influenced by, New Orleans, who have been cast in roles both large and small on Treme.
Here’s a short list of the real Treme people and landmarks you won’t want to miss the next time you visit New Orleans –– or watch the show.
Treme Brass Band –– Featured prominently in the show’s opening montage, Benny Jones Sr. and “Uncle” Lionel Batiste lead this iconic band. Active in local jazz funerals and Mardi Gras Indian parades, the TBB appears every Wednesday night at a friendly locals’ hang out, the Candle Light Lounge in Treme.
Kermit Ruffins –– Catch Kermit every Thursday at Vaughan’s in the Bywater, and most Tuesday nights at Bullets Sports Bar, the no frills Treme bar where Steve Zahn’s character, Davis McAlary, sends the well-scrubbed volunteers from Wisconsin.
Coco Robicheoux –– The voodoo-inspired blues musician who sacrificed a chicken on Davis’ WWZO radio show is a familiar figure on Frenchmen Street, especially in and around the Apple Barrel Inn. Robicheoux and his band The Swamp Monsters appear frequently around town.
Susan Spicer –– The chef character Janette Desautel, played by Kim Dickens, is loosely based on this James Beard award-winning chef/owner of Bayona restaurant in the French Quarter.
Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews –– Antoine Batiste, played by Wendell Pierce, in Episode Two meets Trombone Shorty on the way to his Bourbon Street gig. A fixture in local clubs since he was a kid, Trombone Shorty’s latest album is Backatown, local speak for the Treme.
Mardi Gras Indians –– Epitomized by “Big Chief” Albert Lambreaux, played by Clarke Peters, this proud tribal tradition dates back more than a century, with its roots in the experience of slavery shared by Native Americans and Africans. Kept out of the “uptown” Mardi Gras celebrations by Jim Crow laws, New Orleans’ black community and feather-festooned Black Indian Tribes celebrated Mardi Gras in their own neighborhoods. Now recognized as a touchstone of the city’s music and Mardi Gras culture, Mardi Gras Indians are often a fixture at parties, weddings and major events.
Clover Grill –– Davis sends the Wisconsin volunteers here for breakfast. Open 24/7, the eatery’s motto is “We Love to Fry and It Shows.” The Clover is known for its juicy burgers, cooked under a trademark Hub Cap.
Snug Harbor –– Although pooh-poohed by Treme’s Davis McAlary, Snug is one of the best places in town for straight up traditional jazz. Patriarch Ellis Marsalis plays every Friday with his trio.
Spotted Cat –– A regular hangout for Treme buskers Annie and Sonny, this lively club is the spot for local traditional jazz, often without a cover.
Treme –– A neighborhood –– not just a tourist destination –– this storied area of the 6th ward has been central to African-American and Creole culture since the 18th century. Once part of a plantation, the oldest black neighborhood in the U.S. is home to Congo Square, located in what is now Louis Armstrong Park. It was the place where slaves gathered on Sundays for market and music. Treme was home to Louis Prima, Dixieland pianist Henry Ragas and Alex Chilton, lead singer of the Box Tops.