By Ben Collins
The third episode of “Treme” — titled “Right Place, Wrong Time” — began to zero-in on the deception and empty promises offered up by a rebuilding city. All of the characters attempted to accept New Orleans for exactly what it was before Hurricane Katrina hit: Antoine Batiste assumes that gigs will forever be plentiful and that no place will be home for jazz but New Orleans; Davis assumes that the Treme would be culturally uprooted if it began to gentrify; Albert Lambreaux assumes the Indian tradition can live on in peace, uninterrupted by outside influence.
But all of these things have changed. Antoine learns the money for jazz has flowed out with the flood. Gentrification might help Davis curate and create jazz better than ever before. And Albert is deceived in the most personal way possible — his way to mourn has now been perverted and marginalized to a tourist attraction. And it’s all set to music.
Dr. John, “Right Place, Wrong Time”
The episode’s title track comes from a relatively innocuous scene early on. Sonny is using some fronted busking money to buy Annie a relatively luxurious bottle of wine for her birthday. At the counter, he pours out 30 or 40 quarters in front of a cashier, but he doesn’t care about how uncouth the behavior appears, especially considering he has greater concerns: He feels like his relationship is somewhat at-risk. New Orleans jazz pianist legend Tom McDermott stopped to hear some of Annie and Sonny’s street performance. He was particularly impressed by Annie, who he asks to perform with him at a black-tie event later that night. A clearly peeved Sonny wants in, and though he is put on the guest list, he’s offered no chance to perform.
Sonny stays for part of the event, mingling with someone in a different tax bracket who strains to even imagine his quarter-to-quarter lifestyle, but bolts to drink his gifted wine alone in his apartment under a noisy train. “Just need a little brain salad surgery/ Got to cure this insecurity/ I’ve been in the wrong place/ But it must have been the right time,” Dr. John sings, piping out of the speakers of the wine cellar, but it seems like he’s singing it only to Sonny.
Sonny (Huisman), Annie (Micarelli) and Antoine (Wendell Pierce), “Ghost of a Chance”
Sonny and Annie are starting up “Ghost of a Chance” (a tune made most famous by Billie Holiday) when Antoine joins in to sing. He’s coming across town from a gig, trombone in hand. Antoine croons, “I thought at last I found you, but other love surrounds you/ And I don’t stand a ghost of chance with you.” The National Guard is in town. As Antoine’s lawyer, Toni, said to Davis earlier in the show: “You do not ’motherf—’ the National Guard.” But the National Guard and the New Orleans Police Department are wrangling for power in a limited area, providing more grief than relief.
As Antoine walks away, he inadvertently scrapes a parked cop car with his trombone. The officers get out of the car and don’t question, but pummel. They punch Antoine in the face, bloodying him before arresting him. They knock his teeth loose without letting him answer a question. Sonny and Annie look on from a few yards away and scream that Antoine, who was more of a passerby to their street show than a friend, did nothing wrong. They can do nothing else. Watching a black man’s trombone and meal ticket getting crushed by police across the street’s center line, the busking white couple clutch their instruments and scream injustice.
Antoine had been fighting with his wife. There were offers to leave and play his horn at a benefit in New York, in other cities that appreciate jazz more as an import. With a newborn and wife at home, he opted to stay in a place he thought he loved. But the city is different now. Davis complains that it’s bordering on a police state. When Antoine is bailed out by his lawyer, Toni, he doesn’t want vindication. He just wants to know where his trombone might be. “Without that horn, I can’t make a living,” he sighs. As a black man in the new New Orleans, when Antoine missteps around police, he doesn’t stand a chance.
Davis (Steve Zahn), “I’ve Got Strippers Moving in My Neighborhood”
Davis’ neighbors, who were last seen trimming bushes in their fully-bloomed garden weeks ago, stop Davis as he leaves his apartment. They want a few things cleared up, but Davis doesn’t want to hear it. “This place was a wreck. We fixed it up with love — and a great deal of cash, I might add. It’s called, historical preservation,” says the neighbor.
Davis disagrees. “No, it’s called, gentrification. This is the Treme, dude. The most musically important black neighborhood in America,” he says, then lists some jazz legends that live and record down the street. The neighbors say they know and love every one of legends and records, and that they’ve never called the cops in the loud second line music that is blaring even as they’re talking that second. Still, Davis is having none of it. “You live in the Treme, you’ve got to deal with that s—,” Davis says.
But most of the, um, stuff that they have to deal with? It might just be Davis’ overwrought hubris. And that pride finally starts peeling away from Davis in “Right Place, Wrong Time,” because all of this gentrification that he morally opposes is starting to benefit him in the short term. He writes “I’ve Got Strippers Moving in My Neighborhood,” a short, bluesy tune about his well-endowed female neighbors that can now afford to live nearby. And it has this reprise: “You can call it gentrification/ I’m gonna call it good.” For the first time on the show, Davis — who has labeled himself a musician from the outset — has written a song. And it’s all about the new neighborhood.
Sonny (Michiel Huisman) and Annie (Lucia Micarelli), “Bella Notte”
The traditional “Bella Notte” is the first piece of music in “Right Place, Wrong Time,” performed by Sonny and Annie to Tom McDermott’s captive audience. If it sounds familiar, it should. “Bella Notte” (“Beautiful Night” in Italian) famously sets the mood in Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp” when the two main characters fatefully meet in the middle of a shared piece of spaghetti to accidentally kiss. For those short on a Disney education, Lady is of a much higher class than the Tramp, and he spends the movie insecure and trying to prove to her that class wars and love have nothing to do with one another. “The night will weave its magic spell/ When the one you love is near,” the verse goes, but it rings empty. Sonny spends the night weaving horrible tales of what happened to the lower-class during Katrina while the tuxedoed grimace on a patio. “I’ve seen snakes crawling out of dead bodies,” he recounts.
The episode ends with a Albert Lambreaux leading a traditional Indian funeral outside of a house that he is repairing. They begin to dance and sing in memoriam when a white van with a “Katrina Tours” tag crawls by the beaten road, and the passengers take pictures. All of this tourism had a place at one time. Now, it’s disaster tourism at best, and poverty tourism at worst. This is not the time.