In Treme, where jazz was born, you feel the heartbeat of New Orleans

Writer Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan explores the delicious food and hot jazz of New Orleans's historic Treme neighborhood, now the setting of the HBO series of the same name.
Map showing Treme in New Orleans, Louisiana
By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 20, 2010

On a Friday night in May, the bar at Snug Harbor, a jazz club along New Orleans's storied Frenchmen Street, is packed, filled with the warm thrum of chatter. You sip your post-dinner coffee to summon that second wind for the night as jazz beats, firm and soulful, seep through a doorway at the far end of the room. Onstage is the Chris Thomas King Trio, whose leader was famously featured in the movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Just beyond the door, people are crowded around little tables, shoulders swaying, feet tapping.

What's in the air is contagious. As the coffee kicks in, you hear your own feet start to tap.

"You want to see New Orleans, just come to Frenchmen Street and walk up and down, listen to the music," says Lolis Eric Elie, a former Times-Picayune columnist and a filmmaker who made the documentary "Faubourg Treme." He now writes for "Treme," the HBO series, named for the historic neighborhood where jazz was born, about the lives of musicians and music lovers in post-Katrina New Orleans. "This is where you want to be."

Visitors have always come to New Orleans for the Creole food; the festive hurricane drinks, hand-held in strolls along Bourbon Street; and, of course, the jazz. In "Treme," however, the iconic in New Orleans is seen through a much more intimate prism. Interspersed among the fictional bars and restaurants that "The Wire" creator David Simon and his team of writers have dreamed up are the real clubs and eateries that locals have sworn by for years. And threaded through the downtrodden cityscape in the series (whose season finale airs tonight at 10) is music.

"In New Orleans, culture bubbles up from the street," says Elie, quoting jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis. "And the heart of the cultural community is rooted in jazz."

We've started our evening at Snug Harbor, which pops up in Episode 6 of "Treme" (pronounced Tre-MAY), the crowded bar front and center as Marsalis's catchy "Twelve's It" skitters across the background. (Marsalis plays at the club on Friday nights.) It's not where the evening ends, however. Outside, Frenchmen Street is bursting with pedestrians. We pile into a cab and make our way to Bywater, a neighborhood on relatively higher ground by the Mississippi River, known as part of the "sliver by the river" that was less affected by the flooding of Katrina.

In the darkness, low houses flash silently by. Just before midnight, this residential neighborhood appears to have already gone to sleep. There is a flash of blue and red neon amid the blackness, however. Pink and green paper cutouts hang like flags off the beams of a squat old building with peeling white paint. A piece of paper tacked up beside the door reads, "Please ring buzzer to enter and show your face in window thanks." But the door opens easily, no buzzer required. Friday is a relatively quiet night, after all: Because of its residential location, there's live music just one night a week -- Thursday -- at Vaughan's Lounge. The featured performer is none other than Kermit Ruffins, a gifted singer and trumpet player who appears as himself in "Treme."

Even without the live jazz, it's clear from sitting at the bar that this little place with festive candy-colored lights has been the setting for some hefty musical moments. One wall is filled with framed pictures of boldface-name visitors. Mick Jagger is one. Wynton Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. have been known to swing by to check out Ruffins in action. And in the first episode of "Treme," the bar is the backdrop for a funny scene in which Ruffins doesn't recognize a famous face in the crowd who has come to check out him and his band, the Barbecue Swingers. Ruffins is unfazed when told that Elvis Costello is in his audience.

"You going to stand there and tell me that all you want to do is get high, play some trumpet and barbecue in New Orleans your whole damn life?" Steve Zahn's frustrated character says to Ruffins in the episode, after the musician refuses to go talk to Costello. Ruffins simply smiles and says: "That'll work."

"Kermit exemplifies the spirit of New Orleans," Elie explains. "He's a great entertainer. There's something about his playing that's infectious." We immediately make a note to put Ruffins's performance at a Frenchmen Street club the next night on our to-do list.

On the taxi ride back to our hotel, another beacon gleams in the darkness: Cafe Du Monde, the popular 24-hour place famous for its cafe au lait and beignets, fried to crusty perfection and covered in mounds of powdered sugar. (Said beignets also make an appearance in Episode 6 of "Treme.") The call of fried dough as a nightcap is tempting but hard to justify, given that we'd begun that very day with Cafe Du Monde beignets. Another night, perhaps.

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