Saving the Culture
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a murder mystery based on actual events set in Savannah. After its release in 1994 the book spent a record 216 weeks on the New York Times’ bestseller list. I once heard the author, John Berendt, talk about the book’s success. Besides having a compelling story line he confided that it helped immeasurably that the saga was set in Savannah, a quaint historic city with dreamy images that many people have visited. The book would not have been as successful had it been set in most other places.
“Treme” is a series being proposed for HBO. It centers around the lives of jazz musicians and other characters living their lives in post-Katrina New Orleans. I recently interviewed one of the show’s developers, Eric Overmeyer. I thought about what Berendt has said about Savannah and wondered if that held true for New Orleans. Would the same show, with the same storylines, work if it were set in, for example, Columbus, Ohio? He laughed and confirmed that the international charm and mystery of New Orleans was a major selling point. “We won’t be doing any shows set in Columbus,” he assured.
Remember in the bad days immediately following Katrina? Among our many worries was that New Orleans’ culture would be lost. Well, to the contrary, the culture has not only survived but is an important part of the recovery. “Treme” is an example. If it becomes an HBO series, and my guess is that it will, more people will become interested in New Orleans. “Treme” will not be a crime story, but it will be realistic, which means there will be a bite to it as characters face real problems. Still, any publicity is good publicity and, as our annual Jazz All-Stars issue demonstrates, no city has such a rich supply of jazz musicians on which to build stories..
There’s more: In Brad Pitt’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button New Orleans looked especially dreamy. The novel was originally set in Baltimore, but New Orleans just makes a better story.
Few events say “culture” like our Jazz Fest, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. The Fest not only gives an audience to the culture, it has been important in preserving it too. Certain music forms such as Gospel, Cajun and Zydeco have been given a national stage. To the musicians, that is good reason to develop their art form. Their sounds will in turn help sell Louisiana.
Because Katrina made us sensitive about losing our culture we have been much more sensitive about saving it. The results are encouraging. Best wishes to “Treme.” And remember, several years for now when it’s time to create the last episode for HBO, don’t do like the Sopranos. Instead, give us a good ending. Satisfying the audience is also part of our culture.