Anyone in Jackson Square knows that The Cabildo fronts undiscovered jazz bands, which collect there to play. What I discover on this day is that The Cabildo also has a secret life, a maze of back rooms where local kids take music lessons. I’m in one of those rooms, lined with sheet music and instrument cases, with “Treme” trombonist Antoine Batiste.
I mean, of course, Wendell Pierce. The actor is more focused than the wayward Antoine, and more mannerly: “The honor is mine,” he murmurs as we meet.
As we settle into our chairs, we hear pattering overhead. Roots of Music students, featured in the coming season of “Treme”, have arrived on the third floor, prepping for a photo shoot with Wendell. Decades ago, the kids might have been Wendell’s school chums (he went through Ben Franklin High School and NOCCA with Wynton Marsalis).
The Juilliard-trained actor grew up in Pontchartrain Park, one of three sons born to a schoolteacher and a decorated World War II veteran whose segregated Army unit helped U.S. Marines win the battle at Saipan in 1944. “When the country wasn’t loving my father, my father was loving his country,” Wendell says. “It’s the ultimate act of patriotism.”
Their family home was devastated after the levees failed in 2005, so Wendell took the lead, telling contractors to “rebuild the house from the inside out…I told them to don’t ever let my parents see that lot empty.” He and his parents live there still (Wendell splits his “tri-coastal” time between New Orleans, Los Angeles and New York).
Back at The Cabildo, the third floor’s thumping intensifies (later, we’ll learn that the Roots of Music students were monkeying around a little too much, leading to a few push-ups as discipline in respecting their instruments and classmates).
“At first I wanted to be the trumpet player, the hip cat up front, but now I can’t think of anything more soulful than the trombone,” says Wendell of the instrument his “Treme” character has chosen.
In reality, Wendell takes lessons from local trombone teacher Keith Hart; on the show, he relies on “sound double” Stafford Agee of the Rebirth Brass Band. During club scenes, Stafford actually records the music, while Wendell shadows the sound. (To better hear Wendell play, try to watch them tape on the street.)
“I’m glad David chose a musician [for me to play],” Wendell says. He’s referring to David Simon, who wrote a role on “Treme” especially for him.
In theory, the character could have been anyone - a Big Chief, a chef, a jittery deejay.
Then you see that the actor was best cast as Antoine, a working artist.
Consider his latest cause: “We need live music every hour, on the hour, at the Eagle Saloon,” Wendell says, referring to the South Rampart landmark where, a century ago, Buddy Bolden opened up his cornet; on that same block, vaudeville actors took to the Iroquois Theater stage, and young Louis Armstrong haunted the neighborhood, still unknown.
Beyond museum pieces, Wendell sees these buildings as viable platforms for revival, and “the jazz pilgrims will come,” he says. “The role of art is a forum in which the community gets to say something about this journey.”
Wendell also has a sculptor’s eye, fashioning Claiborne Avenue - minus the I-10 overpass, widened and lined with oak trees, a colorful streetcar rumbling through - into the “Champs-Élysées of Treme”.
And then there’s his cadence, poetic as he describes what keeps him moving, “I saw how fast we could lose the city,” he said. “I saw how fast the place could go.”
His own pace rivals any writer furiously at work on deadline. When we meet, he’s finished a week of hosting fundraisers for President Barack Obama (“I’m impressed by the man,” he said); addressing members of the Urban League; and advancing his Sterling Farms chain of grocery stores (the first of which will open in Marrero this fall).
“I’m a true capitalist,” he says. “I don’t want New Orleans to become a tale of two cities. Everyone should have access to opportunity and education.”
This is the same divide that Antoine Batiste straddles. He swings from one gig to the next and is perpetually without a car, yet the trombonist creates jobs for other musicians with the band he fronts, and passes along a precious technical tradition to the music students he mentors.
“Antoine represents those unsung, dayto-day New Orleanians,” Wendell says.
“There’s a legacy of tens of thousands of people we’ll never know about, who are responsible for the city coming back.”
(When Wendell first learned that Antoine would be teaching last season, he told his mother: “I’m going into the schools.”) But the rhythmic thudding from The Cabildo’s upper floor won’t be denied… …and we follow it, climbing to find the Roots of Music students, a new generation in waiting (the drummer is so young that he shows Wendell a new tooth that’s come in).
“What you gonna do when that drum is smaller than you?” Wendell teases the child.
The young trio, Markel “MiniMaster” Montgomery on saxophone, Nicolbi “Nickelodeon” May on clarinet, and Lawrence “Tudda” Honore Jr. on snare drum and drum major – warm up. Wendell handles the trombone with ease, though he hesitates to play, reaching for something he’s practiced instead of riffing, improvised.
“Roots of Music captures a critical way of thinking; that is, when you learn a sense of purpose and discipline, you translate that to whatever profession you choose,” Wendell says. “The residuals are great musicians.”
He begins to play the trombone, clearly a song he’s learned through his own music lessons. The kids pause, become still.
The song is “First Call” – you know it as the call to post at the racetrack, but it’s also the bugle call that’s played across Army bases just ahead of the morning’s reveille. It’s the song you hear as you awaken.
HBO’s “Treme” season 3 premieres on Sept. 23. Wendell Pierce will also be appearing as a CIA director in upcoming film Mobius, which wrapped this summer, and as a psychiatrist in the indie movie Runaway Hearts, which was also filmed in New Orleans.
"Treme" Season 3 Teasers from Wendell Pierce:
Fans will learn how LaDonna ultimately handles last season’s trauma: “We’ll find out which way it will impact her; she’ll either spiral or triumph,” Wendell teases.
“One of my favorite places to shoot the show is Bullet’s,” Wendell states of the Seventh Ward sports bar. “It was one of the first places to re-open after the storm; they powered Christmas lights on a generator. They were the only lights on the block.”
Was that a member of the Marine Forces Reserve band playing in the season 3 trailer? “Your eyes did not deceive you,” Wendell offers.