Jazz, America’s great musical invention, has won enthusiastic fans the world over, but none moreso than those who rocked its cradle in the place of its birth—New Orleans. The annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival draws more than 100,000 people each of its seven days to hear jazz and its many musical offshoots on more than a dozen stages, eat arguably the best food on the planet, enjoy crafts booths and exhibits, and absorb the unique energy and spirit that any visitor to the Crescent City feels the moment their feet hit the ground.
In 2019, directors Frank Marshall and Ryan Suffern set out to record the fiftieth anniversary of the festival by filming live performances, interviewing musicians whose association with the event is decades long and those who are relatively new on the scene, and making excellent use of archival footage to trace the history of the festival and the city it calls home. Among the talking heads Marshall and Suffern include are members of the Marsalis jazz dynasty (patriarch Ellis Jr. and his sons, Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo, and Jason), Jimmy Buffett (who helps underwrite the festival), singer Gregory Porter (sadly, not seen in concert), singer Irma Thomas (a yearly visitor since nearly the beginning), nonbinary hip hop artist Big Freedia, multigenre performer Tarriona “Tank” Ball, and hair-roller-bedecked Boyfriend (aka, Suzannah Powell).
I didn’t find the interviews to be all that enlightening; even George Wein, founder of the Newport Jazz Festival who was induced to establish and run the event, didn’t have a lot of background information to provide. Nonetheless, the film is well worth checking out to hear and see some banging performances, past and present. The Marsalis’ set would please any fan of straight-ahead jazz, while Latin rhythm enthusiasts can enjoy Pitbull and his sexy dancers and pyrotechnics. Archival and current footage of Marc Savoy and his family provide an authentic taste of cajun life and music, which we learn is written expressly for dancing.
I found the heritage part of the festival informative, particularly learning about the lavish Native American costumes usually seen at Mardi Gras. We learn that these eye-popping works of art, which are worn by African Americans, pay homage to the Native Americans who gave quarter to runaway slaves. It also is interesting to hear African performers at the festival say they feel at home in New Orleans, whose culture resonates with theirs.
The most moving part of the film is archival footage of Bruce Springsteen performing “My City in Ruins” at the 2006 festival. New Orleans was still devastated in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but organizers felt they had to hold the event to signal that the city was going to come back. The collective mourning and catharsis Springsteen and the audience experienced reaches right through the screen.
Marshall and Suffern didn’t know that this would be the last festival for two years. Over the course of those COVID years, two men who featured prominently in the film, Ellis Marsalis Jr. and George Wein, would die of COVID-19 and old age, respectively. But as Jazz Fest points out, no American city has a more healthy, integrated approach to death than New Orleans. I’m sure both men got the rousing send-off they most richly deserved.