(“Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story”, directed by Frank Marshall and Ryan Suffern; now playing at AMC Phipps Plaza and in theaters nationwide.)
In 2019, the world famous New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival celebrated 50 years, but like every other major event in the world it shut down for the first time for two years because of COVID-19.
Fortunately, the festival returned to its home at the New Orleans Fairgrounds earlier this spring. To celebrate its 50 anniversary (two years later) a documentary about this uniquely American event has been released by Sony Classics Pictures. Directed by award-winning film producer Frank Marshall (“Sixth Sense”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and Ryan Suffern, the pair gives the viewer in 95 minutes a good snapshot of what the NOLA Jazz Fest is about.
But as apt as these storytellers are – and they do a good job – they still fall short. But it’s not their fault. What the film is lacking are the senses of taste, smell and touch.
Take it from someone who has experienced four of these festivals.
The aroma of the rich food, your taste buds jumping for joy as the gumbo, alligator po boy, and other Louisiana savory dishes slide down your throat.
You go to the Atlanta Jazz Festival or the Jacksonville Jazz Festival or other similar festivals in other cities and enjoy the music and fellowship, but you experience the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
It’s not easy to capture even one day of this 8 day festival which features over 7,000 musicians performing on 14 stages.
Over the course of its history the NOLA Jazz Festival has become less of just a jazz and blues festival but more of a music festival. Jazz, blues and gospel music, however jazz remains very prominent.
How does rocker Bruce Springsteen feel about the jazz festival?: “One of the most beautiful concert experiences I’ve ever had,” he said.
The film features interviews with some of the current and past heavy-hitters in music like: Earth Wind & Fire, B.B. King, Jimmy Buffett, Gregory Porter, Tom Jones, Kathie Perry, Al Green and many others. But they also include interviews by lesser known musicians who know the culture firsthand because they either are from there or live there like Trombone Shorty, Irma Thomas, Ellis Marcellis and his four musician sons including Wynton and Bradford.
“There is no separation of culture in New Orleans because it’s all blended together,” said singer Irma Thomas who is a jazz fest regular.
In addition to archival footage from past festivals, the filmmakers interview the organizers like the noted jazz promoter George Wein who was first asked to produce a jazz festival there back during the days of segregation. Wein declined saying maybe later when society became more integrated. Fortunately, a few years later that happened and the festival was born and the attendance grew each year mostly through word of mouth.
The NOLA Jazz Fest would not be what it is if it was in any other city. Only the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana can add the right amount of creole and cajun seasonings that no other city can.
Also what makes the festival different are the popular Gospel Tent and Congo Square – two stops you should make. The performances at the fairgrounds are usually over by 6 p.m. Some of the artists can be seen performing at various venues at night. For the money you won’t find another festival that will give you more bang for your buck.
If you always wanted to go to the festival or it’s been sometime since you have attended, this documentary is a good place to start.