You can bet on music’s healing power. New Orleans has played those odds for over 50 years. Its renown jazz fest brings all kinds of people together, mends spirits and has even survived an apocalypse.
Jazz festivals abound worldwide and quite often the term “jazz” is just a catch-all for various music genres. Case in point, the headliners in 2022’s 51st annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (NOJHF) run the gamut. Red Hot Chili Peppers to Lionel Ritchie, Stevie Nicks to Nelly, Ziggy Marley to Melissa Etheridge, Morningstar Missionary Baptist Church Mass Choir to Buddy Guy, Native Nations Intertribal to the Loyola University Jazz Ensemble …
A yearning for a jazz fest in NOLA started back in 1962, when George Wein, creator of the iconic Newport Jazz Festival, was asked to be a founder. He rejected the idea outright until Jim Crow laws were abolished and integrated soirees could prevail. A breakthrough happened in 1970, when Mahalia Jackson returned to her hometown along with Duke Ellington to christen the first event. A historic and everlasting celebration of music and culture was born.
Directors Frank Marshall (“The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart”) and Ryan Suffern take music lovers on a trip down memory lane. They passionately assemble footage, photos and interviews of the first participants, organizers and artists. Then their 95-minute motion picture book catalogues the evolution of NOLA’s incredible homage to its culture, city and love of music. In these times, over two long weekends, NOJHF can attract 100,000 revelers a day who view 7,000 musicians on 14 stages. If the Newport Jazz Festival is the grandaddy, Montreal’s is the biggest and Montreux’s is the classiest, then New Orleans’ is the multicultural buffet.
Wein himself crafted the festival’s purpose and set it on its meteoric path: “The festival must be a reflection of New Orleans and Louisiana culture.” Hometown blues singer Irma Thomas adds: “There is no separation of culture in New Orleans, it’s all blended together.” And Quint Davis, one of the original founders, sums up the homey atmosphere: “The world’s greatest backyard barbeque.” That loving feel of the city’s potent mix of Cajun, Creole, Black and Native American culture is everywhere. In the assemblage of artists, the tents (blues, gospel, jazz and kids), the performing stages (Acura, Gentilly, Congo Square) and of course the festival’s cuisine. Ever had fried alligator?
Clips of stirring performances by Thomas, Earth Wind & Fire, Jimmy Buffet, Katy Perry and Al Green spark a flame. Testimonials by local musicians, like Trombone Shorty, the Marsalis family, Neville clan, Glen Andrews and Tarriona “Tank” Ball of the group Tank and the Bangas, attest to the city’s homegrown musical heritage.
If there’s a flaw in this thoughtful nonfiction film, it’s the lack of candor about the festival’s troubles. The problems, controversies and challenges any multimillion-dollar event faces from inside, outside and municipal complications. A deeper investigation would have made the footage feel less like a promo reel and more like a documentary. But light-hearted nature doesn’t affect the end results. The cinematography by Michael Parry, Justin Kane and Boyd Hobbs is eye-catching, Martin Singer’s keen editing leaves no slack and the filmmakers have made a lot of right decisions.
The notion that music can be a magic elixir peaks in an almost tear-jerking climax: At NOJHF in 2006, Bruce Springsteen performs the year after Katrina devastated the city. The show goes on and thousands assemble. The New Jersey crooner stands on center stage and morphs into a town crier. He bellows out his classic song, “My City of Ruins.” A powerful missive that encouraged everyone to persevere: “There’s a blood red circle, on the cold dark ground, and the rain is falling down … My City of Ruins … With these hands I pray for the strength … Come on, rise up. Come on, rise up!”
After a two-year COVID-19 hiatus, the only time NOJHF has shut down in its entire history, the vibrant jazz fest was back in 2022. It has healed itself and done the same for the people who make the spiritual trek to this Cajun/Creole mecca. For years to come, this reverent doc will lead music lovers back to NOLA.
In theaters May 13.