‘Jazz Fest: A History of New Orleans’

A review

(“Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story,” directed by Frank Marshall and Ryan Suffern; now playing at AMC Phipps Plaza and theaters nationwide.)

In 2019, the famous New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival celebrated its 50th anniversary, but like all other major events around the world, it closed its doors for the first time in two years due to COVID-19.

Fortunately, the festival returned to its home at the New Orleans Fairgrounds earlier this spring. To celebrate its 50th anniversary (two years later), a documentary about this American-only event was released by Sony Classics Pictures. Directed by award-winning film producer Frank Marshall (“Sixth Sense”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and Ryan Suffern, the duo gives the viewer in 95 minutes a great insight into what NOLA Jazz Fest is all about.

But as adept as these storytellers are – and they do a good job – they always fail. But it’s not their fault. What the film lacks 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 jump for joy as gumbo, alligator po boy and other savory Louisiana 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 camaraderie, but you experience the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

It’s not easy to capture even a single day of this 8-day festival which brings together more than 7,000 musicians on 14 stages.

Over its history, the NOLA Jazz Festival has become less of a jazz and blues festival and more of a music festival. Jazz, blues and gospel, however jazz remains very present.

What does rocker Bruce Springsteen think of the jazz festival? “One of the best concert experiences I’ve ever had,” he said.

The film features interviews with some of music’s current and past heavyweights such as: Earth Wind & Fire, BB King, Jimmy Buffett, Gregory Porter, Tom Jones, Kathie Perry, Al Green and many more. But they also include interviews with lesser-known musicians who know the culture first-hand because they’re 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 everything is mixed together,” said singer Irma Thomas, who is a regular at jazz festivals.

Along with archival footage from past festivals, the filmmakers interview organizers like famed jazz promoter George Wein who was first asked to produce a jazz festival there during the segregation era. Wein declined saying maybe later when the company has become more integrated. Luckily, a few years later this happened and the festival was born and attendance has grown each year mainly through word of mouth.

NOLA Jazz Fest wouldn’t be what it is if it were in another 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.

What also makes the festival different are the popular Gospel Tent and Congo Square – two stops you should make. Performances at the fairgrounds usually end at 6 p.m. Some artists can be seen performing in various venues at night. For the money, you won’t find another festival that will give you more for your money.

If you’ve always wanted to go to the festival or haven’t been in a while, this documentary is a great place to start.

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