The late great George Wein, the creator of the Newport Jazz Festival in the 1960s, felt that New Orleans had to have a music festival of its own. New Orleans had something no other city in the world could claim. It had the birthright of jazz. In the era of Jim Crow, it couldn’t happen as, at the time, whites and blacks couldn’t be on the same stage together. Wein told his wife Joyce that he hoped time would eventually turn in his favor.
As things have a way of doing, thankfully, it eventually did. In 1971, The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival was born. Also known as “Jazz Fest,” it’s the cultural and musical event of New Orleans where blues, funk, Cajun and gospel can all be found. It has always been well received and the locals feel a special pride in that this great festival belongs to them.
Coming a long way since the seventies, the festival is now attended by thousands. It’s considered to be the most incredible music festival in the United States of America. They boast that there are fourteen stages with 7,000 musicians on them at some point over the eight-day period in which the festival takes place. It’s such a success that in 2019, it celebrated its 50th Anniversary. You’ll learn more about its history through incredible archival footage, a wealth of interviews, both past and present, and exemplary, historic images.
The talent speaking and playing throughout the documentary is exceptional. We lost him to Covid in 2020, but Ellis Marsalis Jr., and his sons Wynton, Bradford, Delfeayo and Jason, who are also musicians, grab a lot of the spotlight in the film.
We’re told about how some of the music came about. Music is played during funerals and life is celebrated rather than mourned. Everyone dresses their best and marches to honor the dead. That music is one of the most critical parts of the observance.
Billy Taylor schools us that long ago, in the early plantation days, “There was need for entertainment of one sort or another. After slaves had worked for long periods of time, it made sense to a benevolent master to let them entertain themselves.” He goes on to mention that their songs “Had a definite pulse that was African in origin.” After, we are taught about Congo Square, where enslaved people were able to praise, worship and beat their drums. According to Davell Crawford, the drums, so unique to New Orleans, calls in the spirit. It’s that spirit where all their rhythms and rhymes come from.
Jimmy Buffet, one of the most prominent promoters of the festival, tells us of his experiences on Bourbon Street at the Bayou Room, where he was making $150.00 a week. At the time, he thought he was doing great. Buffett is the film’s producer, along with Quint Davis, who, very young at the time, excitedly helped Wein introduce the festival to the world. The musician, Ben Jaffe, is the creative director of Preservation Hall and a musician. He takes us through moments of rebuilding after Katrina and slides in a bit of history on himself.
He’s a “festival baby.” I’ll let him tell you what that’s all about when you watch. Bruce Springsteen said playing the festival was the most beautiful concert experience he had ever had. Vocalist Irma Thomas, who loves getting the audience to participate during her shows, made her first appearance in 1974 and hasn’t missed a festival since.
Whether you like jazz or don’t, this can’t be missed. It has so much more to offer than what the title suggests. If you appreciate music history, it’s a must. We need good documentaries such as this and Questlove’s “Summer of Soul” during this time of disharmony. It can remind us of who we are. As Pitbull puts it, we shouldn’t be so divided because we all “Speak music.” New Orleans food is essential to any visit and is certainly brought up in the film, but it’s music that binds us, and sometimes, that feels more important than anything else.
From Sony Pictures Classics comes a must-see documentary about one of the best music festivals in the USA.
Directors: Frank Marshall, Ryan Suffern
Stars: Glen David Andrews, Philip Bailey, Tarriona Ball, Jimmy Buffett, Branford and Wynton Marsalis, B.B. King, Pitbull, Aaron Neville, Katy Perry, Bruce Springsteen, and Gary Clark Jr.
Run Time: 1h 34m
Genres: Documentary, Music