Jazz Fest — or, as the annual Big Easy music gathering now in its 51st year is more formally known, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival — is not and never has been all about jazz.
As the vivid and illuminating documentary “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story” makes clear, it’s a celebration of funk, gospel, blues, rock, cajun, zydeco, soul, hip-hop and many, many genres in between, including something called cabaret rap. That’s what the singer known as Boyfriend (Suzannah Powell) does, who appears on camera in her giant curlers, raving about the event, along with a host of other musicians, on and off stage. .
Look for soul singer Irma Thomas; Ben Jaffe, musician and creative director of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (and son of Preservation Hall founders Allan and Sandra Jaffe); rapper Pitbull; rocker Bruce Springsteen; and the late Ellis Marsalis, patriarch of the musical family that brought us Wynton, Delfeayo, Jason and Branford Marsalis. Ellis died in 2020 and performed with his sons at Jazz Fest the previous year.
But just as the festival isn’t just about jazz, the film — which documents the 50th anniversary festival in 2019, before COVID shut it down for two years — isn’t just about music. “Jazz Fest” briefly deviates from a discussion of how music is woven into the fabric of life in New Orleans – Mardi Gras, jazz funerals and “second line” marching band parades, derivatives of West African dances – to talk about “the best food in the world”, as one interview subject puts it. (You won’t disagree and probably shouldn’t watch this part of the film, featuring crab cakes, okra, and other Louisiana dishes, on an empty stomach.)
The film’s lead voice and spirit guide is Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis, who has been involved in the production of the festival since its founding in 1970 by George Wein (who also appears in interviews conducted before his death, at 95 years old, last year). Davis is now 74, and he helps express the ineffable meaning that Jazz Fest is, for the people of New Orleans – and perhaps for the many others who have flocked to the city from elsewhere – much more than a gigantic concert. It also seems like a tangible manifestation of the city’s resilient spirit: telling the world that New Orleans was still alive, as one interviewee put it, through Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and even through a pandemic. .
There’s gray hair on some of the people in this fascinating film: Jimmy Buffett, Tom Jones (yes, that Tom Jones – he played the 2019 show) and others. But the energy released by the film is vital and full of sap.
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