In the documentary “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story,” there’s a clip of pop star Katy Perry on the main stage in thigh-high silver boots wearing a cleavage-revealing bodysuit with a cutout middle singing the gospel hymn “Oh, Happy Day.” She is accompanied by the Gospel Soul Children in full church robes.
What may seem to be an odd pairing to many, was just another day at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
“No one was aghast at the idea of showing up to a show in curlers and lingerie. They embraced it immediately,” the singer Boyfriend, who performs in underwear with backup dancers, says in the film.
“Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story” captures the dichotomy of Jazz Fest, highlighting the legendary musical acts that have graced the main stage while also giving homage to the rich cultural history of New Orleans.
In the documentary, performers describe Jazz Fest as “magical” and “a place where legends come.” The film features clips of the legends who have performed over the years including Herbie Hancock, BB King, Tom Jones and Mavis Staples, who is scheduled to perform at this year’s festival.
The group Earth, Wind and Fire celebrated its 50 years in the industry at the 50th Jazz Fest in 2019. Then there’s the video of Al Green in 1984 singing his classic hit, “Let’s Stay Together,” and again at the 50th Jazz Fest, where he’s a little older, a little fuller, yet still just as soulful. And yes, that’s famed journalist Ed Bradley singing Zydeco with Jazz Fest favorite Jimmy Buffet.
“There’s nothing like playing the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, nothing in the world,” says musician Davell Crawford.
Longtime Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis describes the festival as “the most kick-ass party in the world. It’s 7,000 musicians on 14 stages over eight days.”
The documentary shows a short clip of a young Davis dancing — moving and grooving in the street to a second line band, enjoying one of the culture standards of New Orleans that has made the city so unique.
But Jazz Fest was the party that almost wasn’t.
In 1962, George Wein, the founder and creator of the Newport Jazz Festival was petitioned by someone from the Hotel Corporation of America to start a jazz festival in New Orleans. But Wein declined the offer because of the Jim Crow laws being enforced during that time.
Wein knew that if the festival were to happen, Black and white artists would not be able to play on the stage together. Almost a decade later, after laws against segregation had been passed, Wein revisited the idea of a jazz festival in New Orleans.
Wein was brought to New Orleans and acknowledged that the city, as the birthplace of jazz, had a claim unlike any other in the country. He wanted the festival to reflect that as well as the culture that is unique to the city.
Wein found Davis, a New Orleans music enthusiast to help him curate the festival and tapped New Orleans musician Ellis Marsalis Jr. to enlist local talent to perform at the festival.
Admission to the first Jazz Fest, in 1970, was $2 for adults and $1 for kids. It featured New Orleans native Mahalia Jackson and jazz great Duke Ellington. There was Cajun music, jazz, funk and gospel.
“When Jazz Fest started it’s like we were presenting this culture to the world,” Davis says in the documentary.
He says critics thought the event would fail because of the cultural integration — Latin people, Black people and Cajun people — the different cultures together all in the same place. But the critics were silenced when they saw the success.
“When it was all put together in one place, it was stunning to the local people and they felt a tremendous pride,” Davis says.
The documentary demonstrates what sets Jazz Fest apart from all other musical festivals and that’s New Orleans culture. There’s the history of Mardi Gras Indians celebrating the Native Americans who shielded Black enslaved people escaping through the Underground Railroad, second lines and jazz funerals.
“There is no such thing as separation of culture in New Orleans, it’s all blended together,” says Irma Thomas, known as the Soul Queen of New Orleans, who first performed at Jazz Fest in 1974, and who has “not missed one since that time.”
In addition to Thomas, the documentary features New Orleans musicians Tarriona “Tank” Ball of the group Tank and the Bangas, Trombone Shorty and bounce sensation Big Freedia all of whom will be performing at this year’s Jazz Fest.
Big Freedia points out that it’s the variety of cultures, “all the different people that make the flavor of New Orleans.”
“New Orleans is so special because we accept all walks of life, no matter if you’re Black, white, gay, straight,” Big Freedia says. “There’s a freedom of expression and a freedom to do whatever they choose to do and love whoever they choose to love and to be themselves.”
The documentary points to this freedom — whether it’s Rockin’ Dopsie playing Zydeco or the Savoy family playing Cajun music in the Louisiana swamps.
“New Orleans is nothing without its people and without its artists,” says Tank of Tank and the Bangas.
“Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story” does a good job of highlighting the musical families that come from New Orleans including the Jaffe family, husband and wife Sandra and Allen Jaffe, who started Preservation Hall, a place to hear traditional jazz music. Today, their son, Ben Jaffe, plays in the Preservation Hall band, which is scheduled to perform at this year’s Jazz Festival.
Then there’s the Marsalis family.
“I have six sons, four of them are musicians — Wynton, Branford, Jason and Delfeayo,” Ellis Marsalis Jr. says in the documentary.
Each son had his own memory of Jazz Fest. Wynton remembers playing at the festival as a teenager. Jason talks of meeting Miles Davis. Branford relishes being on stage with his father, a talented musician and his mentor.
The 50th Jazz Fest would be the last time the Marsalis family — all five Marsalis musicians — played on stage together. Ellis Marsalis Jr. died in 2020 of complications from COVID. He was 85.
But it’s this sense of family that is weaved throughout the Jazz Fest documentary. From the cultural villages, the craft stations and the food, man, the food, what comes across in the film is that Jazz Fest is one big family.
After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, organizers were determined to put on Jazz Fest. Some of the first artists to sign up to support New Orleans included Irma Thomas, Jimmy Buffet and Paul Simon.
And when they opened the gates, there was a long line. Thousands showed up to JazzFest after Katrina, Davis recalls.
At the end of his set, Bruce Springsteen sang “My City of Ruins,” dedicating it to the people of New Orleans. When he got to the chorus, singing the emotional plea: “Come on rise up! Come on rise up!,” he says he felt a transformation happen in the crowd. People were waving their hands and swaying.
“It was one of the most beautiful concert experiences I’ve ever had,” Springsteen says of his set at Jazz Fest.
New Orleans would come back after Hurricane Katrina. The film shows a tearful Trombone Shorty looking on as New Orleans native Aaron Neville sings “Amazing Grace” at the 50th Jazz Fest. There are clips of a revived city, born again after a storm.
And today, three years after a pandemic devastated a nation and shut down public events, Jazz Fest will bring people together again for the 52nd time to enjoy music, food, and the culture of New Orleans.
Wein, who died in 2021 at the age of 95, sums it up best: “It’s just a great festival experience that can’t be matched.”
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