Change is an omnipresent aspect of our lives. We grow together. We grow apart; we’re born, die, and born again. Our experiences define who we are; this is our collective humanity. With global events of the past three years shaping our perspective, change has never been more critical than it is right now. The Jazz Fest in New Orleans has collectively felt the same movement and left the same impression on the artists and attendees for fifty-one years. Frank Marshall and Ryan Suffern’s Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story embodies the spirit of the music and culture, its impact on the city it calls home, and the change it imparts.
Over the years, I’ve listened to Miles Davis, appreciated Tom Jones, whistled to Louis Armstrong, and bopped my head to Jimmy Buffett, all of whom are referenced throughout this beautiful documentary.
But I didn’t fully realize or appreciate how strong I would react to its impact.
Shot during its fiftieth anniversary in 2019, Marshall, of Indiana Jones fame, and Suffern create a painterly picture of the fest held on the Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans, founded by George Wein. The latter was interviewed for this documentary and sadly died at age 95 in 2021.
Wein wanted an event that would celebrate jazz and embody the form. The fruits of his labor have flourished through civil strife, natural disasters, and the pandemic, which coincidentally postponed and then canceled the fest for the first time in its history in 2020 and 2021, respectively. Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story is a remarkable testament to the music and the culture, people, and a celebration of togetherness as each genre within jazz music is explored.
Most striking was the candidness with which each interviewee reflected on each significant historical point and their performances. Pittbull, who I was aware of from his station on Sirius XM, left the boldest impression by exploring the global effect that cultures from elsewhere on Earth have on the form. Jimmy Buffett makes slight tweaks to old favorites to a bemused and appreciative crowd. Earth, Wind & Fire, who I grew up with, can still belt out their tunes; “Do You Remember” sounded incredibly brilliant.
Of course, I learned something from Jazz Fest. I didn’t realize, without doing research, that Wynton Marsalis has three other brothers (of the six) who are musicians in their own right, but that their father was a pianist and a music teacher. To hear the family play together on stage, even in a documentary form, was impressive, reflecting on Jazz Fest’s power to draw the viewer into the experience.
Jazz Fest does not simply reflect on the past or gloat on its present; it rightly reflects on the changes in the jazz movement as it looks to future artists to interpret the form, giving way to R&B and hip-hop.
The most touching aspect of the documentary is its power not only to connect but also to heal. Gospel music is a powerful agent of the culture that is not just a staple of New Orleans but of Louisiana itself.
Most impressively and touching, though, are the moments that reflect on Hurricane Katrina’s devastating impact on the region in 2005. Jazz Fest’s healing effect on the crowd that showed up despite the submerged and destroyed city beyond is powerful. Bruce Springsteen, who had never performed at the fest, laid on a brand-new tune dedicated to the town and its people; their resilience, dedication, and time-honored tradition.
Both moments remind us of the healing power that music has on our souls, to bring us together.
Much like Questlove’s Oscar-winning Summer of Soul, Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story is not simply a documentary about a festival around for fifty-plus years; it is a celebration of the fabric of a city. It is a music movement that has only grown in power and connects humanity in ways that it needs.
Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story
Directed by: Frank Marshall and Ryan Suffern
Featuring: Bruce Springsteen, Jimmy Buffett, Katy Perry. Earth, Wind & Fire, and many others
PG-13, 94 minutes, Sony Pictures Classics/KM Docs