In early 2010, my high school choir packed up for four days over Spring Break and drove the distance from Chicago to New Orleans, through Memphis, for a four day trip exploring some of the south’s most incredible music history. It was a trip I couldn’t fully appreciate at the time. I was young, and the history of Gospel, Jazz, and the Blues was beyond my comprehension.
I still have strong memories of the place tho; a city split down the middle culturally by its twin occupation by French Catholic culture and English Protestant culture, a city deeply infused with African American history, populated with Black peoples from all across the Caribbean, a city with deep food traditions, deep culture, and deeply impacted by the realities of Hurricane Katrina. I sat in a performance in the aging wooden halls of Preservation Hall, saw the beautiful swamps surrounding the city, and walked (past) Bourbon Street in the chaos of broad daylight, politely ignoring the drunken whoring as a 15-year-old ought to.
These were all realities well depicted in the new documentary Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story, a recent film making the rounds that opened briefly in Nashville.
The film specifically hones in on one area of New Orleans history, the annual Jazz Festival, as a kind of apotheosis of the city’s culture, capturing its complex multicultural roots as a city with so much history behind it. The festival brings together hundreds of the country’s most famous artists for weeks long parties, where local fried food and pastries are pumped into the bloodstreams of energetic audiences under the boiling coastal sun.
The movie is timely, as 2020 and 2021 were the first years in five decades that the festival ever had to be canceled, due to COVID-19. The festival hadn’t even been canceled in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which functionally devastated the city for over a decade. The festival finally returned in Spring 2022, an epilogue to honor the festival’s importance to New Orleans and its perseverance.
The festival has been ongoing since the 1960s, and because so much of its history is tied into the history of music, the movie ends up becoming a kind of history of 20th century New Orleans; covering everything from segregation, to the formation of the Preservation Jazz Hall, to the history of local cuisine, to the history of Jazz funerals, to so much more! The festival is the city’s best food forward to the world, and reflects the city’s desire to honor the past while integrating new cultures into its rich culture.
And it is certainly a melting pot! Stars consider it an honor to perform there, adapting their routines to fit the spirit of the occasion. We’re shown concert footage in the film of performances of major pop stars like Pitbull, Katy Perry, and Bruce Springsteen recollecting how their performances reflected the culture of the city, and what an honor it was playing there. Even Native American and traditional African tribal music finds a regular place at the festival, celebrating the ways these two cultures fit into the New Orleans story.
(It was somewhat odd tho watching footage of Katy Perry break into a rendition of the gospel song Oh Happy Day, with backup singing from the Nashville Gospel Choir, that slowly mutates into her song Firework, those two songs feel like thematic and cultural opposites)
Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story is a great primer to a large swath of American history, and covers much of the most important history for African American, Hispanic and Native cultures and their roles in the American story. It’s a great concert documentary but also a great pastiche of cultural beauty and the kinds of diversity that make life more vibrant and joyful!