Jazz Fest

Review by Willard Manus

The documentary film JAZZ FEST tells the vibrant and life-affirming story of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary. Directed by Frank Marshall, the film is packed with musical turns by such major artists as Ellis Marsalis, Mahalia Jackson, Earth Wind & Fire, Irma Thomas and B B King, Katy Perry, Marc Savoy (among many, many others).

The Festival, which premiered in 1971, has always proudly promoted the culture of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana as well. That includes not just the music but the food and folk arts, all of which are on display in the film, with people wolfing down po’-boy sandwiches, grits and fried oysters as they amble from stall to stall, checking out the paintings and pottery, with the glorious music sounding in the background.

The Festival takes place over an 8-day period, with over a hundred thousand in attendance on the grounds of a New Orleans park. JAZZ FEST captures the unique spirit of the Festival, which was conceived by George Wein, who modeled it on the Newport Jazz Festival. Wein insisted that the local Festival be integrated. Thus blacks and whites mingled, not just on stage, but in the audience as well. It was a first for a southern-based festival.
JAZZ FEST also gives ample screen time to the history of New Orleans itself, with period footage and photographs depicting ante-bellum and slavery days, Congo Square, Storyville, the Mississippi side-wheelers and Mardi Gras parades. Along with the old-time stuff, there are numerous glimpses of modern-day New Orleans, a busy tourist and shipping mecca.

A large part of JAZZ FEST is devoted to the impact of Katrina, the 2005 hurricane, on the city. Despite the widespread devastation and despair, the sponsors opted to back the Festival once more. “It’s all we have to keep the city from falling apart,” one of them said. It was a huge gamble, of course; chances are, few people would show up.

Much to everyone’s surprise, the 2005 Festival was a sell-out. “People came because they wanted to show that New Orleans was still alive,” Wein said. “The Festival brought them together in a way that nothing else could. We’re going to be all right, no matter what, was the feeling they took away from the festivities”

One of the headliners at the 2005 Festival was Bruce Springsteen, whose rendition of “City in Ruins,” brought tears to the eyes of the audience, but also gave them hope and courage.

JAZZ FEST contains many touching moments like that, but it’s mostly the superb jazz, blues and Cajun music that drives the film from beginning to end.