Friday, May 13, 2022

Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story

It is almost unfair. A lot of musicians who never play jazz (maybe because it is a demanding art form that never pays as well as pop), are keen to perform at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, because it is a great time, with delicious food. Of course, NOLA is always welcoming, so consequently many of the biggest names in a wide array of musical styles have performed at the festival. Many of those appreciative artists pay tribute to the annual institution in Frank Marshall & Ryan Suffern’s documentary Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story, which opens today in New York and Los Angeles.

Marshall & Suffern do not exactly present a history of the festival, because they only cover a handful of significant events from Jazz Fest’s past, logically starting with its creation. George Wein, the founder of the Newport Jazz Festival, was approached to start something similar in New Orleans, but he begged off until segregation officially ended in southern states. Logically, Louis Armstrong played the inaugural fest, but we see little footage of him at the Fest. Frustratingly, there is even less of the rest of NOLA’s Holy Trinity of musicians: Fats Domino and Al Hirt.

At least one undisputed New Orleans legend gets her just due from Marshall & Suffern. That would be Irma Thomas, who we hear rocking “Jock-o-mo.” (The credits misidentify it as “Iko Iko,” which is a sore point for the composer’s son, Davell Crawford, whom the audience also gets to hear from musically and more extensively in interview segments regarding Katrina.)

It is quite impressive that Katrina did not derail Jazz Fest. In fact, it provides some of the documentary’s most uplifting moments. Yet, perhaps tellingly, Covid did—for two years. Throughout it all, Festival Director Quint Davis was there, so he provides plenty of commentary and reminiscences.

Marshall & Suffern keep the film moving along and well-stocked with famous names. Most viewers probably aren’t looking to a Jazz Fest doc to hear Pitbull or Jimmy Buffet, even though the latter’s long association with the festival and the city of New Orleans justifies his inclusion. Frankly, Marshall & Suffern’s a-little-of-this-a-little-of-that cafeteria approach works best when presenting fresh artists exploring under-represented genres, like the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band and Dwayne Dopsie & the Zydeco Hellraisers, who do just that, in an infectiously musical way.

Yet, for each case of an ultra-commercial Katy Perry (whose wardrobe choices conspicuously clash with those of the Gospel Soul Children), real NOLA music fans will wish there was more time allotted the likes of Allen Toussaint and the entirely absent Dr. John. To be fair though, Glen David Andrews tears up “I Can Do Bad Myself” and Trombone Shorty raises the roof with “The Saints.” We also get to hear a little bit of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, but the teasing snippets will leave most viewers wanting more.

Frankly, “more please” will be a common response/complaint for a lot of audience members. Jazz Fest is a great New Orleans institution, but recent docs like
City of a Million Dreams, Take Me to the River New Orleans, and Resurrection! Airto Moreira & the Preservation Hall Jazz Band more thoroughly explain the particulars of NOLA musical culture, second-lining, and Preservation Hall. Still, Marshall & Suffern sufficiently appreciate the Fest’s history to dedicate their film to the late Wein and Ellis Marsalis, which was a classy touch. Recommended as a starting point for those new to the NOLA musical scene, Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story opens today (5/13) in theaters—but then try to follow-up with one of the aforementioned NOLA docs.