When Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005, contrary voices emerged. Perhaps, some thought, this much-celebrated but increasingly vulnerable coastal city shouldn't exist at all.
Why rebuild when another Category 5 storm was sure to strike again, creating fatalities in the thousands and property damages in the billions?
The documentary Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story uses food, music and cultural pride to answer that question. A noble presumption underlies this somewhat scattered and perhaps over-reaching film: The world needs a place where musical approaches mix, mingle, and inform one another.
That place must also be located in the spot that gave birth to the uniquely American art form of jazz.
Frank Marshall and Ryan Suffern combine to direct a history of Jazz Fest, a musical gathering which began in 1971 when George Wein, founder of the Newport Jazz Festival, was asked to create a festival in New Orleans.
Musician Ellis Marsalis added his considerable wisdom to the effort, along with Quint Davis, a young man who Wein involved because of his enthusiasm for the music. Davis still serves as Jazz Fest’s producer.
Ellis Marsalis, by the way, is the father of Winton and Bradford Marsalis, musicians who appear in the film along with two other Marsalis musical brothers.
Any understanding of Jazz Fest begins with the idea that jazz is the father of many children. The festival includes everything from rock to R&B to hip-hop to traditional jazz, bounding from the infections rhythms of Pitbull to the country sway of Jimmy Buffett and onto a Bruce Springsteen appearance. Springsteen sang My City of Ruins at Jazz Fest after Katrina. The song works well even though it originally was written about Asbury Park, New Jersey.
Not surprisingly, music becomes the film's best feature. The directors include snippets of performances from throughout Fest's history, highlighting numbers by Katy Perry, Al Green, Pitbull, the Revivalists, Irma Thomas, Aaron Neville, Buffett, and many more.
These days, some 7,000 musicians perform on 14 stages throughout Jazz Fest's eight-day run.
If Jazz Fest has critics, you won't hear them in a film that's wholeheartedly committed to the idea that the festival and its host city are nothing less than essential.
Covid shut the festival down for two years but it resumed in 2021. It’s not difficult to imagine that if all of New Orleans were destroyed by the next violent storm, Jazz Fest would continue to rock the ruins.