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BB King. Photograph by Michael P. Smith ©The Historic New Orleans Collection

Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story Unpacks 50 Years Of Perseverance and Community

Documentary puts viewers in the front row of the iconic festival that has always embraced the evolving sounds of resilience.

Directed by Frank Marshall and Ryan Suffern

by Bryen Dunn

New Orleans is a city steeped in music, priding itself on being the birthplace of jazz; in particular Dixieland or traditional jazz. It’s also a city built around culture, food, love, and resilience. Nowhere are all these forces more imminent than at the city’s annual multi-day Jazz Fest celebrations. 

In the documentary Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story, filmmakers Frank Marshall and Ryan Suffern look back at 50 years of festival highlights, including the first post Hurricane Katrina event that took place in April 2006, just months after the city was devastated by one of the biggest storms in history. Bruce Springsteen was the headliner, and the festival grounds were at capacity; a glorious moment for a city bouncing back from adversity.

The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival was gearing up to celebrate 50 years of operations in spring 2019, when the world shut down and the festival was cancelled for the first time ever. It was then cancelled the following two years, before coming back full strength this year. Again, selling out and defying adversity.

George Wein is considered the founder of the festival, and offers his insight and reflections over the years. Unfortunately Wein passed away September 2021, unable to witness yet another triumphant return of his beloved festival. He had a vision where musicians could play together, no matter their colour or creed. This was throughout a time when segregation was very prevalent, especially in the southern parts of the United States, and he was married to a woman of African American descent. He famously stated that “It had to be a true reflection of Louisiana.”

Similar to that inaugural celebration, the fairgrounds on which the event takes place today are still built from scratch, with each pavilion constructed specifically for the festival, then dismantled at the end. It’s been noted that with crowd estimates at upwards of 100,000 attendees, the festival becomes the sixth biggest city in the state. Taking place over the course of eight days. With multiple stages and thousands of musicians involved, this is more than a concert – it’s a cultural experience.

The archival footage of past legends like B.B. King and Big Mama Thornton are interspersed with current clips from the likes of Tank and the Bangas, Katy Perry, and Pitbull, showcasing the inclusive nature of the festival as it evolved and spawned out to include more than just traditional jazz music. However, legends still regularly appear, from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Earth, Wind, and Fire, to Jimmy Buffet and Irma Thomas, the latter of whom has not missed one festival since it began in 1970.

Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story is an incredible documentary that captures the sights, sounds, and historical significance of the role music has played in the city, and how its original Jazz Fest brings people together no matter what life may toss their way. After having made its world premiere at SXSW earlier this year, the documentary is now playing in select theatres, including the VIFF Centre in Vancouver, BC from June 17 to 27 — TICKETS

For those wanting to experience Jazz Fest for themselves, the next one is scheduled for April 28 to May 7, 2023.