May 15, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Michael Murphy
Culture Representation: The documentary “Up From the Streets: New Orleans: The City of Music” interviews a racially diverse (African Americans and white people) group of people, including musicians, concert promoters, journalists and music historians.
Culture Clash: The impact of slavery and other forms of racism have shaped the music of New Orleans.
Culture Audience: “Up From the Streets: New Orleans: The City of Music” will appeal mostly to people with diverse musical tastes, as well as people who want to learn more about the cultural history of New Orleans.
Making a documentary about the entire history of music in New Orleans is a very ambitious project, especially if it’s edited into a feature-length film instead of being spread out into an episodic series. But writer/director/producer Michael Murphy has crafted a definitive chronicle of New Orleans music in a film with an impressive range that’s as entertaining as it is educational. Grammy-winning musician Terence Blanchard (one of the documentary’s executive producers) narrates this 104-minute film, which features a “who’s who” of people who are part of New Orleans music history or are connected to it in some way.
In addition to Blanchard, musicians interviewed in the documentary include Big Freedia, Germaine Bazzle, Jon Cleary, Harry Connick Jr., DJ Raj Smoove, Mannie Fresh, Steve Gadd, Leroy Jones, Dave Malone (of the Radiators), Branford Marsalis, Delfeayo Marsalis, Jason Marsalis, Wynton Marsalis, PJ Morton, Aaron Neville, Art Neville, Charmaine Neville, Ivan Neville, Robert Plant, Bonnie Raitt, Keith Richards, Herlin Riley, Alfred “Uganda” Roberts, Reggie Scanlon (of the Radiators), Sting, Bill Summers, Irma Thomas, Reggie Toussaint, Don Vappie, Walter Washington and Dr. Michael White.
Other talking heads in the documentary include Quint Davis, CEO of Festival Productions Inc. New Orleans; Preservation Hall creative director Ben Jaffe; Hogan Jazz Archive curator emeritus Bruce Raeburn; Black Top Records co-founder Hammond Scott; audio engineer Roberta Grace; Center for the Study of the American South associate director William Ferris; and journalists Arthel Neville (daughter of Art Neville) and Alan Light.
Interspersed through the documentary are live performances that are exclusive to the film, from artists such as Blanchard performing with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band; Dr. Michael White and the Original Liberty Jazz Band; a duet with Aaron and Ivan Neville; influential R&B diva Thomas; the Neville Brothers; the Radiators; and Dumpstaphunk.
The film took several years to make, since some of the interviews took place in 2004, according the film’s production notes. And some of the footage filmed for the documentary is of people who have since passed away, such as Art Neville and Dr. John, who both died in 2019.
The movie takes a mostly chronological look at the history of New Orleans music, starting with how the brutality of slavery led to African American slaves developing their own form of music that became the foundation of jazz and the blues, which later influenced the creation of rock and roll, soul/R&B, funk and hip-hop. At times, during the documentary, narrator Blanchard gives a tour to some of the historical sites of New Orleans music, such as the Dew Drop Inn, J&M Recording Studio and the Black Pearl neighborhood that’s known for giving rise to Mahalia Jackson. The Tremé neighborhood (also known as the Cradle of Jazz) is mentioned frequently in the film, since New Orleans is the city that gets the most credit for being the birthplace of jazz.
Several influential New Orleans musicians are given praise and credit for making New Orleans an outstanding music city. Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, Louis Prima, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Pete Fountain, Al Hirt, Earl Palmer, singer Thomas, Allen Toussaint, Professor Longhair, Dr. John, James Booker, the Neville Brothers, the Marsalis family and Earl King all get special mentions in the film.
In the beginning of the film, Blanchard visits St. Augustine Church, established in 1841 as the oldest African American Catholic parish in the United States. He points out how the outer pews were purchased/reserved for slaves by free people of color so that the slaves would not be shunned at the church services. “Growing up in the church, I have always believed you could never separate spirituality from creativity,” Blanchard says.
Sting (whose first band as a solo artist included Branford Marsalis and other musicians with a jazz background) comments: “New Orleans seems to have a complexity about it that other American cities lack, maybe because of the history built on the tragedy of human trafficking. Let’s be honest about that. But what was created out of that—jazz, the blues—is something that the whole human race should be grateful for. It’s not to be an apologist for that tragedy, but at the same time, it’s amazing how resilient the human spirit is.”
Wynton Marsalis notes that when the slave owners allowed Africans to play drums in Congo Square during the years when slavery was legal, this artistic freedom had an enormous impact on the music culture in New Orleans: “The fact that a slave could be free on a Sunday afternoon for five hours [to play music] made [New Orleans] different from the United States of America. That expression of freedom still echoes.”
Preservation Hall director Jaffe, whose parents founded the world-famous venue, says that New Orleans multiculturalism of Europe (especially France and Spain), Africa and the Caribbean (especially Cuba) is reflected in the melting pot of musical styles that have thrived in New Orleans. The documentary includes a segment on how the drumming styles in New Orleans also affected the rhythms that distinguished New Orleans jazz (or Dixieland jazz) from jazz in other areas of the United States.
Jazz is the most famous type of music to come out of New Orleans, so it’s the music genre that gets most of the screen time in the first half of the documentary. The concept of an instrumental solo in jazz is largely credited to influential jazz musicians such as Armstrong and Morton. Connick says: “New Orleans jazz music will never die, because the feeling we get as performers who play it is the greatest drug in the world.”
The documentary also mentions New Orleans was one of the first big cities in the U.S. that established an opera house, due in large part to composer/pianist Gottschalk, one of the first American musicians to become a star in Europe in the mid-1800s. And the influence of Cuban music in New Orleans also gets its own segment in the documentary.
“Up From the Streets” also addresses how sexism affected female artists who were part of the early New Orleans music scene. Traditionally, women performers were usually allowed to only be singers or piano players. But slowly, the barriers started to open up during the Jazz Age, when bands started to accept women in other roles besides as a vocalist or pianist.
Singer/bass player Bazzle comments on the gender barrier faced by female musicians in New Orleans: “There was a line until we started doing it [crossing the line].” She adds there’s nothing about musical instruments that say only one gender can play those instruments, but there used to be a mentality that women couldn’t play certain instruments—a sexist belief that wasn’t unique to New Orleans but it affected the opportunities that women had in the New Orleans music scene’s earliest decades.
Branford Marsalis remembers how tough his parents, especially his late mother Dolores, used to be when it came to demanding excellence from her musical children. However, he says, “I appreciated having stern parents.” And he says that his parents would constantly remind the Marsalis children about how fortunate they were to benefit from the civil-rights movement and to not take it for granted.
The movie also notes that although New York City is the birthplace of rap/hip-hop, there’s a New Orleans hip-hop scene that really began to thrive in the 1990s with Master P, Birdman, Mystikal and Juvenile, and has continued in the 21st century with Lil Wayne, Big Freedia and the “bounce” craze. However, in its coverage of New Orleans music artists who are influential in the 21st century, the documentary makes one glaring omission, by failing to mention Frank Ocean.
As for people outside the U.S. who are influenced by New Orleans music, British musicians are among the most enthusiastic. Plant says that he and his former Led Zeppelin bandmates Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones were “obsessed with the music of New Orleans, so we always made it our business to ensure that when we were on tour, we came to New Orleans. It’s just about the quality of music that I could relate to and just how it really had such a profound effect.” In the documentary, Plant also cites Allen Toussaint as one of his favorite musicians, which is why Plant and Alison Krauss’ 2007 Grammy-winning duet album “Raising Sand” included a cover version of Toussaint’s “Fortune Teller.”
Rolling Stones guitarist Richards praises Earl Palmer (who worked with dozens of artists, including Little Richard and Sam Cooke) as a “real rock and roll drummer. A lot of drummers since then have been able to rock, but very few that have been able to put the roll in.” Richards also says of Ivan Neville (son of Aaron Neville), who’s worked with Richards on several of Richards’ solo projects: “I feel like his older brother or an uncle. I’ve seen him go through a lot of difficulties and pain and seen him come out of it.”
Aaron Neville says of the origins of the Neville Brothers as a musical act: “One thing our parents always wanted was to see all of us together. In New York, we got to go in the studio with the Meters. We didn’t rehearse anything. We already knew what their part was, and it just came out naturally. And we decided to do the Neville Brothers from then on.”
And, of course, one of New Orleans’ hallmarks is that it’s very common for big bands to perform in the middle of streets and have Second Line parades. Morton and Jaffe remembers that one of the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was how the city of New Orleans was like a ghost town deprived of street music for a long period of time before the recovery from the hurricane.
Davis, whose Festival Productions produces the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (also known as Jazz Fest), talks about how JazzFest in 2006—the first Jazz fest after Hurricane Katrina—was an example of how music helped bring New Orleans heal from hurricane disaster. The Ellis Marsalis Center for Music (which opened in 2011) was also founded as a result of helping New Orleans rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.
However, some of the people interviewed, including Wynton Marsalis and Mannie Fresh, note that although music can bring people together in New Orleans, after a concert or performance ends, people often go back to living racially segregated lives in the city. Despite the city’s problems, New Orleans has a unique culture that’s been able to thrive largely because of the music. And as Blanchard says in the film, much of New Orleans’ strength comes from “the power of music, the power that it has to change hearts and minds … The most important thing is that it’s not over. This is not the end of the story.”
Eagle Rock Entertainment released “Up From the Street: New Orleans: The City of Jazz” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on May 15, 2020. A portion of the proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation’s Jazz & Heritage Music Relief Fund, a statewide relief initiative supporting Louisiana musicians who have lost income amid the COVID-19 pandemic.