Review: ‘Music Pictures: New Orleans,’ starring Irma Thomas, Benny Jones Sr., Little Freddie King and Ellis Marsalis Jr.

June 28, 2022

by Carla Hay

Little Freddie King in “Music Pictures: New Orleans”

“Music Pictures: New Orleans”

Directed by Ben Chace

Culture Representation: The documentary “Music Pictures: New Orleans” (which was filmed in 2020 and 2021) features a racially diverse (African Americans and white people) group of music artists and people in the New Orleans music scene talking about Irma Thomas, Benny Jones Sr., Little Freddie King and Ellis Marsalis Jr., who all participated in the documentary.

Culture Clash: Thomas, Jones, King and Marsalis were all in their 70s and 80s when this documentary was filmed, and they talk about the challenges they’ve faced in their personal and professional lives.

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to fans of these artists, “Music Pictures: New Orleans” will appeal mostly to people who are fans of New Orleans music and documentaries that celebrate music artists who were influential to countless numbers of people.

“Music Pictures: New Orleans” is not a definitive or impactful documentary about the New Orleans music scene. However, it’s a pleasantly entertaining, early 2020s snapshot of four influential artists in blues and jazz. These four artists are Irma Thomas, Benny Jones Sr., Little Freddie King and Ellis Marsalis Jr., who all participated in the documentary, which was filmed from January 2020 to April 2021. Marsalis died from COVID-19-related pneumonia on April 1, 2020. He was 85.

Directed by Ben Chace, “Music Picture: New Orleans” (which clocks in at a brisk 72 minutes for its total running time) has a straightforward format of giving each artist profile a separate chapter. “Part 1: The Soul Queen” spotlights blues singer Thomas. “Part 2: The Heartbeat of the Band” focuses on jazz musician Jones, the leader and snare drummer of the Treme Brass Band. “Part 3: Last King of the Blues” centers on blues singer/guitarist King. “Part 4: Modern Men” showcases jazz icon Marsalis. All of these artists have been vital to the New Orleans music scene and influential in their own ways to many people around the world.

“Music Pictures: New Orleans” (which had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City) has some archival photos and archival footage of these artists, but the vast majority of the screen time consists of just documenting these four artists’ lives as music performers during the time that the documentary was filmed. Expect to see footage of them in recording studios or on stage, but don’t expect a lot of insight into their personal lives that hasn’t already been covered elsewhere. The movie is an easy watch, but it’s not particularly revealing.

Thomas (born in 1941) is shown recording songs for an album that has not yet been released, as of this writing. This album will be her first album of new recordings since 2008’s “Simply Grand.” Her “Full Time Woman – The Lost Cotillion Album” (released in 2014) was an album that she originally recorded in the early 1970s.

One of the songs she sings in the recording studio is “Don’t Go to Strangers,” which was the title track to Etta James’ 1960 album. Conga player Alfred “Uganda” Roberts and pianist Kyle Roussel are two of the musicians in the recording studio with her. Thomas is confident and relaxed in the studio, but she does say out loud that she’s very aware that this will be the first album she’s making in several years.

Thomas talks a little but about how she got started in the music business. When she was a teenage waitress, she got fired for singing on the job. Her boss was also a racist because he told her that he didn’t like her singing music from black people, and he used the “n” word racial slur. Thomas went from being fired from that waitress job to becoming a professional singer. Her first single, “Don’t Mess With My Man,” released in 1959, was a hit on the R&B charts.

She opens up about a few low points in her career, including being ripped off by a manager, whom she parted ways with in the 1970s. Her next manager was Emile Jackson, who also became her third husband. The couple got married in 1976. She jokes about her partnership with Jackson: “I found it cheaper to keep him. And I don’t want to train another one.”

Jackson is briefly interviewed in the documentary. He remembers the first time he met Thomas: “I didn’t know who she was.” At the time, Thomas had split from her unscrupulous manager and wasn’t actively looking for another manager. However, she says in the documentary that she told Jackson: “You can be my manager. And what you don’t know, we can learn together. And that’s the way it’s been ever since.”

The documentary’s segment on Jones (who was born in 1943) is perhaps the least interesting of the four, mainly because he doesn’t give much insight into himself and his career. Jones’ part of the documentary mainly shows him performing with his band. While playing music in a small nightclub, Jones says generic things, such as: “When I see people dancing, and I see a smile on their face, that makes my work much easier.”

King (born in 1940) has the liveliest personality out of the four artists. He’s quite the raconteur, as he tells stories about his life. He talks about how he was shot by his wife Amy (before they were married) with a .357 Magnum that he kept hidden in his garden. Despite this shooting incident, he married her anyway.

King’s segment also shows him performing at a nightclub and in the recording studio. Songs he performs include “Bad News,” “Mean Little Woman” and “Pocketful of Money.” Some of King’s associates are also interviewed, such as drummer/manager “Wacko” Wade Wright and harmonica player Bobby Lewis. Not surprisingly, they praise King for his talented musicianship and his resilience during tough times.

Although he is originally from Mississippi, King considers New Orleans to be his true home. As far as King is concerned, he thinks the most authentic blues artists are those who’ve experienced real struggles. King comments in the documentary: “The young don’t know what the blues is, because they didn’t live the blues, and they didn’t go through hard tribulations and hard times.”

This comment is a little dismissive of the fact that people of any age can go through hardships. Maybe he meant that young people in America didn’t have to grow up in an era when racial segregation was legal and enforced. It’s why this documentary probably needed an interviewer asking more probing questions. Some of of King’s commentary tends to ramble, so the documentary needed better editing for this segment.

Knowing that he has passed away, viewers will probably be the most moved by the documentary’s segment on Ellis Marsalis Jr., who is shown recording music with his son Jason Marsalis. (Ellis is on piano, while Jason is on xylophone.) Some of these recording sessions ended up on Ellis’ final studio album, “Discipline Meets the Family,” which was released in 2021. Jason’s daughter Marley (who was 15 at the time), who played piano on the album, is also in the documentary during these studio sessions. She is not interviewed and doesn’t say much.

The documentary also has footage of Ellis as a guest performer during a show that Jason headlined at the Snug Harbor nightclub in New Orleans. In a voiceover, Jason says of the footage in the documentary, “What I didn’t know at the time was that was going to be his last session and one of the last times we would play together.” Jason adds that he’s grateful these moments were recorded and that he collaborated with his father for Ellis’ last album.

The Marsalis family is the most famous jazz family from New Orleans. Ellis’ musician children (who are all sons) are Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo, Jason, Ellis III and Mboya Kenyatta. In the documentary, Ellis Jr. makes this admission, which might surprise some people: “I never wanted a family band.” It’s one of the reasons why Ellis Jr. would perform with most of his sons on special occasions, such as Jazz Fest, but not do albums and tours with the entire family.

If Ellis Jr. did collaborate with any of his sons in the recording studio, it was with one or a few of the sons at a time. Ellis Jr. comments on Wynton, the most famous Marsalis family member: “For me, to be in Wynton’s band is to date it, because what I learned is much earlier, and Wynton is still in a state of evolution.” Ellis Jr. offers this observation of Jason: “From [his] very, very young years, there were very few things that he heard that he didn’t have an appreciation for.”

Watching three generations of the Marsalis family in the recording studio is an undoubtable highlight of “Music Pictures: New Orleans.” And the movie certainly does touch on some of the struggles that these musicians faced in their lives. What’s missing from this very male-dominated documentary is any acknowledgement or exploration of how sexism affected who got the most and the best opportunities in the music industry when these artists were in their heyday. The fact that Thomas is the only woman interviewed in the documentary is a clear example of how women are often overlooked and sidelined as important parts of the music industry.

As for how the New Orleans music scene has changed over the years, the documentary includes some commentary about it, but none of it is particuarly new or revealing. The artists who comment on changes in New Orleans mainly mention Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the New Orleans area in 2005. Thomas says Hurricane Katrina “changed everybody.”

Jones also comments on the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the New Orleans real estate market: “After Katrina, people with money were buying property” and charging rent that was “sky-high.” And so, many of the people who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina who “want to come back can’t afford it, probably.”

According to Jones, the Treme neighborhood in New Orleans is still recovering from an exodus of artistic people who relocated because of Hurricane Katrina. He comments, “The music is back, but delivered in a different way, in a different neighborhood.”

“Music Pictures: New Orleans” keeps the focus solidly on these artists, but the documentary could have used some perspectives from other people besides a few of the artists’ family members or employee associates. “Music Pictures: New Orleans” will delight fans of these artists, but casual music fans might not think this movie is essential viewing. As far as documentaries about New Orleans music artists go, “Music Picture: New Orleans” is like a select buffet that’s satisfactory, but it’s not a full-course feast that people will be raving about for days.

Review: ‘Take Me to the River: New Orleans,’ starring the Neville Brothers, Irma Thomas, Big Freedia, Dr. John, the Rebirth Brass Band, Snoop Dogg and Ledisi

May 22, 2022

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Take Me to the River: New Orleans” with entertainers that include Aaron Neville, Cyril Neville and Charles Neville (far right); members of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band; and director Martin Shore (second from left). (Photo courtesy of 360 Distribution)

“Take Me to the River: New Orleans”

Directed by Martin Shore

Culture Representation: The documentary “Take Me to the River: New Orleans” features a racially diverse (African Americans and white people) group of music artists and some producers talking about New Orleans music as they record the movie’s soundtrack songs.

Culture Clash: New Orleans has been a melting pot of different types of music, with certain genres (such as jazz and blues) originating directly from African American experiences of being enslaved and oppressed.

Culture Audience: “Take Me to the River: New Orleans” will appeal mostly to people who are interested in seeing New Orleans music and culture celebrated by music artists of many different generations.

Irma Thomas in “Take Me to the River: New Orleans” (Photo courtesy of 360 Distribution)

“Take Me to the River: New Orleans” is partly a promotional vehicle showing the recording of the songs on the movie’s soundtrack and partly a history of New Orleans music culture. The documentary has got some editing issues, but the diverse performances in the studio are joyous to watch. Fans of jazz, blues, R&B, rap/hip-hop, Cajun and brass band music will find something to like in “Take Me to the River: New Orleans,” which has representation of all of these music genres.

Directed by Martin Shore and narrated by actor John Goodman, “Take Me to the River: New Orleans” is a sequel to Shore’s 2014 documentary “Take Me to the River,” which focused on the musical history and legacy of Memphis. “Take Me to the River: New Orleans” is not a fully comprehensive history of New Orleans music, because most of the history discussed is about the New Orleans music scene in the 20th century and the early 21st century. And the history is only covered in the context of which songs are on the soundtrack album to “Take Me to the River: New Orleans.” For example, before the recording of a Cajun song is performed, the movie does a brief history of Cajun music in New Orleans.

Filming of the documentary mostly took place at two New Orleans recording studios: Music Shed Studios and The Parlor Recording Studio. On the one hand, it gives viewers a very up-close and intimate view of the artists and their creative process when recording music in a studio. On the other hand, it makes the documentary look somewhat insular by putting so much focus on the recording studio sessions.

New Orleans has a vibrant live music scene that is barely covered in this documentary. There is some brief footage of outdoor performances by local street performers during parades, as well as very old archival clips of concerts by a few well-known New Orleans artists. That’s the extent to which live performances are covered in “Take Me to the River: New Orleans.”

The concept for the documentary and its soundtrack was to bring together artists of various generations to record classic songs that have New Orleans origins. Many of the artists in these recording sessions are New Orleans natives or people whose careers have been significantly influenced by New Orleans culture. And, not surprisingly, the documentary interviews have nothing but praise for New Orleans.

The artists who participated in these recording sessions included the Neville Brothers, Dr. John, Irma Thomas, Ledisi, G-Eazy, Snoop Dogg, William Bell, Galactic, Mannie Fresh, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, George Porter Jr., Christian Scott, Donald Harrison Jr., Big Freedia, Ani DiFranco, Maroon 5 keyboardist PJ Morton, Rebirth Brass Band, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Soul Rebels, Voice of the Wetlands, 79rs Gang, The Givers, Dumpstaphunk, Cheeky Blakk, Lost Bayou Ramblers, Big Sam, Terence Higgins, Shannon Powell, Whirlin’ Herlin Riley, Alvin Ford Jr., Stanton Moore, 5th Ward Weebie, Walter Wolfman Washington, Eric Heigle, Dee-1, Erica Falls, Ivan Neville, Ian Neville and Davell Crawford. In addition, “Take Me to the River: New Orleans” has interviews with some artists who weren’t part of these recording sessions, including Jon Batiste, Mia X, DJ Soul Sister, Jazz Fest founding producer Quint Davis and Deacon John Moore.

The documentary features the recordings of these songs:

  • “Wish Someone Would Care,” performed by Irma Thomas and Ledisi
  • “Li’l Liza Jane,” performed by drummers Terence Higgins, Shannon Powell, Whirlin’ Herlin Riley, Alvin Ford Jr. and Stanton Moore
  • “Firewater” performed by Donald Harrison Jr. and Christian Scott
  • “Wrong Part of Town,” performed by 79rs Gang
  • “Sand Castle Headhunter,” performed by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band
  • “Blue Moon Special,” performed by Roots of Music, Ani DiFranco and Lost Bayou Ramblers
  • “Stompin’ Ground,” performed by Aaron Neville
  • “Hey Mama (Wild Tchoupitoulas)” performed by the Neville Brothers
  • “504 (Enjoy Yourself),” performed by Soul Rebels and 5th Ward Weebie
  • “Street Parade,” performed by Cyril Neville
  • “New Orleans Girl,” performed by PJ Morton, Rebirth Brass Band and Cheeky Blakk
  • “Act Like You Know,” performed by Dee-1, Mannie Fresh, Erica Falls and Big Freedia
  • “Jack-A-Mo,” performed by Dr. John and Davell Crawford
  • “Yes We Can Can,” performed by William Bell, Snoop Dogg and G-Eazy

“Take Me to the River: New Orleans” includes discussions of Mardis Gras Indian culture in New Orleans; the origins of “bounce” hip-hop in New Orleans; the influential legacy of New Orleans musician/producer Allen Toussaint; and the impact of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina on the New Orleans music scene. The words “family” and “community” come up a lot when people talk about the New Orleans music scene.

DJ Soul Sister, Big Freedia and Mia X are among the artists who say that many musicians permanently moved out of New Orleans after the devastation of Hurrican Katrina. Mia X comments on the New Orleans music scene after Hurricane Katrina, “We have this sense of family, unlike no other city, but it’s different.” As difficult as it was for many people to recover from Hurrican Katrina, the recovery process is testament to New Orleans’ resilience. In the documentary, rapper 5th Ward Weebie says, “If you ever seen people go through tough times, rough times, and still come at the end of the day smile about it, that’s what makes New Orleans unique.”

New Orleans native Morton says that he wrote “New Orleans Girl” after Hurricane Katrina changed the city. Morton says about the song “New Orleans is the girl. I’ve been all over the world, and there’s no place like New Orleans.” Snoop Dogg comments, “New Orleans is a safe haven of love.” Aaron Neville states, “New Orleans music is a way of life.”

A recurring theme in the documentary is the importance of passing down musical and cultural traditions or “passing the torch” to younger generations. Many of the New Orleans native musicians have the experience of growing up in musical families and with older musical mentors, perhaps more than musicians who grow up in many other cities. Powell says of learning from his elders: “I hung out with the old cats. I was taught not only how to play the drums but how to be a man.”

Riley, who’s been a drummer for Wynton Marsalis and George Benson, says in the documentary: “My family were my biggest influences My uncle and my grandfather [band leader Frank Lastie], they showed me how to play the drums. My grandfather showed me how to play [the drums] with butter knives … on the breakfast table … There’s a unique and distinct way we play the bass drums here. It really identifies the New Orleans sound.”

There’s a considerable segment on how African-oriented music intertwined with Native American culture in New Orleans, and this blend gave rise to Mardi Gras Indians, who have elaborate costumes and ritual dancing. The male leaders of these Mardi Gras Indian groups are called Big Chiefs, while the female leaders are called Big Queens. Many of these leaders have their own music groups.

The documentary features interviews with Big Chief Bo Dollis Jr. of the Wild Magnolias; his mother Big Queen Laurita Dollis; and 79rs Gang members Big Chief Romeo Bougere of the 9th Ward Hunters and Big Chief Jermaine Bossier of the 7th Ward Creole Hunters. Bougere and Bossier say that even though the 7th Ward and the 9th Ward are considered rival wards with a lot of feuding, these two musical collaborators decided to form the 79rs Gang to show that these two communities can be united through music.

Bougere comments, “We need to get past hating someone because they’re from another ward.” Bossier adds of Mardi Gras Indian culture, “This is a warrior culture. Things happen. But for the most part, it’s about being pretty. It’s about showing off your suit.”

One of the highlights of “Take Me to the River” is the collaboration between Thomas and Ledisi, who is ecstatic over being able to perform and record a song with one of her musical idols. Ledisi (who grew up in the New Orleans music scene, where her mother Nyra Dynese was in a band) practically swoons when Thomas greets her at the studio by giving Ledisi a gift of shrimp and okra. “Yes! She hooked me up, man!” Ledisi exclaims. And later Ledisi literally jumps up and down with joy after she and Thomas record their duet of “Wish Someone Would Care,” one of Thomas’ classics.

Thomas says of Ledisi and the legacy of New Orleans music culture: “As far as I’m concerned, she’s one of the few who will be passing it on … She seems to have a natural knack for it. And that’s a good thing. I feel very good about passing the torch to her.” Ledisi adds, “We don’t want to lose the story. We’ve got to honor our legends while they’re here.”

DiFranco comments, “The deepness and the intactness of the New Orleans community is being threatened. As a result, people here have to be more intentional about staying in touch with those roots, so the continuum is not broken.”

Preservation Hall Jazz Band member Ben Jaffe, whose parents Allan and Sandra Jaffe co-founded the legendary Preservation Hall music venue, says of continuing this legacy: “The most important thing that Preservation Hall can do is make music available to people. When we’re collaborating with musicians, we’re not looking for someone who has an affinity for New Orleans jazz or understands New Orleans jazz. We’re looking for people who share our soul.”

Another documentary highlight is the Neville Brothers’ recording of “Hey Mama (Wild Tchoupitoulas).” Not only was it the first time in years that brothers Aaron Neville, Cyril Neville, Art Neville and Charles Neville were in the same recording studio together, it would also turn out to be the last recording that all four brothers would make together. Charles Neville died in 2018, and Art Neville died in 2019.

Unfortunately, parts of “Take Me to the River: New Orleans” look very dated because of the deaths of some of the documentary’s on-camera participants. By the time “Take Me to the River: New Orleans” was released in theaters in 2022, several people in the documentary had already passed away. They include Charles Neville, Art Neville, Dr. John (who died in 2019) and 5th Ward Weebie (who died in 2020). However, it doesn’t take away from the great music shown in the documentary.

“Take Me to the River: New Orleans” has some flawed editing that doesn’t always make the transition between the topics very smooth. And except for a brief mention by a Neville family member that the Neville Brothers were ripped off by bad business deals at the height of their careers, the documentary glosses over any mention of corruption in the music industry and how it affected New Orleans artists. Ultimately, the best parts of the movie are in seeing the artists and their talent come alive when collaborating in the studio with other artists they admire and respect.

360 Distribution released “Take Me to the River: New Orleans” in select U.S. cinemas, beginning in New Orleans on April 22, 2022, and in New York City and Los Angeles on April 29, 2022.

Review: ‘Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story,’ starring George Wein, Quint Davis, Wynton Marsalis, Irma Thomas, Jimmy Buffett and Bruce Springsteen

May 16, 2022

by Carla Hay

Verdine White of Earth, Wind & Fire in “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story” (Photo courtesy of The Kennedy/Marshall Company and Sony Pictures Classics)

“Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story”

Directed by Frank Marshall and Ryan Suffern

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Orleans, the documentary “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story” features a cast of white and black people (with a few Latinos), mostly music artists, who are connected in some way to Jazz Fest, an annual music and cultural festival in New Orleans.

Culture Clash: Jazz Fest has had its share of obstacles, including overcoming racial segregation issues, Hurricane Katrina and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Culture Audience: “Jazz Fest” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in this festival and its impact on New Orleans and pop culture.

Nashville Super Choir in “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story” (Photo courtesy of The Kennedy/Marshall Company and Sony Pictures Classics)

“Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story” is a purely laudatory documentary, told mostly from artists’ perspectives. The film is sometimes unfocused, and some of the commentary praise is too effusive, but the dynamic concert scenes make the movie a worthwhile watch. The movie capably demonstrates how Jazz Fest has become a necessary and influential cultural institution in New Orleans.

Directed by Frank Marshall and Ryan Suffern, “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story” does nothing groundbreaking in how the film is presented. It’s a traditionally formatted documentary that blends archival footage with the movie’s exclusive interviews. “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story” does an excellent job of showing the diversity of Jazz Fest, the commonly used name for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

Despite its name, this beloved event isn’t just a festival for jazz music. Jazz Fest—an outdoor festival which traditionally takes place in the spring at Fair Grounds Race Course and Slots—also features R&B, rock, pop, country, gospel, blues, Latin music, Americana, world music, and a number of other music genres from numerous artists from around the world. Jazz Fest, which launched in 1970, is owned by the non-profit New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Foundation Inc. The event is produced by AEG Presents and Festival Productions Inc.-New Orleans.

Jazz Fest founder George Wein (who died in 2021, at age 95) is one of the people interviewed in the documentary. A longtime concert promoter, Wein says in the documentary that he was first approached to do Jazz Fest in 1962 by “someone from the Hotel Corporation of America” to do a “Newport [Jazz Festival] type of festival.” Wein said that because of Jim Crow laws at the time that made racial segregation legal in Louisiana, “I couldn’t have white musicians and African [black] musicians on stage at the same time.”

And so, Jazz Fest had to wait to launch only after the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed into law and ended legal racial segregation in the United States. Shell Oil Company signed on to be Jazz Fest’s first corporate sponsor. Jazz Fest’s first concert lineup in the event’s inaugural year included Mahalia Jackson, Duke Wellington, Pete Fountain, Al Hirt, Clifton Chenier, Fats Domino, The Meters, and the Preservation Hall Band.

Jazz Fest received support from the artistic community from the beginning, although attendance from the public was very low by today’s Jazz Fest standards. In the first year of Jazz Fest, which took place in Congo Square in 1970, about 350 people attended. Since then, Jazz Fest has become the biggest annual concert event in New Orleans, with an estimated 425,000 to 475,000 people in attendance, before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jazz Fest founding producer Quint Davis comments in the documentary: “When Jazz Fest started, it was like we were presenting this music to the world … There were a lot of reasons everybody thought we would fail. One of them was bringing Cajun people and Latin people together.”

Davis adds, “Well, everybody eats, and everybody dances. So, if we can get people together to see what they eat and see what they dance to, I think that can work. When it was all put together in one place, it was stunning to the local people. They were amazed at themselves and felt tremendous pride.”

One particular New Orleans family became integral to Jazz Fest: the Marsalis family, who are world-renowned for their musical accomplishments, particularly in jazz. Ellis Marsalis Jr. (who died in 2020, at age 85) and four of his six sons—Wynton, Branson, Delfeayo, and Jason—are interviewed in the documentary, and they share fond memories of performing at Jazz Fest. The Marsalis brothers literally grew up at Jazz Fest and frequently performed as part of the musical group called the Ellis Marsalis Family Tribute. Branford Marsalis comments on performing with his brothers and his father Ellis: “When we walked out on stage, he ceased being my dad. He was the leader of the group.”

Davis comments on another popular Jazz Fest artist: “Jimmy Buffett is very, very special to us. He’s been responsible for drawing more people to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival than maybe anybody else.” Buffett says in the documentary: “Everything I do, from writing shows to writing songs comes out from being a child of the Mardi Gras.”

Other artists interviewed include Irma Thomas; Pitbull; Boyfriend; Sony Landreth; Big Freedia; Tom Jones; Divine Ladies member Angelina Sever; Preservation Hall Jazz Band member Ben Jaffe; Cowboy Mouth member Fred LeBlanc; High Steppers Brass Band member Daryl Fields; Tab Benoit; Marc Savoy; John Hammond; and Earth, Wind & Fire members Philip Bailey, Verdine White and Ralph Johnson. The documentary also has archival footage of several performances, including those by Aaron Neville; Katy Perry with the Gospel Soul Children; Thomas; Pitbull; B.B. King; Al Green; Hammond; Big Freedia; Preservation Hall Jazz Band; Herbie Hancock; Nashville Super Choir; and Earth, Wind & Fire.

There’s an entire segment in the documentary about the food of Jazz Fest, with soundbites from some Jazz Fest food vendors, along with the expected delectable-looking display of New Orleans cuisine, such as jambalaya, crawfish, pralines and beignets. The movie tends to drift off-topic in the middle of the film, when it veers into a prolonged discussion of Mardi Gras, including the history of Mardi Gras and how Mardi Gras has impacted New Orleans Fortunately, the documentary eventually gets back on track to talking about Jazz Fest.

One of the best aspects of the documentary is the discussion about how Jazz Fest had a triumphant comeback in 2006, after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Bruce Springsteen’s emotionally moving Jazz Fest 2006 performance of “My City of Ruins” is in the documentary. Springsteen comments, “There are certain moments when you meet your audience, and that’s when the healing begins. It was one of the most beautiful concert experiences I ever had.”

The epilogue of “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story” includes mention of how, for the first time in Jazz Fest history, the event was cancelled. It happened in 2020 and 2021, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The epilogue includes a brief mention of Jazz Fest’s return in 2022, with footage of Buffet performing a rousing cover version of the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

“Jazz Fest” is a documentary that often comes across as an electronic press kit video, because the commentary is non-stop praise of Jazz Fest and/or New Orleans, with no mention of any under-reported problems of Jazz Fest. The movie lacks any constructive criticism of the event and doesn’t talk about issues such as overcrowding or overpricing. But as a documentary that’s meant to celebrate the event, “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story” is at its best when it lets the music and performances do the talking.

Sony Pictures Classics released “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story” in select U.S. cinemas on May 13, 2022.

Review: ‘Up From the Streets: New Orleans: The City of Music,’ starring Terence Blanchard, Wynton Marsalis, the Neville Brothers, Harry Connick Jr., Irma Thomas, Robert Plant and Keith Richards

May 15, 2020

by Carla Hay

Terence Blanchard (far right) and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in “Up From the Streets: New Orleans: The City of Music” (Photo courtesy of Eagle Rock Entertainment)

“Up From the Streets: New Orleans: The City of Music”

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.

Allen Toussaint in “Up From the Streets: New Orleans: The City of Music” (Photo courtesy of Eagle Rock Entertainment)

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wYnDVGCFKf8

Copyright 2017-2022 Culture Mix