Salty Reviews: 2 New NOLA Jazz Docs


The spirit of New Orleans and Louisiana is alive and well with the return of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival earlier this month and two new jazz docs hitting theaters in the coming weeks. Ryan Sufferne and Frank Marshall’s Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story, and Martin Shore’s Take Me to the River: New Orleans, are both worth your time, especially if you’re into real music and authentic people. The Big Easy is full of both and whether you’re a longtime music fan or someone just looking to have a good time, it’s hard to resist the joie de vivre that emanates from NOLA, the birthplace of jazz music, a truly American and still underappreciated art form.

“Joie de vivre” is described in Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story as a resounding celebration of life, in defiance of the odds. Despite how messed up things get, you gotta keep your head up and strut. This attitude permeates the culture, which is on full display in both of these documentaries. Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story (abbreviated as JF:Story from here on out) looks at New Orleans and Louisiana culture by way of the city’s second biggest annual event, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. While most people simply refer to it as Jazz Fest, the “Heritage” portion is equally important. Longtime Jazz Fest producer and director Quint Davis says that even if no music was played, large crowds would still show up just to eat the food. And it’s not just New Orleans cuisine, but food from all over the state of Louisiana. Crawfish beignets, crawfish bread, jambalaya, oysters, po-boys, boudin balls, bread pudding, and Trout Baquet are just a few of the things that attendees and musicians rave about in the doc, always with a look in their eyes like they’ve seen the holy land and lived to tell about it. It’s clear how much Jazz Fest means to the fans and musicians by the way they all talk about it, with great reverence. Verdine White of Earth, Wind, & Fire talks about the history of the city and how you can feel it when you’re on stage. David Shaw of The Revivalists says that it’s not a music business city, it’s a music culture city.

Good grub is always a headliner at Jazz Fest
Jazz Fest 2022 poster: A Portrait of Jon Batiste by Terrance Osborne

JF:Story features a mix of archival footage (including some from the earliest Jazz Fests), interviews with a wide variety of musicians and New Orleans notables (including some who’ve since passed away), and footage from the 50th Jazz Fest in 2019, the most recent one up until just a few weeks ago. Jazz Fest 2020 and 2021 were postponed and eventually canceled. Jazz Fest 2022 was a success with 475,000 attendees, 7,000+ musicians, 14 stages, and 8 days of jazz, soul, blues, R&B, gospel, funk, Afro-Caribbean, Cajun, zydeco, and more. “The most kick ass party in the world.” I wasn’t able to attend in person, but I listened at home thanks to WWOZ. The spirit is palpable, even on the radio and I was able to listen to many fantastic performances, including Arturo Sandoval’s much-anticipated return to the fest. Everybody sounded thrilled to have Jazz Fest back.

JF:Story plays like an extended advertisement for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The doc has the same aims as the festival; celebrate the music, food, and culture, and share it with the world in an effort to promote and preserve it. Many of the beats are expected: Mardi Gras, Hurricane Katrina, Second Lines, etc. All of this was covered in more detail in Treme, David Simon’s underrated follow-up to The Wire, but JF:Story serves as a breezy crash course for the uninitiated and a fun chance for vets to relish in the Jazz Fest vibes outside of the festival.

New Orleans legend Kermit Ruffins with actors Steve Zahn and Wendell Pierce in David Simon’s Treme
Ellis Marsalis. Back in the day

I loved the interviews and footage with the late Ellis Marsalis and his 4 musical sons (Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo, and Jason) playing together, talking about what Jazz Fest means to them, and recounting their experiences as young musicians growing up at the fest. I dug how the recent interviews with Irma Thomas, Marc Savoy, and others were juxtaposed with footage from 30+ years ago. Irma proudly proclaimed that her first Jazz Fest was in 1974 and that she’s been to every one since. I liked the section on zydeco, a music I’m always happy to hear, but don’t know much about. I thought Pitbull and Katy Perry outstayed their welcome, and I would’ve happily swapped them out for more local acts if given the chance, but Jazz Fest isn’t all jazz and its not all local and the fact is, the big names sell tickets. Jazz Fest is a good chance for locals to see some of the big headliners for a much cheaper price than outside of the festival, while jazz nuts who travel in from around the globe might be more focused on hitting the stages and tents featuring local acts. Other interviews include Tank from Tank and the Bangas, Big Freedia, Samantha Fish, Davell Crawford, Ben Jaffe, Chief Fiyo of the Hard Head Hunters, Dwayne Dopsie of Dwayne Dopsie and the Zydeco Hellraisers, Boyfriend, Jimmy Buffett, Bruce Springsteen, and Jazz Fest founder George Wein, who passed away in September 2021 at the age of 95. I was hoping the late Dr. John would make an appearance, but he never did.

Overall, JF:Story does it’s job. It celebrates and promotes the fest and culture in an entertaining way and it strengthened my desire to attend in person. It also left me wanting more. In its efforts to cover so much in its 1 hr 34 min runtime, it touches on many things but it kind of glazes over some of them. I wanted more time with the Big Chiefs and Mardi Gras Indians, and more of the local musicians.

Enter Take Me to the River: New Orleans (abbreviated as River:NO from here on).

Big Chief “Monk” Boudreaux
Irma Thomas. NOLA legend

River:NO and JF:Story complement each other nicely. They’re both in the same spirit and while there’s some overlap in the people and subjects, the docs stand on their own. JF:Story looks at New Orleans through the lens of Jazz Fest and River:NO looks at it through the lens of the city’s local musicians. River:NO is director Martin Shore and producer Cody Dickinson’s follow-up to their 2014 doc, Take Me to the River, which brought together multiple generations of renowned Memphis and Mississippi Delta musicians for a series of recording sessions to create a new album. River:NO brings together multiple generations of renowned New Orleans legends with younger, up-and-coming musicians for a series of lively recording sessions for a new album. Its narrower focus gives it a more intimate feel than JF:Story and with its longer runtime of 1 hour and 50 min it has more room to breath.

River:NO is narrated by NOLA resident and Treme actor John Goodman and it features an impressive variety of musicians, everybody from Dr. John to Mannie Fresh. It kicks off with Irma Thomas and Ledisi collaborating on Thomas’ song, “I Wish You Would Care” with moving results. JF:Story features old and new footage of Thomas performing in front of crowds, and River:NO provides a different angle, Thomas in the recording studio mentoring a younger artist and passing her the torch (an example of how these docs complement each other). Other highlights include my favorite session, “Firewater” by Big Chief “Monk” Boudroux of The Golden Eagles Mardi Gras Indians, teaming up with Voices of the Wetland. I loved seeing Big Chief Romeo Bougere of the 9th Ward Hunters and Big Chief Jermaine Bossier of the 7th Ward Creole Hunters appear together. In the Mardis Gras Indian world, uptown and downtown are separated and the Chiefs are rivals, but in 2013 they forged an unlikely union, recording together and creating the Mardi Gras Indian supergroup, the 79rs Gang. I was also thrilled to see Dr. John in his slick purple suit playing Jock-A-Mo with Davell Crawford in one of his last sessions. Dr. John passed away in 2019.

Jazz Fest 2020 poster:  A Portrait of Dr. John by Scott Guion
The Neville Brothers

Others we lost include Art “Poppa Funk” Neville and Charles Neville of the Neville Brothers, a family of jazz royalty in the NO. They both left us in 2018. The last Neville Brothers session appears in River:NO and it features Art, Charles, Aaron, Cyril, Ivan, and Ian Neville. (At least, maybe more. Hard to keep up with the Nevilles.) There’s also a poignant session featuring 5th Ward Weebie and the Soul Rebels. Weebie, a rapper and pioneer of bounce music, passed away in 2020. In the doc, he passionately creates music and talks about the joie de vivre spirit I mentioned earlier, stating, “If you’ve ever seen people go through such tough times, rough times and at the end of the day, smile about it. That’s what makes New Orleans unique.”

5th Ward Weebie 1977 – 2020

River:NO also features interviews or music by Donald Harrison Jr., Stanton Moore, Snoop Dogg, Nigel Hall, Walter “Wolfman” Washingon, Cheeky Black, Rebirth Brass Band, Big Freedia, Mia X, a collection of talented New Orleans drummers singing Lil’ Liza Jane, and Cajun music by Ani Difranco, the Lost Bayou Ramblers, and Roots of Music.

Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story and Take Me to the River: New Orleans both represent for New Orleans, The Boot, the culture, and for tradition. The area is so rich with history and talent that there’s no shortage of stories to tell or musicians to highlight. As a jazz fan and someone who digs the culture (but is still an outsider), I liked both of the docs. People closer to the subject, like locals and longtime Jazz Fest attendees, might be more critical. I’d be interested to hear their opinions. All I know is that after having a festive Mardi Gras in Galveston, listening to Jazz Fest 2022 on the radio, and watching these two new spirited documentaries, I am feeling the New Orleans vibes and itching to visit the city soon.

Thanks for reading. See you all at Jazz Fest!

It’s back!
Trombone Shorty
George Porter
Samantha Fish
Aaron Neville and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band
Tank and the Bangas
Dwayne Dopsie and the Zydeco Hellraisers
New Orleans Drummers
Dee-1, Mannie Fresh, Galactic, Big Freedia, and others
79rs Gang
BB King and Jazz Fest Founder George Wein

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Salty Winters

Salty Winters once said, "Everything I learned I learned from the movies." He was quoting Audrey Hepburn.