Up From The Streets: New Orleans: The City of Music(Mercury Studios/ Michael Murphy Productions. 104 minutes. Film Review by Sandy Burnett)
It hits you from the moment you touch down on the tarmac – the airport in New Orleans is named after none other than their great jazz legend Louis Armstrong. And from that moment on, your visit to the Crescent City is one big immersive experience into everything from parade music, funk, hip-hop, rural Zydeco music, loud guitar-driven Americana, the singing of the Southern Baptist church – and jazz. Uniquely, unlike other great cultural cities in the world, music isn’t something that you have to go inside to hear; in New Orleans, music is outdoors and all around.
It’s that aspect of New Orleans that producer and director Michael Murphy homes in on in his new film, Up From The Streets. Pulling it all together onscreen is the eminent New Orleans composer and trumpeter Terence Blanchard, who back in 2006 wrote the score for the New Orleans film that everyone needs to see: Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, about the horrifying tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. While Lee’s harrowing, unflinching look at the events of Katrina really takes its time and unfolds over more than four hours, Murphy takes a fast-paced approach, presenting three hundred years of its musical heritage in just 104 minutes.
We get to hear, and hear from, some of the key figures of New Orleans music today: Wynton Marsalis, without doubt the city’s leading musical man of the moment, talks about the central importance of the drumming traditions brought over by African slaves and the freedom it expresses. While Herlin Riley, long-time Marsalis bandmember and someone who can do unbelievable things with a tambourine, points out that when parades make their way down the street, everyone sways in the same rhythm.
UK-born pianist Jon Cleary points out the links with Cuban music while Bill Summers talks about the clave; Irma Thomas talks about growing up in the world of church music; we get taken to the very doors of Mahalia Jackson’s childhood church, from where Terence Blanchard talks eloquently about how music offered hope and support in the face of serious adversity. A point underlined by Harry Connick – yet another eminent New Orleanian – who reminds us that this music is designed to make everyone feel good – “they need that, especially now!” And there’s some outstanding footage, some of it especially shot, such as a couple of tunes from the now globally renowned Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Just when you think that Murphy’s movie has the whole of New Orleans culture covered, along comes another aspect of its musical heritage; Cosimo Matassa’s hit factory, Allen Toussaint’s songwriting skills, Dr. John, and many more that there’s just not space to mention.
A second line parade in New Orleans. Photo courtesy of Eagle Rock
While the film’s an impressive overview of almost everything that’s going on in New Orleans today, it doesn’t say too much about the way that young outsiders have surged to the city post-Katrina and brought a new take, and a new audience, to the trad jazz styles of a century ago. And that’s an important development: street bands such as Tuba Skinny and Marla Dixon’s Shotgun Jazz Band are made up of younger musicians, male and female. They’re drawn to the city through a love of its music, because the cost of living is cheap, and because it’s possible to gig there several times a day. An enviable situation, and when I visited in 2018 and 2019, musicians there really were living the dream. But that was before COVID struck and tourism collapsed – the living there right now is far from easy.
Whatever kind of music we’re talking about, if you spend any time in NOLA, it’s clear that music is key to its identity. And that’s what Up From The Streets reminds us: with all the diversity of styles and generations represented, there’s one common thread that runs through it. For this unique city and its citizens, playing, singing, parading and dancing isn’t just some entertaining add-on; in New Orleans, music is life.
Bassist, broadcaster and music commentator, Sandy Burnett’s online classical music Listening Club continues in January. LJN interviewed Sandy about the tours to New Orleans which he organised for ACE Cultural Tours HEREUp From The Streets: New Orleans: The City of Music is available now, exclusively on digital formats.