And also by the food. The only thing New Orleanians take as seriously as what they listen to is what they eat, and we can almost smell the offerings from the tents providing tens of thousands of meals a day. Some of the performers laugh as they describe the dishes, their inability to resist them, and the irreversible damage it inflicts on their bodies. “Everybody eats; everybody dances,” says Quint Davis, who was barely out of his teens when festival founder George Wein hired him to organize the festival. Davis compares that moment to being a baseball card-collecting kid invited to pitch for the Yankees in the World Series. Still with the festival today, he has the same sense of ecstatic joy that we see in adorable archival footage of a very young Davis in a musical parade.
Wein, the jazz impresario behind the Newport Jazz Festival and the Newport Folk Festival, was asked to design and produce a unique festival for New Orleans in the 1960s. There was a significant obstacle; Jim Crow laws were still in effect. Not only would they prevent the mixing of Black and white musicians, Wein’s own marriage to a Black woman was still illegal. So, they had to wait until 1970. Only about 350 people attended that first year, which featured Mahalia Jackson and Duke Ellington, setting the standard for the musical legends who would appear over the next five decades. Many of them appear on-screen to share their memories and explain what it is that makes this festival—now with so many attendees it’s temporarily the sixth largest city in the state—create such an enduring sense of community.