Music's greatest legends re-enact the birth of jazz in this song-filled tribute to the town where it all began: New Orleans! Arturo de Cordova stars as Nick, the proprietor of a Bourbon Street gambling joint, and artistic haven for African-American musicians. When he falls for an opera-singing socialite, Nick realizes that only through music will he gain respectability, and launches a campaign to bring jazz to the highbrow American stage. A refreshing rediscovery, New Orleans is especially noteworthy for its lack of racial stereotypes, as well as the high caliber of performances delivered by its stellar cast, including Louis Armstrong, Woody Herman, Kid Ory, Meade Lux Lewis and more. Perhaps the film's most memorable number is "Farewell to Storyville", a haunting blues melody sung by Billie Holiday as she leads a procession of black musicians exiled from the city -- a sequence that beautifully captures the melancholy and grace of Holiday's inimitable performance style. Other musical highlights include Holiday's rendition of "New Orleans", Armstrong's "Endie" and "Where The Blues Were Born", and their duet "The Blues Are Brewin". Also included in this DVD are two musical shorts from Paramount Studios (A Rhapsody In Black And Blue featuring Armstrong and Symphony In Black with Holiday and Duke Ellington) as well as an essay on the making of New Orleans, which originated as a project for Orson Welles.
This little-seen, 1947 drama is a treat for jazz fans, thanks to an otherwise creaky, if nobly intentioned story built around the music's Crescent City genesis that provides an ample excuse to turn the camera on authentic jazz greats. Nick Duquesne (Arturo De Cordova) is a Bourbon Street charmer whose gambling club provides the mythic stomping grounds for none other than Louis Armstrong, whose vocalizing sweetheart Endie, played by none other than Billie Holiday, proves no slouch herself. A newly arrived debutante, Miralee (Dorothy Patrick), arrives in New Orleans and falls first for the music and then for the roguish but ultimately gallant Nick. The movie follows knee-jerk plot machinations revolving around her family's efforts to excise Nick from her life, her own dream of mingling jazz and classical music, and the gambler's transformation into a jazz promoter.
The script works in the squalor and much of the geography of Storyville and the French Quarter, even providing a contrasting look at the genteel parlor music being played in "respectable" casinos, and the casting telegraphs the production's reverence for jazz. Satchmo's other musical partners are equally serendipitous, including Kid Ory, Barney Bigard, Bud Scott, Zutty Singleton, Meade "Lux" Lewis, and Red Callender. A brief arc late in the film adds Woody Herman and his orchestra.
When the musicians are featured, New Orleans is a frequent delight, with Armstrong as magnetic as always, and Holiday endearing. As an actress, she's a terrific singer, and luckily Lady Day's dialogue is far briefer than her featured vocals. The DVD version boasts additional period shorts showcasing Armstrong (1932's "A Rhapsody in Black and Blue") and Holiday's "Symphony in Black" from 1935). --Sam Sutherland