“One Note at a Time,” Renee Edwards’ documentary about musicians in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, makes its world premiere Sunday at the New Orleans Film Festival.
The film is a nearly 10-year labor of love for Edwards, a freelance editor in London with 200 TV and film credits to her name.
Edwards’ mother is an Englishwoman of Irish descent. Her father, originally from White Castle, has lived in New Orleans since the 1960s. During her childhood, Edwards and her sister made summer visits to New Orleans. The city has always been part of her life, she said.
Most of Edwards’ editing work has been for British TV. Her credits include many episodes of BBC One’s long-running documentary series about life in the United Kingdom, “Panorama.” She also edited the 1995 animated feature film, “Balto.” “One Note at a Time” is her feature-length film debut as director.
Edwards’ summer visits during childhood to New Orleans were all about family. The visits she made as an adult revealed more of the city’s music and culture to her.
“I discovered my own kind of scene within the city,” she said from London. “Of course, making the film over the past nine years, I got to know New Orleans so much better. Now I have a many friends and connections there.”
In August 2005, Edwards watched the tragic news about Hurricane Katrina and the flood from London. She’d visited her dad shortly before the disaster.
“Obviously, it was really frightening,” she said. “My dad was away from the city for quite a while. When he eventually came back, he needed to do a lot of work on his house. It was in a state.”
In 2007, Edwards began production for “One Note at a Time.” Making the film became her way of learning what was really going on in the city.
“Initially, I was particularly worried about the jazz funeral tradition,” she said. “For some reason, it occurred to me that it might end. That was my starting point.”
Edwards loves New Orleans’ traditions.
“I like ceremony,” she said. “And there’s such a difference between the funerals in New Orleans and funerals in England and maybe the rest of America. It seems like when someone passes away in New Orleans, people celebrate life in a different way. Over here, we have a tendency to mourn for a really long time. It’s not to say it’s better, but the way life is celebrated in New Orleans is really beautiful. And that’s encapsulated in the jazz funeral.”
As Edwards did her early reporting and research for “One Note at a Time,” she grew even more concerned about New Orleans’ future.
“The more I talked to people, the more I was aware that a lot of what I had thought of as New Orleans was in a serious situation,” she said.
From the beginning of filming, Edwards found support for her project. Her many musician interviewees include Dr. John, Donald Harrison, Irma Thomas, Kermit Ruffins, Charmaine Neville, Cyril Neville and Preservation Hall creative director Ben Jaffe.
“Whenever I spoke to people, they wanted to help make the film, they wanted to be part of it,” she said.
Issues facing musicians after the storm and flood included displaced players and the difficult financial position many of the city’s musicians experience.
Annual income for the 2,500 patients of the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic and Assistance Foundation averages $18,000. “One Note at a Time” features a visit to the clinic and an interview with its co-founding, pro bono director, Bethany Ewald Bultman.
The Musicians’ Clinic, Edwards said, “seemed such a brilliant and unique establishment. They introduced us to a lot of musicians as well. We filmed them in the clinic and then we filmed them on stage, doing their music. The contrast was really inspiring.”
Edwards finished “One Note at a Time” three weeks ago, just in time to bring the film home to New Orleans for its world premiere.
“It’s been a really interesting journey,” she said. “An eye-opener about healthcare and guns in the city. It’s sad in some ways and very exciting in other ways.”
“One Note at a Time” will be released in theaters in the U.K.
“It’s time for it to be born into the world,” Edwards said. “Also, next year is the 100th year of the first known jazz recording. There’ll be quite a lot of celebration in the U.K. about that on International Jazz Day and throughout the year. So that’s a nice hook for launching the film.”
The film is far from a solo endeavor, the director added.
“I’m leading the journey, but there are so many people in front of and behind the camera,” she said. “I’m really grateful for the people who took part in the film and made it happen.”
“One Note at a Time”
WHEN: 4:15 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 16
WHERE: Entergy Giant Screen Theater