Retracing America’s Musical Canvas – The New York Times

There’s one thing that has a remarkable way of connecting people from different cultures and backgrounds: music.

In “America’s Musical Journey,” a 3-D documentary film narrated by the actor Morgan Freeman and hosted onscreen by the singer-songwriter Aloe Blacc, the musical spirit of the country is explored through Mr. Blacc’s excursions to New York, New Orleans, Chicago, Nashville, Detroit and Miami. In the 40-minute film, which premiered at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington last week and will expand to theaters around the country and abroad, his trips tell the story of how jazz, country, blues, soul and rock ‘n’ roll melded to fuel American creativity.

Before a recent screening at an IMAX theater in Manhattan, Mr. Blacc’s enthusiasm for the project was obvious.

“I always wanted to be a movie star,” he said in an interview. “Traveling across and country and engaging with people gave me the opportunity to learn more about music. It was a no-brainer to want to do this.”

The Beale Street Flippers, an acrobatic group, on Beale Street in Memphis.CreditMacGillivray Freeman Films

The film, which was produced by MacGillivray Freeman Films, an independent distributor, provides stunning views of the Chicago skyline, steamboats on the Mississippi River in New Orleans and Beale Street in Memphis. But Mr. Blacc said he was surprised by what he learned about these places and the lives of many of the native musicians.

“I knew that Elvis Presley had long been influenced by black music, but I wasn’t aware of his engagement with gospel music,” he said. “I learned about how early folk music from Appalachia influenced country and bluegrass music.”

The Louis Armstrong House Museum, in Corona, Queens, is a prominent stop in the film. Mr. Blacc sits on the front steps with a group of children and sings his own version of “What a Wonderful World,” Mr. Armstrong’s 1967 hit. In the film’s narration, Mr. Freeman details the sting of racism that Mr. Armstrong endured as an African-American man, noting that early in his career, he wasn’t permitted to stay at the many of the same hotels where he was performing because of his race. In many Southern locales, he slept overnight in vehicles, along with members of his band. Although Mr. Armstrong eventually became an international sensation, the earlier chapter in his life was a reminder of the pangs of discrimination.

Aloe Blacc and Jon Batiste march in a second line, a brass band parade, in New Orleans.CreditMacGillivray Freeman Films

New Orleans is the site of some of the film’s most festive scenes, with Mr. Blacc and “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” bandleader Jon Batiste walking in and around the city’s French Quarter, and joining a second line, a brass band parade.

“The rhythms in the second line are infectious,” Mr. Blacc said. “They just add that flavor to the music.”

The city’s vibrancy is evident through its French Creole influences and its jubilant music.

In Memphis, Mr. Blacc takes in the blues scene and eats in Mr. Presley’s favorite booth at the Arcade restaurant on South Main Street. At Arcade, which opened in 1919 as one of the city’s first cafes, a dance routine breaks out, and everyone, from the staff to the patrons to Mr. Blacc, is swept along. Mr. Blacc then makes a trip to Graceland, Mr. Presley’s estate, and learns more about the musician’s life and sees the almost-endless procession of plaques on the wall.

The jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis, a Chicago native.CreditMacGillivray Freeman Films

The trip to Nashville focuses on its rich country scene. Mr. Blacc visited the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, the Grand Ole Opry and Fisk University. At Fisk, which was founded in 1866 and played a vital role in the education of freed slaves and other African-Americans, Mr. Blacc finds musical inspiration with the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a collegiate a cappella choir that first organized in 1871.

In Chicago, Mr. Blacc spends time with the jazz pianist and native Ramsey Lewis, who has recorded over 80 albums during his career and is known for songs like “The In Crowd” and “Sun Goddess.” It is a career that Mr. Blacc said he deeply admires.

“Maurice White was the drummer for Ramsey Lewis,” Mr. Blacc said in the interview, referring to the founder of the band Earth, Wind and Fire. “Ramsey was probably one of the most important factors in the creation of Earth, Wind and Fire, which is one of my favorite bands. It’s a special story to me.”

Aloe Blacc, center, joins a musical flash mob in Chicago’s Millennium Park.CreditMacGillivray Freeman Films

Mr. Blacc then joins a flash mob in Millennium Park, singing along to the Avicii hit “Wake Me Up,” which he co-wrote.

In Detroit, the birthplace of Motown Records, Mr. Blacc pays homage to the city’s legacy of rhythm and blues, soul and jazz when he visits Hitsville U.S.A., the record label’s former headquarters and now the Motown Museum.

Miami, a center of salsa and electronica music, is a natural destination in the film.

As the son of Panamanian immigrants, Mr. Blacc told me, he feels a deep connection to the Latin-inflected music that permeates the city, as it reflects the diversity of his Central American roots. He also met Gloria and Emilio Estefan, who were at the forefront of the Miami music scene in the 1980s and much of the 1990s, with a personal story that Mr. Blacc clearly respects. “They came here with nothing and had a bold, beautiful American story,” he said.

“America’s Musical Journey” is currently showing at select IMAX and large-format screen theaters. Additional cities in the United States and abroad will feature the film over the duration of the year. The running time is 40 minutes.

Follow John L. Dorman on Twitter: @jon425.